Friday, October 8, 2010

The Third Rail . . . of Organized Christian Involvement

Denise and I were talking earlier this week about my youngest son, Ramsey, which just went off to college. On the phone, the previous day, she was asking him if he was going to church and strongly encouraged him to get involved with either The Navigators, or Campus Crusade.

I've always been close to this son and I think I know how he thinks and feels. I shared with Denise that in my opinion, Campus Crusade or The Navigators would do him far more harm than good.

I certainly think there are those Christians, or Christians who are at a certain place in their lives, for whom such organizations are helpful. I think the Navigators would never, hopefully, be repeating their behavior from my era . . . where submission to authority was the center-piece of their theology.

But if you are a deep-thinker, an observer of social phenomena in a critical-thinking way, and a non-conformist, you can be quickly disillusioned by such groups. When your spirituality becomes a function of rote memory and behavior mimicking, it quickly becomes so shallow that the slight breeze will send your faith off into the night like dandelion seeds.

So it got me thinking about the "third rail" of Christian experience. If the first rail is full commitment to the institutions of church, and/or para-church, and the second rail is total abandonment of all organized religion (still claiming to be a Christian, or not) then there might be a third rail.

The metaphor of the "third rail" of course implies danger, as in the electrified rail of a track. My ex-pastor strongly believed that if you were not fully involved (both feet) in a local church, but not just any church, one that fit within his narrow definition of "Biblical church" then, he questioned if you could be a Christian. I remember that during one of the first sermons, he was railing (pun intended) against the emerging church movement . . . non of those forms (such as the house church) were Biblical, in his view.

But I've been wondering of late if indeed a third rail is maybe a viable option for some. What I mean by this option, is minimal involvement.

I'm going to a new, "high church" (my words) now. Several weeks in a row I marked the visitor's card that I, a.) wanted to become a member, b.) wanted to be part of a small group, c.) wanted to know how I can volunteer to help. So far no one has contacted me. I'm thinking though, maybe that's a good thing.

While I could never see Ramsey fully involved with Campus Crusade, I.V. or the Navigators (or a campus Baptist church), I could see him going to a sponsored meeting or lecture on comparative philosophies. . . if it was of a topic that relevant to his life.

I also could see him attending, on occasion, a high church . . . even Catholic (but the form, which he is not familiar with might scare him off). But it would hard for me ever seeing him involved with the traditional church, not unless his spirit was completely broken . . . and he walked in zombie form with his hand held out (like from Huxley's Brave New World) saying, "soma . . . soma."

But this thinking flies in the face of the New Testament . . . doesn't it? What about all that talk of not failing to meet together as some have? What about all the NT talk of elders, deacons, preaching, teaching and etc?

Honestly, I would like to go back and try to read the New Testament soon . . . while trying to keep my cultural glasses off. I'm starting to think that there is a place of intense teaching (not brain washing) when someone first becomes a Christian . . . especially when they come out of a totally non-Christian culture as the people in the New Testament.

But then, I think there may be a time when lecturing week after week does more mind breaking than edifying or building up. Maybe this is what scripture is talking about that in Hebrews 5:11-14:

11We have much to say about this, but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn. 12In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God's word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! 13Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. 14But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.

Okay, I want to think about this more. But maybe it is time in my life that I go to formal church, take the sacraments, focus on serving those in need but stay away from Bible studies and Sunday schools and definitely stay away from groups that practice intense conformity.

I know I'm not making a lot of sense right now.


Johan said...

No, you're making lots of sense.

This is something I'm thinking of too, as I currently am not attending church myself.
Had a talk about that with some churchmembers at a party yesterday, and I told them that what I want to keep are relationships. Sitting together, like at that party, sharing stories, exchanging thoughts, building up each other. Community, not sitting in front of a stage, listening to some people play music and one person preach (often about what I 'have' to do or not do). Real life is where the christian faith is lived out, real life is where the relationships which form the church should be found.
I think the organizations we call 'church' will not be found again in the Kingdom to come. But the relationships between the people, the love that Jesus talks about in John as the sign people could recognize his followers by, that will survive the transition. The body of Christ will remain, which is the inward reality, the outward forms, the institutions, our rules and obligations, they will all be burnt like chaff.
So I want to focus on the things that are real and staying, not on what is temporary and doomed to perish. Store up treasures in heaven, so to speak. I think your advice to your son is spot on.

