Tag Archives: Christianity

A McDonaldized Christianity

My doctoral dissertation addressed the sobering and declining state of Western Christianity. It explored how to motivate churchgoers to ‘get off their butts’ and become the disciples and disciple-makers they are to be. The journey led me to some interesting places, ideologically speaking. I discovered and wrote this about the consumeristic nature of much of the Church in the West: “The packaging of goods and spiritualities meant to appeal to consumers of religious experiences has been compared to McDonald’s processes. The product is a Happy Meal spirituality.” Churches can become “just one more dispenser of Happy Meals.” Now, this may not necessarily apply to your church, but I encourage you to read on and reflect.

According to author John Drane, the McDonaldized experience and church produce nominal believers. The format is appealing but empty, entertaining and spiritually tasty, but non-nutritious. John MacArthur says this about a possible contributor to the religious consumerism of faux Christians: “Provide non-Christians with an agreeable, inoffensive environment. Give them freedom, tolerance, and anonymity. Always be positive and benevolent. If you must have a sermon, keep it brief and amusing. Don’t be preachy or authoritative. Above all, keep everyone entertained.” Spiritual laziness is undoubtedly one side effect of this tendency.

A pre-packaged, one-size-fits-all McDonaldized approach to Christianity enables passivity. A person or team entertains a passive audience. Perhaps another person preaches at the same spectators. And the anonymity of which John MacArthur wrote, something of a Happy Meal toy, allows people to ‘slip out the back’ or avoid being held accountable for the lack of discipleship and spiritual growth. There’s another serious flaw in the McDonaldization process where it occurs in our Christianity: the loss of spiritual diversity and maturity.

Communities are born of shared values and traditions, and they are meant to meet the needs of their members. Christian communities were (and are) no exception—especially in the early days after Jesus’ ascension. Each person was required to help meet the physical needs of the Christian group (in other words, work!). They were also expected to contribute to spiritual formation, unity, and maturity based on God-given spiritual gifts and disciple-making abilities (Ephesians 4:11-16). But this kind of collective behavior must be tailored to the group’s specific needs; a pre-packaged McDonaldized Christianity that focuses on format over content and context just won’t do! It leaves little room for spiritual formation, active participation (versus passive observation), or movement by God’s Spirit.

Perhaps it’s time for a different kind of Christian diet—one that tastes good but is also spiritually nutritious. Maybe then we’ll get our butts out of the pews and behave like people who know about God AND who God knows (1Corinthians 8:3; Galatians 4:8-9). What’s next? Let’s uncover some of Jesus’ most excellent and applicable sayings in “Jesus Said What??” in next week’s article.

Blessings and peace,

Dr. Ron Braley

Western Christianity Versus the Borg

Jesus encouraged us to unshoulder our burdens and share them with Him (cf. Matthew 11:28); the Apostle Paul tells us to share our burdens with each other (cf. Galatians 6:2). And we are to use our resources to care for our Christian brothers and sisters. Nevertheless, we maintain a ‘great divide’ between congregation and clergy and each other relationally—indeed, a gap too wide to facilitate the transfer of our burdens to others or Christ. So they collect and weigh us down until we become the picture of spiritual unhealthiness and a questionable witness.

Meanwhile, individualism prohibits deep interpersonal relationships necessary for discipleship, accountability, or the discovery of needs. How do we narrow the gap and once again participate instead of dictating or isolating—through true community, not as a collective of individuals.

Scott Boren, the author of The Relational Way, points out that many sociologists have dubbed the United States as the most individualized society in human history. And statistics and trends show that the church congregations resemble the world. Therefore, churches tend to be made up of individuals who just happen to congregate simultaneously for the same religious experiences. Let’s have a bit of fun and look at something that looks more like we should: The Borg.

If you’re a Star Trek fan, you’ll likely know of the Borg – that single entity comprising many individuals functioning as that single consciousness; they exist to participate relationally for the betterment of the ‘one.’ Here are some helpful snippets from the Star Trek database (http://www.startrek.com/database_article/borg):

The Borg have a singular goal … This collective consciousness is experienced by the Borg as “thousands” of voices — they are collectively aware, but not aware of themselves as separate individuals. … Among the many advantages their collective consciousness affords them, the Borg hive-mind allows for instantaneous adaptations … with the power of their collective thoughts alone. … The hive-mind drones do not register as individual life-signs when scanned, only as a mass reading …

OK, so the Borg is fictional, and the Church isn’t. However, we could learn a profound lesson from the Borg concept: Participate to serve, not just experience; Grow to help, not for self-gain. Commune, not isolate, for godly love and discipleship.

