I mentioned Sunday that I would blog on, what in my opinion, are the key false beliefs that tend to show up in a church in the culture of Eureka. Before you read these, I would encourage you to reread Titus 1:9-16. In this passage Paul gives strong instruction to Titus that the leaders in the church need to guard the doctrine and beliefs of the church against those who seek to bring tainted and bizarre views of spirituality and seek to mix it in. In this text, Paul quotes a poet from Crete named Epimenides, who states that Cretans are “always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.” Paul uses this quote to speak to the cultural issues, idols, and questions that were raised in that culture. The false teachers apparently were effective in answering the cultural questions with a message that was different from the gospel.
The challenge for us is this, we must at the same time work to hold firmly to the truth of the Scriptures and the doctrines that are clearly taught in the Bible. On the other hand, we must seek to answer the questions being asked by the culture in which we live, and challenge the idols held in that culture with the Gospel. Many churches have the right answers, meaning that they are strong in their doctrine, but they are answering questions that are fifty years old. Still, there are other churches that are striving to engage the culture, but while they do understand the cultural questions and issues, they are unable to give any real answers because they abandon their grip on truth. Our task, as a church in the culture of Eureka, West St. Louis County, Missouri, is to grow in our grip on the clear teachings of the New Testament, engage the culture, and then seek to answer our cultures questions and oppose their idols with the Gospel, which is the only answer.
Every culture has different issues. On Crete, Paul identifies a group called “the circumcision party.” These people were teaching that a person had to be circumcised and embrace Jewish religion to be a true Christian. These people promoted a form of legalism that led people away from the Gospel of grace. I’ve never attended a church where this specific issue became a core problem. I have spent time in a culture where the functional gospel for many girls was to find a husband. They believed their acceptance came with having children and being married, usually in that order. A person living near an intellectual center like a university might struggle with false teachings flowing from anti-supernaturalism, the belief that Jesus didn’t do any miracles. While there may be some of these issues in the culture here, they are not the primary false doctrines that tend to confront the church. My goal in the next few blogs is to identify a few ideas and beliefs that get mixed in to the teachings of churches or beliefs of those seeking to follow Jesus in the culture of Eureka. Feel free to give me other ideas, or push back on these if you have thoughts.
It is interesting to me that I am writing the first of these blogs on Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras, because this day was basically created by Religionism. Yes, I made that word up, but I use it to express the idea that people believe that their association with a religion fulfills their earthly commitment and makes them OK with God. Seek to have a conversation about God here in this culture, and you will find that people will respond by telling you which team they are on. “I’m Catholic,” “I’m Lutheran,” “I’m Episcopalian,” “I’m Baptist.” For many, the identification with a denomination has become their functional gospel. At some point in time, they have completed the base requirements to take on the label, and they then wear the label as their get out of hell free card. Without admitting it, people believe that they are accepted by God because they have embraced a religious label. If you don’t think this is a real issue in St. Louis culture, think about the most common question asked here, “Where did you go to high school?” People from other cities don’t know why we are so obsessed with this information, but in this area that question was at one time used to determine which “label” you wore by identifying if you went to public school, or a parochial school.
The result is that as long as they accept the label, they can pretty much do what they want. Back to Mardi Gras. Nothing wrong with beads, but the underlying belief system here is that I can do whatever I want, no matter how wicked, because tomorrow I will reaffirm my team membership, and God will be OK with me. In my religious background, people embraced the idea, “Once saved, always saved.” While I agree with the premise, that if God saves a person, He will also keep that person until He returns, this belief was misused by people as they went through the ritual of baptism and then saw that as their license to do whatever they wanted. They had the label, and God was going to forgive. So who cares if they live on this earth only to please themselves.? Let me be honest, nobody would admit this is what they believe, yet so many in this culture have a religious background, and they know their label, but they have disconnected from the church experience. This becomes an issue for them as they begin to have kids, and they want to make sure their kids have the “label”, but they want their kid’s religious experience to be more meaningful than the one they experienced.
This system of belief is intriguing in this culture because it gives the promises of faith and religion in a format that is similar to being a fan of a sports team. We can root for the Rams or Cardinals, buy all the gear and wear the shirts, and a few times a year attend the shrine dedicated to this “religion”, while at the same time being unbelievably out of shape and uninterested in the cost to become a genuine part of one of these teams. As long as I wear the horns or birds on the bat I am a part of the crowd and accepted.
The problem is that Religionism will not solve the problem of the human heart, our own sinfulness and need for forgiveness. The Baptist church did not die for sin, and a Catholic priest did not take your place on Calvary. Only Jesus satisfies, and only Jesus can save. A church affiliation, or completion of a set of rituals in order to belong, these things cannot transform a person’s character, and bring them into a relationship with their Creator.
So what are the underlying cultural questions that leads people to embrace the concept? First, I believe people in this culture believe in God and do have a desire to please Him. But they have also accepted the idea that God is about teams, so as long as they are on the right one, they am fine. The questions deal with living for something bigger than themselves, and the need to belong to something significant. I also believe Religionism grows in a culture that is overly saturated with religion. There are at least fifteen different churches in Eureka, and the St. Louis area is full of religious influence. Yet, too many times this level of religion only immunizes people to the Gospel.
Well, this is long, and I need to bring it to the end, but let me give a few thoughts about what this means to us. (1)We must examine ourselves to determine if we embrace religionism in some way without knowing. Do you trust in your baptism, church attendance, or denominational label as a form of acceptance to God? (2)It is important that we always preach the impossibility of pleasing God. The Gospel calls us to realize that nothing we do will bridge the divide caused by sin, including good church activity. It is only when we come to understand our total unworthiness that we will find Jesus, who is of ultimate worth. (3)Being a part of a team (a church) is a good thing, but the team is not the ultimate thing. Keeping with the team analogy, the key for the team is following the coach, not being on the team. Being involved in church is important because it is there that a group of people serve Jesus together. (4)Which means that Jesus is the most important thing. The Gospel is that Jesus died, was buried, and raised on the third day. Especially as a new church, we want people to find our church exciting, but we must not make it about the church! If our passion is to show people how trendy and hip our church is, we will become another layer of the culture of religionism.