MJ said...

I guess I've aways been a bit envious of that type of community. The book, which I've mentioned often here, Post Evangelical, describes such a group that meets in a bar.

I thought I would try to create such a group (though my old church), fist with a "Bible study" then later with a movie night.

It is so indoctrinated into our Christian culture, this dualistic way of thinking, if it isn't a ceremony, Biblical lecture . . . then it isn't church. The problem with the Bible study was just that. If I did not directly discuss scriptures (like trying to talk about our lives) the group quickly thought I was getting off topic and steered me right back.

The movie night, while enjoyable (and I will continue as soon as I fix my complicated CRT projector) did not jell either (considered as an nonspiritual thus unworthily cause by some).

I've long said that Sunday morning church to many, maybe most, is simple penitence. I would much rather spend my time in something that matters.

But, maybe you faced this or not (as your culture is radically different), the Christian social coercion or peer pressure is tremendous. "You're not in Church! That's terrible. You've turned your back on God haven't you!"

MJ said...

Johan, I wonder too, how many take the second rail, because they can't stand the first and don't know (like you do) that the third is an option?

I know scores of people in their 20s (thanks to my kids) who saw leaving the organized church as synonymous with leaving Christianity. Wouldn't it be great if they knew that there was a third option?

Eagle said...

I would strongly discourage involvement with Campus Crusade for Christ, and here's why.

In many locations it can almost be a pseudo cult because there is not a lot of critical thinking and in the chapter in the midwest I was involved in, they viewed academia with strong suspicion and has a siege mentality. As such I'm always weary of any organization that doesn't allow critical thinking.

It also depends upon who the staff director is. There's a loose chain of command and the one's I saw were pretty authoritarian. Classic evangelilcal/fundy thinking built around the same sins (ie sexual, homosexual, sin of beliving in evolution, importance of tithing..)

Its also like a cult in the sense that you are encouraged to disengage from the world and surrond yourself with nothing but like minded evangelical thinkers. No one of opposing viewpoints, etc...

I would also suggest that CCC worships Bill Bright and makes him an idol, though many would deny that. I saw that becuase I was so often told to read Bright's books etc.. In the years afterward I wondered if this was a form of control.

My experience in CCC really haunted me MJ. I had confessed a sin I dealt with (taboo one of the one's fundy's like to rave about...) and my CCC leader showed nothing but disdain and actually torpedoed my career when I used him as a reference. My accountability partner meanwhile, who also was a leader in CCC; ended up living a double life while I got hammered. He told me that he didn't want to be as honest as me becuase he would get in trouble. Hence he has to lie, hell maybe he still does.

All in all I'm writing this as a warning. Have your son stay away from CCC.

MJ said...

Eagle, thanks for the warning but you don't need to worry. I wouldn't recommend CCC nor would my son ever go.

Here's what my old campus CCC leader is up to these days:

Johan said...

Well, yes, there are people who do not understand my decision about leaving 'organised church'. For example my parents. I think a conversation about that could get ugly (which is why I haven't initiated it). And I think on our small group there will be also some discussion about it. I do not think many people realise I'm not attending church anymore, as I left kind of silently.
I think the evangelical culture here in the Netherlands is comparable to that in the US in the main, depending on the individual church. E.g. in the church I 'left' believing in YEC was not mandatory.
And I also think many young people leave because they do not recongnize the third way of real community. It is sad.
The only thing i know to do is to walk with my God humbly.


Anonymous said...

Tell your son to Listen To The Headless Unicorn Guy:

When I was at CalPoly in the late 1970s, both Navigators and Campus Crusade were active on the campus.

