Sunday, October 26, 2003

Jumping Into the Fray

(This is the first time I've really delved into religion on this blog. If it makes you uncomfortable, skip to the fluffy stuff... but it'd be really cool if you read it no matter where you are in the spectrum of things. Bear with me, because this is looooong.)

The past couple days, Fizban and Dingus have gone back and forth about hypocrisy in Christianity (the Duelling Dingii of Dogma, if you wish), and I decided to put my two cents' dollars' worth in. For some background, you can read Fizban's post and Dingus's post beforehand, but I'll quote some of the main things I'm responding to.

Although they're working from opposite ends of the spectrum (Fizban from a Christian's standpoint, and Dingus from that of a nonbeliever), they both agree on one thing: There are way too many Christians out there who "talk the talk" but don't "walk the walk." I couldn't agree more. They also note that this is a particular problem in the late high school/early college-aged crowd. They also agree that the followers of Christianity are, by their actions, not always its greatest advertisement. Fizban takes his fellow believers--and himself--to task for this because he says it skews the perception of Christianity among both other Christians and those who are struggling with a decision on faith. Dingus says that being around the hypocrites helped shape his decision not to believe (correct me if I'm wrong on any of this, guys--that's what the comments function is for).

Fizban points out that he's about to enter a precarious time in a Christian's life:

I'm about to go to college, where I'm going to be assaulted on all sides about what I believe and my character. If I can't do what I should in this weak microcosm of the world that is high school, how will I survive college and life beyond that?

This brings up a great question: Why do so many college students undergo crises of faith--or lose it completely--during this time in their lives? Some will blame the "professorial liberalist dogma being crammed down their throats" for this happening, and certainly that might be a contributing factor for some, but I'm looking in a different direction. I'm not saying there's a one-size-fits-all answer here, but I have a theory: A faith that doesn't survive college (in other words, the time of being on one's own, having freedom to think, etc.), was probably never very strong in the first place.

So how could this happen? How could such a beautiful palace be built upon a foundation of sand? Let's examine a few possibilities by looking at the building blocks of a potentially shallow faith:

1) My parents are Christians, so I became one too. There is nothing wrong with this approach; in fact, that's what we as Christians are called to do: raise our children in the love of the Lord so that they might choose His path when the time comes. But I sometimes wonder if some kids aren't pushed to make a decision too early, before they really know what they're doing. One statement from Fizban blew me away: I've been saved since I was 6. Part of me said wow, how awesome to have been in The Walk for that much of one's life. Yet another part of me wondered just how much he understood what he was doing when he made his decision and how much was simply following the example of his family. (In this case, however, I consider it a moot point, because, despite his taking himself to task for his shortcomings, I think that even if he didn't truly "get" what he was doing in first grade, he "gets" it now. More on this subject later.)

Dingus also mentions his parents, passively, as part of his own decision:

These views were never instilled upon me by my parents. They are Athiests themselves, however they never mentioned anything for or against God.

I don't doubt this, but surely the absence of Christianity in his home had an influence on his decision, whether he was aware of it or not. Kids model their parents, and until they spend more time away from home, the world they grow up in may well be the only world they know.

2) All the cool kids are doing it. Granted, if you had to pick something for your kid to do that "all the cool kids" are doing, you could go a lot worse than being a Christian! Actually, I'd be hard-pressed to think of anything better. There are a lot of places out there where the Christian kids are, if not the majority, at least a very big slice of the pie. Kids will slide naturally into a group to be accepted; if, say, goth-ism is the cultural norm, most of the kids will start wearing all black and listening to Nine Inch Nails or Marilyn Manson. If Christianity is the norm, most of the kids will join an evangelical church, wear "W.W.J.D." bracelets and listen to Five Iron Frenzy. There's definitely a pack mentality going on, and at least this is a good pack to run around in.

3) I checked out all the major religions, and Christianity was the one that appealed to my way of thinking. I've known people who have done this before--the strictly intellectual approach, no matter where they are on the path of faith. I've had friends who were strong Christians read, say, the Q'uran, to either expand their minds or strengthen their existing faith. Dingus says that he has studied all the major ones and still chooses "none of the above." This is certainly a component of making one's decision; you might say that it's like reading a contract before you sign it.

(Oh, and I have to clarify one statement of Dingus's: He says he's studied all the major religions and has a fair understanding of them, but...Not of the sects though. Jeez, even the sects can't define themselves. It makes me laugh when some churches declare themselves as "Non-secular." I believe the word he's looking for is "non-sectarian." Actually, I go to a non-sectarian or non-denominational church and love every minute of it. All churches by their nature are "non-secular," i.e. sacred. Sorry, Dingus, I know this is as bad as when I correct your spelling on AIM. Haha.)

