Wednesday, April 23, 2008

I'm sorry Christians do things in church that annoy you ...

But frankly, church is primarily for believers, and not primarily for unbelievers. That's the tough truth. This all started with a posting by a fellow who calls himself the Friendly Atheist. Mr. FA really seems quite a reasonable fellow, and probably a nicer guy in person than I am myself. Truthfully, I know where he's coming from: I can understand some of these things annoying him. Some of them annoy me, too. But emotions and thinking are two different things, and I think it's important to rationally separate things that annoy one about church (or anything, for that matter) into several categories:
  • Things that annoy for purely emotional reasons
  • Things that annoy because they are unbiblical
  • Things that annoy because they are biblical, and the annoyee is unwilling to accept Biblical authority
I submit that items in the three categories are completely different. In a spirit of "friendliness" myself (hopefully), I'd like to examine each of the items on his list of things that annoy him about church, trying to use the above categories as a filter.
  1. Wave their hands in front of my face making it impossible to see the stage.

    Many Christians would agree with you on this one. Of course, for Bible believers, there is 1 Timothy 2:8 to deal with. I've heard this exegeted as referring to how Christians live their lives in general and having nothing to do with actually raising one's hands. Yeah, but ... the rest of the passage is not only about general behaviors but also about specific ones. Certainly, you can interpret "holy hands" as meaning "general works"; on the other hand, I am not familiar with a lot of uses of the word "hands" alone to mean "works." In all the passages this site quotes, the Scripture does not use "hands" as a synonym for works; in fact, each of them specifically says "the works of [one's] hands." This relates "hands" to "work" but at the same time contrasts them.

    Now, I do understand that "hands" may be used metonymically, and "holy hands" mean "undefiled actions"; thus I think it's a reasonable conclusion to draw that God does want our actions to be undefiled. However, I'd want a little stronger support for the thesis that the believer's works are all Paul had in mind when he mentions "hands" here. What I'm saying is that it seems to me at least as plausible to interpret this use of hands literally as metonymically, especially given the existence of similar prayer positions in the Old Testament.

    On the other hand, actually waving one's hands in somebody else's face is just plain rude. "All things are permissible but not all edify."

  2. Yell out random words (“Praise Jesus,” “Hallelujah!”) while I’m trying to listen to the sermon.

    This one I agree with. I don't see any Biblical precedent for doing such a thing.

  3. Walk in after the music— or worse yet, the sermon— has started.

    I agree with this, but unfortunately it doesn't always work out that way. Everybody knows Sunday morning is the most hectic time of the week. I would suggest a bit of grace in dealing with people, a little less judgmentalism - "Judge not, etc."

  4. Look at me with anxiety because I’m brown.
  5. Look at me with excitement because I’m not white.

    I haven't seen such things personally, but I agree that they have no place in church. The only thing I'd say about point number 5 is that many believers want less self-segregation on Sunday mornings, more worshiping the Lord together regardless of race, and that leads to that reaction. Again, I would urge some tolerance here of #5; for #4 there is no excuse.

  6. Assume that because I know about the Bible, I must believe in the Bible.

    Well, as a first cut, is this an unreasonable assumption to make? After all, if you were to walk into an atheist's meeting a good first guess would be that you were there because ... wait for it ... you were an atheist? If you go to a meeting of Spanish speakers, wouldn't a good initial assumption be ... that you speak Spanish? Now, if they persist in thinking you a believer after you make your position known (gently and thoughtfully, one would hope), they should change their opinion. But as a first guess, this seems perfectly reasonable to me.

    Additionally, you have to understand where some of these thoughts come from: churches that have fallen into the abyss of seeker-sensitivity. I have to say, it's obvious from many of your comments the kind of churches you've been visiting. In those churches, the assumption is that there's a small set of people who are serious believers, a certain set of people who are unbelievers, and a great mass of people who are what one might call semi-believers (see next point). In reality, of course, there is no such thing: either you is, or you ain't. They naturally therefore assume that if you know the Bible you fall into the first category.

