Tag Archives: Church

Church Basement Theology

For my freshman and sophomore years, I attended a junior college close to home. I was coming off a two-month summer stay in the hospital, and I wasn’t convinced of a future direction, so it was the most convenient option. As with most kids, college was an entirely new experience for me and introduced me to many unforgettable experiences—from weekly war protests to a teacher who frequently stood atop his desk.

I remember one class where this big kid, sitting in the front row, fell asleep one day. Just as he started snoring, someone reached across and jostled him awake. Fewer than five minutes later, his head was back on his desk, deep in sleep, and snoring even louder. This time, instead of waking him, the professor suggested we should let him sleep since he probably had a rough night.

I made two glaring mistakes that first year of college. First, I took a class on Art Appreciation. Second, the class met right after lunch. Every afternoon after eating, the professor turned off the lights in the room and projected slides of great works of art on the wall as he discussed them in detail. I confess I was the one sleeping more than once.

Normally, I’m not a sleeper. I never take naps. Once up in the morning, I’m awake until bedtime. I stay busy, and even if there’s nothing pressing to do, I find something and entertain myself. You can accuse me of a lot of things, but I’m not one of those people who sleeps a lot, but I’ve known many people who have essentially slept through life.

When I speak of sleeping through life, I’m not referring to an occasional nap or dozing off during a boring movie. It’s a reference to the person who spends an entire lifetime without learning anything new about God. Perhaps the best way to understand it is to think of the person who believes the same thing they believed at age 20 when they are 70, or 60, or even 50. Their grasp of theology has been unchanged by experience—they have basically slept through life when it comes to faith.

I see it all the time in Facebook discussions. People who grew up in the church and lived their entire adult life as faithful church members but they still cling to elemental theological opinions that they learned in kid’s Sunday School.

I grew up in Colorado and most churches had basements for Sunday School classes.

Perhaps I can make sense of what I’m saying by describing my own experience. I remember sitting in the church basement during Sunday School as a kid and discussing what happens when people die without knowing Jesus. I suspect I was always the skeptic that untrained teachers hated. I was the one who asked about the poor people in Africa who never even heard about Jesus, would they spend eternity in hell? It didn’t seem fair for God to do that to them.

The smarter, more experienced teachers would say something like, “That’s not for us to decide, God will do that right thing,” and then continue teaching that everyone who died without being saved spent eternity in hell. If you have gone through life without wondering about that, then you have been sleeping; you are brain dead. The entire evangelical doctrine of hell rests on answering that question.

But we move beyond the questions of childhood. Important theological questions are not answered in the church basement. Life happens, and we have other pressing matters. Then one day, a friend dies, or perhaps a family member. He was a good person, kind, considerate, generous, liked by everyone, a bastion of honesty and integrity. However, not a follower of Jesus in any sense of the word. Now the question is more important. Is my friend destined to spend all of eternity, without any ending, suffering from fiery flames, covered with skin that won’t burn up?

I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sound like the same God I learned about from those same Sunday School teachers in the church basement. I mean the ones who taught me to sing, “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world,” and “God is good, God is good, God is good to me.”

Life goes on, and now you’re 60 years old. Your granddaughter, your oldest grandchild, is out partying with friends from college and has a fatal car crash on the way home. You were never invited to her baptism because she never had one. No church Christmas programs because her parents never took her to church, and as far as you know, she was not a friend of Jesus. She was a beautiful girl, loved by her many friends, on her way to being someone special, and you loved her dearly. She was your first, and to be honest, your favorite grandchild.

Can you live with the idea that she will spend eternity in excruciating torment? I’m talking about the kind of punishment no human would even inflict on another human. After all, isn’t that what you were taught about hell.

The person who has slept through life still believes what he was taught in the church basement—everyone who dies without knowing Jesus spends eternity in hell. If they are ever asked what happens to people when non-Christians die, their answer is simple; they go to hell. These people have slept through life. None of their experiences register with them. The fact that life doesn’t seem consistent with their belief is a non-factor.  

This person is the parent with a gay son or daughter who they have disowned because they have always believed God wants us to condemn homosexuality. They know this because that’s what they were taught at VBS held in the church basement. Life is much easier if we don’t question the things we were told are true. After all, if it was good enough for Jesus, then it has to be good enough for me.

It’s time to graduate from Sunday School and move your theology out of the church basement. Don’t be afraid to reflect on how your experience is inconsistent with your theology. Be willing to examine what you learned as a kid and start considering what life has taught you and how it impacts what you believe (or think you believe).

Now that your wonderful granddaughter has died, do you still believe God will oversee her eternal existence in a fiery hell? After all the things God has done for you, do you think He would do that to her? For eternity?