Now, understand, there's nothing wrong with these long as they're a means to an end and not the end itself. And this is why one's faith may not survive the challenges of the "real world"--the approaches listed above are generally made with the head, while a true decision to follow Christ must be made with the heart. If the heart isn't involved, it's easy to see how that sandy foundation remains, and how people can "go through the motions" of being a Christian without actually being changed...and how those "motions" can be counteracted when other influences come into play. If the heart is not the major part of the equation, the faith may not thrive or even survive.

You might be wondering about my own story at this point. Of course, I'll share: I came to know the Lord as a freshman in high school. I had gone through the typical youth program at my Methodist church, but, looking back, it seemed more like pop psychology at times. (Indeed, when my parents moved to another suburb and changed churches, they were amazed to find "a Methodist church that actually talks about Jesus.") I joined the youth group at another church, led by a local judge who visited my parents' Sunday school class (he was famous locally for having smuggled Bibles into the Soviet Union), and I went on one of their retreats. I definitely had something missing in my life, and I was looking for answers. I was a "good kid," but I had already gotten roaring drunk at age 14 at a post-UIL marching contest party. I was also a shy kid who didn't make friends easily, and one of my few good friends in band had been killed in a senseless accident the semester before. I could have gone down any number of different paths, but thank God (literally) I chose the right one.

What got me about this new youth group was one of those things that's hard to describe. There was just something "different" about these people, and, looking back, I realize that it was the fact that their hearts had been changed by letting God into them. I can't tell you for sure that I was thinking with my heart that day when I made my decision, but I know that my heart, and my life, was changed over time.

Now I'd like to tell you that everything continued that way up until this day...but I'd be a liar. Did my faith survive college? Yes, but only because I had that foundation of the heart. Sometimes it was only a foundation, without the top part. So I made it, but not as well as I would have liked it to; there was plenty of rebuilding to be done along the way. I often said that I spent time "walking on the edge of darkness so that I could more fully define the light." My involvement with the youth group ended before I graduated from high school; I felt like I had to pull back a bit, because they placed a lot of stock in evangelism, in helping to save your friends....and I was lousy at it (still am). That has yet to happen with me. The apostle Paul says that we're all given different spiritual gifts, and evangelism is not mine. I think I might be better at helping existing Christians stay on the right path, but at the time, I hadn't come to that realization, so I considered myself a failure. I also found myself being quite judgmental of others, so I had to cool off for a while.

I actually didn't attend church at all during college. I said that I never found one to my liking in Denton, though it probably could be attributed to laziness as well. The one thing that never left me was my prayerful relationship with God, which did sustain me through a lot of the really bad times. However, I had convinced myself that that was all I needed, that I didn't need to be overt about my religion as long as that relationship remained. My mom and sister worried about my soul at times (needlessly, I told them), but I wasn't about to join my sister's Baptist church here in Dallas because of the judgmentalism I'd acquired from the Baptist-overtoned youth group growing up.

Then, in 1997, my sister invited me to her new church, where she and my brother-in-law attended and had gotten married the summer before. I had pretty much decided to go "church-shopping" pretty soon anyway, and she invited me to hear her play handbells. Long story short, I've been back every week since then unless I was out of town. I also found out the error of my ways in thinking that a prayerful relationship was sufficient (funny, I was just talking with a good friend about this very subject a few days ago): part of the important part of going to church is the interaction with other believers, which not only helps you strengthen each other's faith, but also counteracts some of the isolation that Christians find in a sometimes-hostile world. I didn't get the concept back then, but I sure get it now.

So I challenge all my college-aged and soon-to-be-college-aged Christian friends to examine their hearts, to nurture that part of their walk, so that their faith has a strong foundation to survive the hurricane that is the next four or five years. Fizban, I think, will weather the storm, because he does "get it" and does, by example, help keep some of his fellow believers (like me) on track. We'll be happy to return the favor when you're out in the trenches.

Oh, and one more thing in reply to something Fizban wrote:

I'm tired of people looking up to me. Stop it. You're gonna be disappointed over and over again. I screw up as much as any other person on this planet, my Christianity has nothing to do with it.

I'm guessing he's aiming that at the crowd who calls him "Demon Lee" and idolizes him for his exceptional musical talent. But there's one exception to that: the sign of true friendship is when you can look up to someone despite their shortcomings. 'Nuff said.

OK, this is long-winded even for me. I look forward to reading the comments column on this one, so fire away, folks...

UPDATE: Matt B. has added his two pennies on the subject as well. It's way shorter than my post; check it out.

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