  7. Perform a skit that is supposed to tell the day’s message.

    All I can say to this one is "Amen, preach it brother!"

  8. Tell me I’m on the “right path” by being there.

    It depends on what they mean by this. If they are following the typical seeker-sensitive semi-Pelagian idea that you're moving yourself ever closer to Christ, then I totally disagree with them. But if they mean that by being there you may hear something that may change your life and they're glad for that, then I totally agree with them. (See #13.)

    Now, I should say that I don't think this is a good thing to say something like this to somebody, and likely would not say it myself. However, the reality is that most people who you might have heard say this are probably just opening their mouth before engaging their brains. I mean, think about it from their point of view: they meet you, and based on your apparent knowledge of some of the Scripture, assume you're a believer. Then you rock their world by telling them (gently, I hope) that you're an atheist. Many people would be slightly flummoxed in this kind of situation, especially for those who have not encountered many atheists before. An awkward silence ensues, and they want to say something, anything. So, to fill the silence, they (unwisely) say the first thing that pops into their minds.

    I don't know about you, but I've later kicked myself for saying many of the things I have said in such situations in my life. Perhaps you are better composed than the rest of us; but have a little tolerance for those who without as strong a constitution.

  9. Pass out Christian business directories.

    Well, there are various schools of thought on these directories. I don't think they're appropriate to "pass out" in church, and I haven't seen that literally happen anyway. But, while I don't use them myself that often, I don't see a problem with having them. There are two valid ways of looking at them, and your purely utilitarian examples are not either of them. First, some people interpret 2 Cor. 6:14 specifically as applying not only to marriages and close friendships but also to business relationships. For them, a natural outworking of their faith in their life requires them to work with Christians wherever possible. So can't you be tolerant of their sincerely-held convictions even if they differ from your own? Second, we are called to be good stewards of our money. Some people feel that wherever possible, it should be kept in the Christian community. I am not sure whether I feel the same way; but let's turn it around. I do wonder what your take would be on things like the Black Business Directory? Is that a valid discrimination to make? If that kind, why not this? Even if we conclude that neither is a valid discrimination, it seems a "live and let live" attitude is probably appropriate here.

    On the other hand, I don't know whether to react to your strawman example of "brown lawyers" with laughter or pity. I don't know where you have been, but I have been in a large number of churches since my conversion from Buddhism/agnosticism/Unitarianism 13 years ago; and I cannot think of a single one of them where "brown" people have been looked down on.

  10. Ask me if they can pray for me.

    All I can go by here is my experience, and my experience in the responses of people (both believers and unbelievers) when I ask this question is an unbroken string of positive responses. Everybody I have said this to has responded with thanks for my thoughtfulness, even if they do not share in my belief; this is true whether they are Christian, agnostic, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, or Wiccan. Where I come from, it's customary to thank people for thoughtfulness. Maybe that's just me though.

  11. Ask me if they can pray for me, then put their hands on my shoulders and begin praying.

    There is clearly Biblical precedent for this, whether for the purposes of blessing or invoking the Holy Spirit. As with item #1, not all will take such Biblical uses of "hands" so literally, although the New Testament is pretty clear that it was a normative practice at one time at least. Certainly, the Bible does not support performing this action when the other person is clearly uncomfortable or annoyed by it, so it would probably be best to not practice it in encounters with you specifically. Again, though, I urge you to have tolerance of those who take this as a natural practice, and appreciate their thoughtfulness and intentions even if you disagree with them. A friend who is of uncertain-to-me faith (as far as I can tell, sort of a roll-your-own Buddhist/Wiccan) recently told me that she was going to send prayers for my healing to an uncertain destination and I believe do some ritual involving candles. I don't accept her belief or practice, but I am sincerely appreciative of her intentions, and thanked her that she would think enough of me to offer prayers for me, even if I think she's offering them to the wrong place.