I was in-and-out of Campus Crusade, and they weren't all that hot. Too tunnel-visioned into gimmicky "Soul-Winning (TM)", to the point a lot of them only associated with other Campus Crusade Christians, going outside of Campus Crusade only to make converts/Save Souls. And their "Multiplying Ministry" program always struck me as Christ-as-Pyramid-Scheme -- Amway without the soap. (No coincidence CCC was founded by a professional salesman.)

In many ways, Eagle is right -- CCC functions like a lot of the Cults (TM) your churches warn you about. (Though my experience in it was nowhere as bad as Eagle's.) X-Treme Committment (both in time and intensity) and a lot of Thou Shalt/Thou Shalt Not control-freaking.

The Navigators had an even worse reputation, for X-Treme Fundamentalism, X-Treme High-Pressure Witnessing (TM), X-Treme demands on their members, and an X-Treme burnout rate. (Like your father, though his was delayed a few years.) They also had a rep for flunking out of the school on a frequent basis -- too busy 24/7 with Christian (TM) things to bother keeping up with their schoolwork.

Anonymous said...

It also depends upon who the staff director is. There's a loose chain of command and the one's I saw were pretty authoritarian. Classic evangelilcal/fundy thinking built around the same sins (ie sexual, homosexual, sin of beliving in evolution, importance of tithing..) -- Eagle

This is also true; Campus Crusade groups can vary widely from campus to campus and from year to year.

Cal Poly Pomona (where I attended) had a fairly mellow one; the staff there even used to play "TAG" (The Assassination Game) with dart and water pistols. (In fact, that's where I first heard of the game.)

And on the other end of Brea Canyon was Cal State Fullerton (where I played D&D). The Campus Crusade there was as "Cult-like" as you could get, more Navigator than the Navigators. Their Witchfinders-General were always trying to get us gamers in trouble for Satanism & Witchcraft, anticipating Mike Warnke and the Satanic Panic by a few years. There was talk about them trying to infiltrate us with "sheep in wolves' clothing" to convert us, to the point that we used to screen new gamers for infiltrators by running them past the one guy in the gaming club who was either a far-gone occult groupie or could fake it really well. It was one weird scene.

Headless Unicorn Guy

Anonymous said...

I also could see him attending, on occasion, a high church . . . even Catholic (but the form, which he is not familiar with might scare him off).

Many years ago, when I was transitioning from Low to High Church, I came across this book that explains High Church liturgy and sacraments and sacramentals for someone coming in out of an Evangelical milieu:

Evangelical is Not Enough by Thomas Howard. If your son wants to sample a Western-rite High Church, this would be a good one-volume familiarization primer. (When I got the link addy from, they were listing used copies from $2 or so.)

Okay, I want to think about this more. But maybe it is time in my life that I go to formal church, take the sacraments...

High Church Liturgy & Sacraments have been the refuge and anchor of millions of Christians over well over a thousand years. King & peasant, sage & village idiot.

Headless Unicorn Guy

Vagabond Recon777 said...

I felt the Lord speaking to me about the Third Rail as well. So, tonight I did a search on the third rail and came upon your article. I will submit what I think at this point. In politics Social Security has been the third rail traditionally. Now, what I've seen is the third rail (that one is not supposed to touch) is increasing. This is not just in the realm of politics but in the church. What is the third rail ultimately though? It is the rail where there truly is power and we as Christians need it. I submit that we only actually really NEED the power of the Holy Spirit when we touch that rail. So, what is it? And, is it, like in politics growing? In politics it is not only Social Security but Medicare, Medicaid, Taxes, certainly the Federal Reserve, IOW, the rail is widening (there are less things politicians can/ or dare to touch. But what is the third rail in relation to the church. I submit that the third rail is where the action is, it is the hard issues that are avoided: abortion, homosexuality (opposing them, of course), money issues (taxes, Federal Reserve), it is, in fact, where the rubber hits the road. The hardest Biblical issues that are most often avoided by people is exactly the third rail and this rail has grown and widened, thus, there are less item the church has been touching, and thus, she is deemed powerless. No, brethren we must touch the rail, engage the culture, and receive power from on high.