She looked at me and said, “Oh, I did not know you were a pastor. If I did I would try and not cuss as much.”
With impatience and frustration, I looked at her and said, “We are all struggling. You do not have to cover up who you really are for me. That is the only way we can begin to receive the grace of God: being honest with ourselves about who we really are.”
Little did I know, this would begin a discussion about God, life, religion, etc. And the conversation that would ensue is one of many conversations I have had with the people of North Georgia, this time it being with a middle-aged black lady.
“I am a Christian. I grew up going to church,” she said with hesitation. It was obvious she was not fully convinced “Christian” best described her. This was probably broadly associated with how “white-evangelical” the word “Christian” has become for our culture. But, it was mostly because all she has ever known and understood about Christianity was a skewed theology that was moralistic deism at best. Her weekly experience in “church” was nothing more than a potluck preceded by organ-heavy Gospel music and passionate eisegetical-Old-Testament-preaching, prosperity Gospel if you will. She knew there was more to “Christian” that she did not know or identify with.
“When did you become a Christian?” I asked as an attempt to debunk the narrative that cultural association is synonymous with new birth. She avoided answering by telling me what she believed about Christianity. “I believe there are multiple paths to God,” she asserted. She was strongly convinced. “Do you honestly think that if you were born in Pakistan that you would not be a Muslim? Or what about India? Do you think that you would not be a Hindu and you would be a Christian?
“Honestly, I would probably be something other than Christian, but that does not change Jesus’ words, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me.’ Just because there are some who are fully convinced that their religion is the right way to God does not make them right.” For some reason, this logic did not work for her. “Yeah, but how can you be so convinced that Christianity is the correct way? I don’t see why we can’t embrace all religions.”
The conversation continued for a while. From here, I used a few apologetic arguments to show the validity of Christianity, though they proved unfruitful. My experience is most people do not actually operate in the logical as much as the emotional. This was her experience, and the exclusivity of the Gospel seemed too harsh for her to get over.
The conversation eventually ended, and though many Gospel threads were sown in her life, she is still “dead in [her] sins” and “without hope in this world.” I think and pray for her often.
I have had many conversations like this in Gainesville, but the particular content of her words brings out a fairly comprehensive picture of why I believe the American South, my context within this region being North GA, is one of the toughest places to do true Gospel-ministry in all of our country, even amidst the tough unreached areas that we know of. Below are two beliefs that permeated our conversation that make our region really tough soil:
“Well, I shouldn’t cuss around you. I don’t want you to think that I am not a good person.” This response was so typical from my experience in Gainesville. So much work is put into creating an honorable persona and reputation that the hypocrisy becomes a normal way of life. This idealogy translates into this mentality: “I can stumble and I can fall into sin here or there, but as long as I give the man upstairs the credit he is due, im good to go.” God, in a sense, is the friend offering really good suggestions for life. But He is not a God to be worshipped. And he definitely is not a God who is the substance of our righteousness. If you notice closely, “Cross”-type language is absent from this worldview. Righteousness for us does not require sacrifice; it requires effort. And we have the power within ourselves to provide that.
I look at my own heart and I see moments where this cultural narrative permeates my thinking as well. Only the Gospel can rightly combat this notion. Jesus, living the life we could not live and earning the righteousness we could not earn, has freely offered us relationship with the eternal God through the gruesome and horrible death He suffered for our sins.
What makes this religion and worldview so dangerous and tough to combat is how good it feels to us. We remain in control, and, though we sin and acknowledge our shortcomings, there is no real penalty for that sin. God ultimately looks over our sin and suggests to us a better way of life. Who wouldn’t want to believe this type of Christianity? And this way of thinking is so prevalent that real Christianity is radical and not normal. We feel like Jesus or John the Baptist in the Gospels who proclaimed repentance and faith as the means for righteousness. And this thinking and heralding of this Gospel got them killed.
Pastors in this atmosphere have to be as clear as ever as to what the true Gospel is. With a million different narratives competing for our attention, we have to apply the Gospel to our hearts first and then to its hearers. And we have to be willing and open to tell people that they have believed a false Gospel. If you have labored in relationship, no one wants to do this. To tell someone that they are not a Christian according to the biblical Gospel is a tough conversation. This is just one reason why laboring in our culture is one of the hardest places in the country. I will make the claim that, though unreached areas bring a unique set of challenges, it may be easier to labor among those who have no regard for Christianity than in the Bible belt. At least they “drew a hard line in the sand.” Unreached places are not embracing something that looks like Christianity but really isn’t.
This particular pressure point includes the mentality of “works-righteousness,” but is also much bigger and deserves attention by itself.
“I am a Christian. I grew up going to church,” is what she said, thinking that church attendance is what is meant by “Christian.” Yet, when you read the Bible, nowhere in the New Testament can new birth be equated to your particular upbringing. New Birth is something totally different. Our particular culture has many acceptable norms in relation to Christianity like: church going, mission trips, tithing, reading the Bible, meal-time prayers. All of these are good things, but Christianity is much more than this. What has become the real taboo of our culture is actually following Jesus.
This cultural evolution is scary. People who have done the things listed above their whole lives could be as far from God as the individual who openly hates God and denies his existence. Let me use for an example an older gentleman I met from this past weekend. When I asked him, “Are you a Christian?” he responded by saying he went to the Methodist church; not about true relationship with the living God. When I challenged him to go deeper in his answer, he said he went to a Baptist church when he was a kid, and when he married a Methodist lady he decided to started to attend there. But all the language used to describe his association with Christianity was his upbringing in the church. When pressed harder, it was clear he understood how to play the church game but not actually follow Jesus. On top of that, he was so nice and polite. Who wants to boldly declare that a sweet old man was going to hell and all that he had experienced growing up could possibly be superficial? I sure didn’t, but my faithfulness to the Gospel compelled me to not settle with superficiality though I could have gone deeper than I did.
The next wave of churches in the south, along with her leaders, have to prayerfully guard their membership roles, have tough conversations, and really hammer hard what it means to be a Christian. If we open our membership to those who are not really born again, I am afraid we may not be any different from the church that many of these people were raised in, soothing their conscious all the way to the gates of Hell. In an unreached area, you are not faced with the tough conversation with 50-year old man who grew up in the church. You don’t have to worry as much about the wolf in sheep’s clothing who treats and views the church more as a social club or political organization than the living breathing body of Christ. I take these dilemmas seriously, and I hope if you are a leader in God’s church you do too.
Let us who live in these areas pray for more clarity on how the Gospel challenges and rejects certain worldviews in our culture. In the face of success in “ministry,” I don’t want to lose the pearl that we have in the Gospel of our murdered Savior. Persecution is going to increase; Jesus’ plans for us will not be thwarted. Loneliness may settle in; find your comfort from the Holy Spirit. At the end of our time, the question will be, “Were you faithful to me?” and not “Were you liked among your peers?”
“Let the high praises of God be in [our] throats and the two-edged sword in [our] hands…” Psalm 149