  12. Mischaracterize people of other faiths or no faiths.

    I have never heard anybody say that Muslims really want to become Christians; I think the Bible is clear that unbelievers are perfectly happy in their state until God regenerates their hearts. As for the atheists comment, there is both Scriptural authority and experience to back such a comment up. I hang around on Yahoo! Answers a lot, and I can tell you that the vast majority of atheists I meet up with there are totally ignorant about what Christianity and the Bible really teach (irrespective of how many years they "served" in Christian ministries, or how many out-of-context factoids from the Bible they know) yet hate it with a passion. (Please understand that I am not putting you in the same category with these neo-atheist fundies.) Now, do they know God is there? Obviously, I don't know for sure, but that explanation is the best one I can think of for their irrational blind hatred of Christianity.

  13. Assume that everyone who is not Christian must be “saved.”

    You answered "I’m quite alright." Actually, friend, you're not. I know you think you are alright. But you, being an intelligent and thoughtful person, should understand something that, in my experience, so few atheists have a grasp on. That's a shame, because it is at the crux of this whole discussion. And that is this: You believe that you're alright the way you are; but any Christian cannot possibly believe that. There's a clash of fundamental worldviews going on here. You believe that Christianity is nothing real and objective; it's a man-made practice that some people may choose to follow, and others may not, and good luck to them all. (After the tiring tirades of people like Richard Dawkins, this is a welcome change, believe me.)

    But please understand that a Christian cannot believe that. We believe in Christianity not because we like it, or because it makes us feel good, but because we believe that it's true. The founder of our faith said that nobody comes to the Father except through Him. We must believe, if we are Christians, that the fate of those who are not reconciled to God through Him are destined for the lake of fire. Which, I hasten to add, is where every single one of us deserves to go, Christian or non-Christian. It's only by being saved by the grace of God, through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, that I myself was literally saved from the hell I most richly deserve.

    I must ask you: once I believe that this is all true, how can I not believe everybody needs to be saved?

    Now, I'm not asking you to accept this worldview and make it your own. I understand that you don't and won't. But I am asking you to not assume, without argument, that Christians should accept your worldview. We don't expect you to accept ours; grant us the same luxury.

  14. Bring their children, then proceed to fall asleep during the sermon.

    Again, amen, preach it brother!

  15. Say that those of other Christian denominations aren’t practicing “true” Christianity.

    This is another one that I don't know how to respond to. On the one hand, it is true, we ought to practice love and tolerance of people who interpret the Bible differently than we do. On the other hand, this is an old saw, and one that, in my experience, is brought up by unbelievers as a justification of why they are not believers themselves far more than it's actually said by Christians. On the other other hand, if you believe that something is real and objective, there is a "right" way to describe and practice it, and many "wrong" ways. Again, it comes down to worldview. If something is personal and subjective, there is no right and wrong; not so if it's something real and objective.

    Even this doesn't mean, of course, that everybody who has a different understanding of the Bible is totally wrong in every way. It doesn't even mean that everybody who practices other faiths (or no faith at all) is wrong in every way. Obviously, that wouldn't make any sense, if for no other reason that one cannot come to an understanding of the goodness of God without having the same basic standard of "goodness" to use. Still, there are right beliefs and practices, and wrong ones, and it's perfectly Biblical to be discerning in recognizing the difference. Just don't let it separate you from other believers.

  16. Look at their watches mid-sermon.

    Heart attitude here, as with most things, is front and center. I agree that one should not be counting the minutes until the end of the sermon; but everybody is probably guilty of this once in a while. I, for one, am intensely interested in what the preacher has to say, following in my Bible and/or taking notes. However, I have probably glanced at the clock before, either purely out of habit or because some specific event is looming large in my mind. Chalk it up to human frailty.

