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Dr. James Emery White Christian Blog and Commentary

Dr. James Emery White

Dr. James Emery White's weblog

In Ross Douthat’s book Bad Religion, the New York Times columnist offers a synopsis of the core beliefs of America’s wave of “spiritual but not religious” teachers such as Deepak Chopra, James Redfield, Eckhart Tolle, Paulo Coelho, Neale Donald Walsch, Oprah Winfrey and Elizabeth Gilbert. According to Douthat, their “creed” shares four beliefs:

  1. All organized religions offer only partial glimpses of God (or Light or Being). Thus, we must seek to experience God through feeling rather than reason, through experience rather than dogma, through a direct encounter rather than a hand-me-down revelation. As Neale Donald Walsch writes in his book Conversations with God: “Listen to your feelings. Listen to your Highest Thought…. Whenever any of these differ from what you’ve been told by your teachers, or read in your books, forget the words.”
     
  2. God is everywhere and within everything—especially within you. You can encounter God by getting in touch with the divinity who resides inside your very self and soul. At the climax of his book The Alchemist, Paul Coelho writes: “The boy reached through the Soul of the World and saw that it was a part of the Soul of God. And he saw that the Soul of God was his own soul.”
     
  3. Sin and evil are largely illusions that will ultimately be reconciled rather than defeated. There is no hell save the one we make for ourselves on earth—no final separation from the Being within whom all our beings rest. Elizabeth Gilbert assures her readers, “There is no such thing in this universe as hell, except maybe in our own terrified minds.”
     
  4. Perfect happiness is available right now. Heaven is on earth. Eternity can be entered at any moment, by any person who understands how to let go, let God, and let himself or herself be washed away in love. James Redfield writes, “At some point everyone will vibrate highly enough so that we can walk into heaven, in our same form.” And Coelho adds: “I do believe in life after death, but I also don't think that it’s that important. What’s important is to understand that we are also living this life after death now.”

I have written similarly of the “Church of Oprah-Wan Kenobi” and the rise of a new New Age movement that is based largely on popularized Hinduism, which is what Douthat has described. But what Douthat, I and others have actually detailed is the official religion of the cultural epicenters, namely media. It is not the official religion of the religiously unaffiliated.

At least, not yet.

The Pew Forum study, among others, has found that the ranks of the unaffiliated are not predominantly composed of New Age spirituality or alternative forms of religion. Generally speaking, the unaffiliated are no more likely than members of the public as a whole to have such beliefs and practices. That means that approximately three in ten say they believe in spiritual energy in physical objects and in yoga as a spiritual practice. Approximately 25% believe in astrology and reincarnation. Six in ten say they have a deep connection with nature and the earth. About three in ten say they have felt in touch with someone who is dead, and 15% have consulted a psychic. All of these figures closely resemble the public as a whole.    

The importance of knowing the “bad religion” advertised through popular culture is the effect it will inevitably have on the religiously unaffiliated as they separate from religion itself. Right now they do not seem to be any more affected than people of defined faith, but that is arguably the strength of their, largely, Christian memory. Most of the newly unaffiliated were part of a Christian faith tradition that was anything but Eastern in orientation. Once untethered from these moorings, whether Catholicism or Protestantism, they will be more susceptible to the prevailing views of culture.

Our inner world abhors a vacuum; we will fill it with something.

James Emery White

 

Sources

James Emery White, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated.

Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics.

“The Core Beliefs of America’s ‘Spiritual but Not Religious’ Teachers,” Preaching Today, June 20, 2012, read online.

Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, “Nones on the Rise,” read online.

To learn more about the rise of the “nones,” Generation Z, and how the church can respond in our post-Christian culture, register now for the Church & Culture Conference kicking off the U.S. tour this August.

About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter and Instagram @JamesEmeryWhite.

The church is the hope of the world. According to Jesus, who said He came to establish the church, it was intended to be something so filled with energy that not even hell itself could withstand its onslaught. 

The idea is that we are the light of the world, and as that light is brought together through the church it gains intensity the way focused light becomes a laser beam.

So what’s wrong?

Most churches are anything but energy-filled. Hell seems to not only be standing its ground, but gaining territory.

Let’s bracket off all the things churches are doing wrong today.