The only way to get out of the theological church basement is to be willing to ask questions. Just because your favorite Sunday School teacher taught something doesn’t mean they were correct. Even if they attached Bible verses to what they taught, have you studied to determine if that’s what it really means?

In every area of life, we continue to learn new things. I’ve tried to think of any other area of life where we stop learning, but I have failed to come up with even one. I’m open to your suggestions. Why do we do that in what might be the most important area of life? Many do. Listen to people. Those with a church basement faith are easily recognizable.

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Newspapers and Bibles

We should strive to understand the world with the newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other. These words have been around a long time, at least as far back as my seminary days, and they are not credited to some right-wing Christian politician. It is commonly taught the idea first belonged to Karl Barth, a German theologian. Although the words might have been spoken in the first half of the last century, they have never been more true than they are today.

When I clicked on the website of the local newspaper this morning this was the bold headline that struck my attention – “Baptist free-for-all: Cruz over Huckabee.” Of course I read the story. It seems that a Metroplex mega church held a presidential wanna-be forum last night with six Republican candidates in attendance. More than 6,000 gathered to listen to these politicians proclaim their faith, portray their platform, cast aspersions on their opponents, and plead for votes. It sounds like it was two hours of listening to half-a-dozen men, and one woman, talk about how they are better than anyone else. newspaper-and-bible

Although this event occurred relatively close (at least by Texas’ standards) to our little band of believers known as Bread Fellowship, the two meetings could not have been any more dissimilar. We did not have thousands of people meeting in an enormous auditorium. Instead, we were barely more than a dozen sitting in a circle of stackable chairs in a rented art/dance studio.

The conversation at Bread Fellowship was also about greatness and what it looks like and how it can be achieved. As we are working our way through the lectionary for the year, the passage for the day was Mark 10:35-45. In that passage, Jesus reminded his disciples that the pathway to greatness is through servanthood. After reading the newspaper headline, it is amazing how appropriate Jesus’ words were for this particular day.

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The Disappearing Church

Many years ago when I was a pastor in a small rural community, one of the big events was the annual School Board elections. The community was small enough that everyone knew everyone else, including all their weaknesses and strengths. Consequently, no one ever campaigned for election to the School Board. In fact, nobody really even talked about it. Everyone just voted without the influence of others.

However, one year I received a flyer in the mail from one of the men who was running for office. He listed a bunch of qualifications, and the final one on his list was that he was a member of First Baptist Church. I had been pastor of this church for more than a half dozen years and he had never entered our building so I confronted him. I asked why he considered himself a member and why he listed it on his campaign flyer.disappearing-church

Back in those days (it was the 20th century; after all), being a member of First Baptist Church carried some weight. Church membership today doesn’t have the clout it used to possess.

In fact, the church today might carry less clout than we think. A major survey reported this week that the number of young people leaving the church is much worse than we previously thought. As a lifelong church participant and an eyewitness of what happens in churches for several decades, I have some observations that may or may not be helpful (you decide).

  • Young people are not that interested in politics, and for much of the church, politics is the focus of the day for the church. They are not going to join your crusade to save the traditional family by attacking gays, or congratulate your scientific “knowledge” by denying climate change or fighting the evils of evolution.
  • It is disheartening that some are admitting there are fewer who identify themselves as Christians, but then act as if it is fine by saying, “it’s not happening in my church.” When you identify yourself as the only ones doing it right it is not surprising that you alienate everyone else. For example, many are celebrating that only the mainline denominations are declining, but not Evangelicals. This kind of arrogance that your brand of faith is better than theirs is a cause for Christianity losing its appeal.
  • The church should never expect to be in a position of power in the world. Such an attitude is contrary to our Founder’s teaching. In fact, the church is probably stronger when it serves rather than rules.
  • Other than politicians and preachers, few people have much interest in large numbers of followers.
  • The fact that fewer people readily identify with being a Christian probably has something to do with what the term has come to mean. If you are not sure what that means, ask around.
  • I learned a long time ago that it is much easier to attract a crowd than it is to build a church. If you really need to have a large crowd in order to validate what you are doing, go to the mall and drop your pants—you will be quickly surrounded by interested people. However, unless you’ve got something more, they will disperse just as quickly.

My friend was not elected to the School Board; remember, I said that everyone in town already knew everything about everyone else. However, he and I continued our conversation, and in time he became a regular participant with our congregation. When I eventually left the church and community, he stopped by my house as we were loading the truck, and we shared a tearful goodbye.

Any news that fewer people report a positive experience with the church is bad news for all Christians. However, instead of debating who is doing it right and who is doing it wrong, perhaps we can all learn from the situation and strive to make Christ more appealing by making His followers more appealing.

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