  17. Pray for things they can just as easily take care of themselves.

    Honestly, where did you get the idea that just because somebody is praying for a promotion, they're not working harder? That people pray for good grades on testing instead of actually studying? For a smart and apparently experienced guy, you don't know very much about actual Christians and their behavior. In every situation like this I've ever seen, the Christian will pray (because the Bible tells us to) and then work their hardest to make the desired situation a reality. I know you don't think the prayer will do any good, but we do. We don't see prayer as alternative to work, but an adjunct. Surely, if God is what Christians say He is (real, good, omnipotent, etc) it's a reasonable thing to ask for His help/protection/etc?

    I'm afraid the old saw "so heavenly minded they're no earthly good" is just that, an old saw. The most heavenly-minded people I know are also the ones working hardest for their and others' earthly good.

  18. Pastors tell stories without giving citations.

    I generally agree with this one. In fact, I don't think "stories" of any kind should be a major part of what goes on in a sermon. Again, it appear that you have been visiting a lot of seeker-sensitive churches, so you've heard a lot of stories; but a large number of churches think Biblical exposition should be front and center instead of stories. Occasional stories can help illustrate a point; but they should not make up the bulk of the sermon.

    On the other hand, would you really expect any person making a speech or presentation to stop every time he referenced something to read the associated bibliographic entry for the point? Let's not go overboard here.

  19. Pastors ask questions with obvious answers.

    I agree with you. But I'd most likely take the kind of example you cited (“Who here believes the Lord is going to save them today?!”) as an annoying but pardonable personal eccentricity on the part of the preacher. Charles Stanley says "Now listen" a lot; Guillermo Maldonado says "Vamos aca, iglesia" (loosely, "now stay with me, church"). One shouldn't make a mountain out of a molehill. On the other hand, this is number 19; I don't take an example given to fill out the magic number of "20" as being the main argument. :-)

  20. Pastors take an hour to analyze a simple, straight-forward Biblical verse.

    Some preachers can certainly over-discuss a single verse. I remember in a comparative religions class I took in college, the professor giving us an example of a preacher who made an entire sermon out of the King James expression "and it came to pass." He explained how this meant that everything passes away, nothing is constant. (I note that even the Mormons are getting into that act.) C'mon, it was just a common expression used at certain times. On the other hand, there are many verses that are difficult to understand without grasping the whole Sitz im Leben of the passage. Lacking this understanding, going "proof-texting," is behind many misunderstandings of Biblical verses. For example, only by ignoring the context in the entirety of Scripture can Tony Campolo reach some of his conclusions.

    So, a balance is necessary between too much and too little. Unfortunately, one person's "too much" may be another person's "too little"; and most tragically of all, one person's "too much" may actually be "exactly what that person needs, whether they want it or not."


Anonymous said...

You said-"But frankly, church is primarily for believers, and not primarily for unbelievers."

I disagree. I mean, church is meant to create fellowship, accountability and spiritual nourishment to Christians, but at the same time we are trying to reach out to other people who have not given their lives to Christ yet. Every church should try to give people the means for a relationship with Christ. If we don't appeal to the people who might walk into a church service for no reason today, how can we help them grow in Christ later on when they actually get to know him? I hate to sound shallow or critical about this situation, but appearances are everything, especially for churches, and the church is supposed to be for non-believers first and people who are already Christians second.

Gary Bisaga (aka fool4jesus) said...

Thanks for commenting. You are right on one level, but absolutely wrong on another, more important one. You are right when you say that "Every church should try to give people the means for a relationship with Christ." I agree with that. However, it's a huge leap to assume from there that "the church is supposed to be for non-believers first and people who are already Christians second."

I plan to write an article on this in the near future; thanks for giving me the idea. But for now I will say that as long as the pernicious idea that "church is mainly for unbelievers" is around, we will continue to see the kind of church services you see in most seeker-sensitive churches where neither believers are edified NOR unbelievers are reached.

By the way, why not identify yourself so we can have a real discussion on this? I think I can be civil.