Let’s put aside the scandals, the splits and the outdated strategies.

Let’s not worry for a moment about any disappointments you may have with leadership.

Let’s talk instead about what any individual person, in any particular church, can do to help their church reach its full redemptive potential. In other words, let’s go after the lowest-hanging, solution-oriented fruit. 

Isn’t that what all of us will answer for at the end of our lives anyway? Not what others did, but what we did?

Here’s a baker’s dozen:

  1. Embody the idea that it’s not about you, but about the person who isn’t even there yet. And be a willing participant in whatever it might take to reach them, even if it means you are inconvenienced.
  2. Be generous with your financial resources. How much ministry can you do for $1? $1 worth. Help your church do all that it can by giving all that you can.
  3. Invite your unchurched friends. Really, it’s the only way your church can grow through the unchurched.
  4. Step up and serve. Don’t wait to be asked; just volunteer. If it looks like everything is covered, trust me, it’s not.
  5. Leaders and teachers are desperately needed. Please let your church know if this is a gift in your mix and that you, as a more mature follower of Christ, are willing to serve in these pivotal roles.
  6. Give your pastor an umbrella of grace for all that they aren’t, and pray for them on a regular basis. They can’t walk on water, but they can drown. Be one of their “floaties.”
  7. Realize that those on your church’s staff do not get a thousand emails a day giving them encouragement. Most of the people who bother to email do so to critique. Send them a word to feast on to keep them going. They are human and get as discouraged as anyone. 
  8. As a volunteer, or simply as an attender, show up and be on time. Repeat: Show up and be on time. You have no idea how much this matters.   
  9. Talk about your church like gossip over the backyard fence, but in a good way. Like a great movie you saw, or a good restaurant. Unleash positive public relations in your neighborhood and community. 
  10. Work hard on having a positive attitude of a cup half-full instead of a cup half-empty. You’ll be surprised how contagious it is.
  11. Handle friction and disagreement in a way that honors God, which means handle it biblically (Matthew 18:15). In general, just practice the habit of “agreeing to disagree agreeably.” And remember Augustine’s rejoinder: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.” And much more falls into the “non-essential” camp than we often admit.
  12. Welcome those who come into your church with messed-up lives, screwed-up marriages, piercings, tattoos, addictions, divorce, homosexual orientation, children out of wedlock, roommates who aren’t their spouse… in other words, welcome everyone’s differences and scandals with the greater scandal of grace. Not affirmation, necessarily, but always acceptance so that they can experience that grace for themselves. It’s the Jesus way.
  13. Pray, pray, pray. In 14th century England there were holy women who placed themselves in little rooms at the base of churches and gave themselves to prayer. They prayed for the church and its members and the extension of the kingdom of God. These women were called by the quaint but telling name of “anchoress,” for they were spiritual anchors that held the church amid the storms of that century. Be that anchor. 

All to say, if each of us are called to be the light of the world, and that light is meant to be brought together in and through the church, then perhaps we need to bring an old song back into circulation:

“This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.”

James Emery White

 

Editor’s Note

This blog was originally published in 2012. The Church & Culture Team thought you might enjoy reading it again.

About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter and Instagram @JamesEmeryWhite.

The mission of the church is to reach those who are far from Christ with the life-changing message of the gospel. In today’s post-Christian culture, that means our primary cultural currency needs to be explanation. So why do many churches seem to have trouble when it comes to offering that explanation? Much of the problem rests with what has been called the curse of knowledge.

Try something: tap out the beats to “Happy Birthday” with your hand on a desk or chair or whatever is handy where you are reading this. You’re singing the song in your head while tapping out the beats with your hand or fingers.

Okay, now that you’ve done that ask yourself, “Do I think most people would guess the song based on my beats?” It’s such a familiar song that, if you’re like most people, you probably imagine they would have.

This was an actual experiment conducted at Stanford University. Researchers found that listeners were able to guess a song right only about 2.5% of the time—getting three songs out of about 120. But here’s what’s interesting. The person tapping out the songs thought those listening were getting it right at least 90% of the time. So the listeners were getting the song right only one time out of 40, but the tapper thought they were getting it right one time out of every two. The difference was that the tapper was hearing the song in their head. While they were tapping, they couldn’t imagine the other person not hearing the song in the background.

