Category Archives: Christianity

Why Religious Conversion Is More Than Joining a Church

A Muslim man once confidently told me that everyone born in the United States is a Christian, unless his family is Muslim or Jewish. I did not ask him what that means for people from Buddhist, Hindu, Taoist, Sikh, or Baha’i families, nor did I ask what it meant for people who intentionally convert to one of these religions later in life.

A convert is, simply, a person who has been converted – that is, a person who has chosen to be altered or transformed. In religious conversion, a person who believed certain things about God and existence comes to believe other things and adjusts his or her life accordingly.

I know little about the way other religions view conversion or the expectations they consider appropriate for converts. If they are anything like those placed on Christian converts, they vary widely from group to group. Among the many groups that claim allegiance to Jesus, some require only a verbal profession of faith. Others expect regular church attendance, participation in instructional classes, and personal accountability in an ongoing relationship with a spiritual mentor.

Whether a simple confession or many months of intensive training, most Christian groups see the process of conversion culminating in the admission of the prospective convert into the church family, usually at baptism. This, I think, is a mistake, which does not serve the convert or the church, and does not align well with the biblical data on the nature of transformation. Continue reading

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Why Your Christmas Celebration Should Be More Exuberant

The Church has historically celebrated twelve days of Christmas, beginning with the Feast of the Nativity on December 25, and lasting until January 5. The very next day is the Feast of the Epiphany. In the Roman Church, the feast days include the Feast of St. Stephen, of St. John the Apostle, of the Holy Innocents and more.

But consider what has happened in modern times. The celebration of Christmas has been turned upside down and backwards. In the past, Christmas Day began a twelve-day period of feasting, celebration, and worship. Now, Christmas day is the final and, perhaps, only day of celebration. By December 26th, the wrapping paper is discarded, the unwanted presents returned, and people are back to haunting online and brick and mortar stores for bargains. In other words, they’re back to life as usual.

The Christmas celebration ends too soon, but it also begins to soon – just after Halloween. Christmas’s center of gravity has moved from worship to spending, with the result that people worry more and celebrate less. The big questions revolving around Christmas no longer have to do with God but with economic forecasts for the shopping season. Analysts do not know whether the Savior’s birth will save us from sin – they may not even care – but they are hopeful it will save us from an economic downturn. Continue reading

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Religion Is Not a Shortcut

When religion is transformed from a response of faith in the God of heaven into an instrument for getting things done on earth, it is disfigured. It may retain the accoutrements of true religion – ritual, liturgy, personal prayer, offerings – but its essential nature has been altered. It preserves “the form of godliness,” as the Apostle Paul put it, while “denying its power.”
For as long as people have been religious – which is to say, for as along as there have been people – this has been a problem. When God ceases to be “the Beginning and the End” and becomes the means to an end, religion becomes a merely human tool.
There are illustrations of this phenomenon in the Bible itself. One particularly revealing instance happened early in the history of the nation of Israel. The Hebrews first identified as a distinct people group during the centuries they spent in Egypt. After their escape from Egyptian oppression and their migration to a suitable homeland, Israel operated under divinely given laws, summarized in what we know as the Ten Commandments.
The Ten Commandments themselves were engraved on two stone tablets and kept in a specially made and ornately decorated box known as the Ark of the Covenant. (Think Raiders of the Lost Ark.) The ark, which was considered sacred, was only to be moved by religious professionals and was never to be directly touched.
As sometimes happens with items of treasured status, people began to think of the ark superstitiously, as if the box itself possessed inherent power. So, when Israel’s war against the Philistine kingdoms began to go poorly, someone floated the idea that the ark could be used to rally the troops, bring God’s favor, and win the war.
The immediate effect of bringing the ark into battle was everything Israel’s leaders had hoped for. Their soldiers were inspired and their enemies were intimidated. But it is dangerous to try to use God as a means to an end, no matter how important the end. The Philistine armies crushed Israel’s troops, forced them to retreat, and captured the ark.
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Do you have a religious preference?

“Do you have a religious preference?” That is what the nurse asked after leading me to the exam room where I was to meet the doctor. There were other questions I wasn’t expecting, questions health care professionals ask nowadays, like: “Do you feel safe in your own home?” But it was the question about religious preference that struck me.
It sounded so odd. “Do you have a religious preference?” as if religion was sold at Baskin-Robbins and comes in thirty-one flavors. Maybe I should have asked her to put down the religious flavor of the month.
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Is Christianity a List of Dos and Don’ts?

A few of Jesus’s many commands can be kept, even without faith.
For example, no one has ever sued me for my tunic, so Jesus’s command to give such a person my cloak as well has never been a problem for me. However, the
command to stop worrying has been a problem. So has the command to love my
neighbor as myself, to guard against hypocrisy, to get rid of all bitterness, and to do everything without complaining or arguing.

As it stands, it is simply impossible to check off these and
the other New Testament commands in the way one checks off items from a to-do
list. To consistently do these things and, more to the point, to be shaped in heart and mind in such a way that doing these things becomes natural, a person must have faith. This kind of faith is not mental assent to a doctrine, even a
doctrine about God, nor is it a belief that God exists and that everything will work out in the end. It is not that these things are wrong; it is that they are not what Jesus and his early followers meant when they spoke of faith. Continue reading

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Religion Is Not an End in Itself

That is analogous to telling someone in Iowa that to get to the intersection of Forest Drive and Hicks Avenue in Annapolis, Maryland they must go east. It’s not that it isn’t true; it just isn’t very helpful. Continue reading

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Do We Need a Religionless Christianity?

“Do the people really not know that one can do as well or better without “religion”—if only it weren’t for God himself and his word?” Continue reading

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Christmas Is Really Act 2

Can’t get enough of Christmas? You’ll love the prequels and sequels. It is the season for prequels and sequels. Mary Poppins is the big sequel this year. It’s the first year since 2012 that there hasn’t been a hobbit or … Continue reading

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The Story We’re In Isn’t About Ease and Security

Until Christians understand why they’re here, they will not understand what they should be doing. Continue reading

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The Heart’s Creed Is What Really Matters

The two best-known creeds of the Western Church are the Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed. The Nicene Creed dates from 325 and represents the Church’s unified response to an ongoing controversy about the divine nature of Christ.  The Apostles’ … Continue reading

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