This is called the curse of knowledge. Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it’s like not to know it.

Have you forgotten what it’s like to be apart from Christ?

The world needs you to remember.

We’re so used to talking to the already convinced that we have lost our intuitive sense of what it means to talk to someone who isn’t a Christ follower.

When I’m preparing a message, I assume those listening have no knowledge whatsoever in terms of the Christian faith. I never use terms such as Trinity, revelation, sin or grace without explaining what they mean. Even something as elemental as how I reference a passage in the Bible is explanatory in nature. Instead of saying, “This passage is from John 1:14,” I say something along the lines of, “This is from the biography of Jesus written by John, one of our four biographies in the Bible.”

As much as I consider myself sensitized to this as the pastor of a church with more than 70% of its growth from the unchurched, I still get startling reminders that keep me on my toes, such as this response from a woman following an email about an upcoming celebration of the Lord’s Supper:

Thanks for the informative email. I have been going to Meck for about a month now and I love it! I have even talked my two friends into joining. We are all thankful to be part of an awesome church with great values. I do have one question. I remember hearing about . . .  [an upcoming] celebration of the Lord’s Supper. What does that mean?... What is a celebration of the Lord’s Supper? Does that mean we all bring some kind of food to share? I am planning on going . . .  but I wanted to make sure I bring something if need be. Any information you can provide… would be greatly appreciated!

Such illiteracy is not confined to biblical knowledge; it involves the dynamics of spiritual life itself. I have to show how a life that follows Christ is actually marked by that following. This means I have to apply the Bible’s teaching to life’s most pressing challenges, conflicts and choices. The goal is to illustrate what a Christ follower would do or think, and how following Christ’s example is always the better road. This is why, besides the life and teaching of Jesus, one of the most important books of the New Testament to teach regularly is the book of James. It’s the primer on how to live differently as a spiritual person.

And, as I explain the gospel, the most important tightrope I walk is explaining the grace-truth dynamic within the gospel itself. This is so important to get right. Not only is it the heart of the gospel, but it is also at the heart of many of the most regrettable caricatures and stereotypes abounding about Christians and Christianity in our world today.

At the most basic level, the goal is to hold both grace and truth together. Truth without grace is just judgment. Grace without truth is license. Only authentic Christianity brings together both truth and grace. Which isn’t surprising, considering that this is precisely what Jesus brought when He came.

In John’s Gospel, a theological bombshell was offered almost as an offhand comment: Jesus “came... full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Jesus accepted the woman at the well despite her culturally scandalous ways, but He followed the acceptance by challenging her directly about her serial promiscuity. He stopped the stoning of a woman caught in adultery and made it clear He was not going to condemn her, but then He pointedly admonished her to turn from her adulterous ways. Grace and truth, as they flowed from Jesus, were inextricably intertwined.

They also flowed from Him in a way that was winsome. The very people He challenged about the state of their lives wanted Him to come to their parties and meet their friends... and then challenge them! Jesus offered neither a feel-good theology that airbrushed out any real talk of sin nor legalistic attitudes of harsh condemnation and judgment. He came bringing grace and truth at their best and most compelling.

Most of us swing in one direction or another, either toward grace without truth or toward truth without grace. We either side with the woman caught in adultery and trumpet, “Neither do I condemn you,” or we side with those who want to highlight “go and sin no more.” Today I sense most are trending toward grace without truth. It’s as if we are so ashamed of the judgmental, condemnatory nature of the church’s history that we’ve swung as far in the other direction as we can. While understandable, the reality is that lukewarm religion holds little value in the midst of a settling secularism. What grips a conscience is anything gripping.

If a worldview or faith lacks conviction, passion or life-change, then it is presenting itself as both privately and socially irrelevant. This means that the only kind of voice that will arrest the attention of the world will be convictional in nature, clear in its message, substantive in its content and bold in its challenge. Translation: grace and truth in equal measure.

James Emery White

 

Sources

Adapted from James Emery White, Meet Generation Z.

Chip Heath and Dan Heath, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.

To learn more about Generation Z, the rise of the “nones” and how the church can respond in our post-Christian culture, register now for the Church & Culture Conference kicking off the U.S. tour this August.


About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter and Instagram @JamesEmeryWhite.

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