In summary, God has equipped each of us to partner with others in His ministry of reconciliation. Rather than assemble as self-centered individuals with a shared desire to experience religion, let’s become more relational and community-minded to build trust for service and discipleship. Then, we can genuinely resemble the Borg … well, without all the tubes and stuff!

Next week, we’ll explore sin and the light that brings it out of the dark in my article Would Someone Please Turn on the Lights??

Blessings and peace,

Dr. Ron Braley

Christianity Before the baggage

We’re creatures of habit and tradition and may believe that Christianity today in America is like the original Church started by Jesus and perpetuated by the apostles. Actually, our Christianity and the Church Jesus began are miles apart. The Church was, at first, one organization made up of different personalities, gifts, and talents. The diversity ensured spiritual growth and success in ministry. Today, there are thousands of Christian denominations, cults, organizations, and fractures, and each attracts people who think, believe, and act alike (for the most part). The single, diverse Church rich in shared spiritual gifts, skills, and talents is gone. There are other differences too.

In the first couple of centuries, Christianity was a costly religion (and, therefore, valuable to its members) because of persecution and difficulty in buying or selling in the marketplace. Every member of the community was required to contribute to its welfare and worship. Everyone sang and prayed aloud. Everyone was expected to put their spiritual gifts to work (e.g., teaching, preaching, overseeing . . .). Church discipline for spiritual growth (not punishment!) was necessary and expected.

Today? We live in a world of free or cheap grace without much discipleship or accountability (write to me via the editor if you’d like to see the statistics!). Few are required to participate, and, therefore, about 85% of Christians are freeloaders who don’t contribute or engage in spiritual formation or discipleship. Oh – and discipline within the Christian community? Forget about it! Anyone who doesn’t like the message or accountability can just go to another church down the road. What about things like baptism and Communion?

Initially, Communion (the Lord’s Supper) was a simple, intimate, worshipful dinner between believers. No pomp or circumstance. Today, it’s practiced in many ways, from a simple, quick ceremony as part of a Sunday service to a deeply mystical encounter. Baptism is another practice that differs significantly today from its early Christian counterpart.

For the first several generations from Jesus, baptism was a simple ceremony that confirmed the convert’s devotion to God and entry into the universal Church. Interestingly, according to early accounts, the water could be cold or warm, running or still, or even spit (as a last resort). The point wasn’t the water but devotion. After a few generations from Jesus, heresies and false teachings abounded, as did weak faith that people left under persecution. To ensure that converts truly understood the covenant they were about to enter, the Church began intense training and observation—sometimes for as much as three years—before baptism. That’s not the case today—baptism requires nothing more than a verbal affirmation of faith, no demonstration.

You may be wondering about one more big difference: giving. I’ll need to write a separate article for that one! What about next week? We’ll compare and contrast individualism in American churches to Star Trek’s Borg.

Exploring God’s Will

We often want to know God’s will—especially for us. His will is what He wants to do, primarily to keep us from destruction through our transformation and eventual salvation from His wrath. It is His plan for humankind. In the process, He desires us to be obedient, rejoice, pray, and spread the good news to others. Although we tend to think God’s will is some glorious plan for our individual lives, we should instead focus on helping God see His plan for creation through to completion. That’s all well and good. But what exactly does ‘will’ mean?

The word in the ancient language implies choice, desire, pleasure, or an inclination. So, God’s will can be something He desires (as in Matthew 18:12-14) or His plan for humanity (i.e., Matthew 26:42 or John 6:37-40).

Here are some of God’s desires:

  • That all people are saved from His coming wrath (2Peter 3:9)
  • Obedience, not legalism (Matthew 9:13)
  • Our good works, done because of our faith (1Peter 2:13-16)
  • That we rejoice and pray continuously (1Thessalonians 5:16-19)
  • That we proclaim the good news of His Kingdom & make disciples (Matthew 28:19-20)

What are some benefits of partnering with God to accomplish His desires?

  • Redemption and forgiveness; the reward of everlasting life (John 6:40; Ephesians 1:5-13; Hebrews 10:35-36)
  • We get His Spirit and intercession on our behalf (Romans 8:26-28)

How do we participate in God’s plan and accomplish His desires? First, we must obey His commandments to honor the Father and Son and be charitable to people (1John 5:3; Matthew 22:36-40). We must also abstain from sexual immorality (1Thessalonians 4:2-4). We are to imitate God (Ephesians 5:1-20), allow the Holy Spirit to lead us (Romans 8:14, Galatians 5:25). Making God’s priorities our priorities (Matthew 6:33) is critical, and we must obey our civil leaders and submit to them (Hebrews 13:17).

Whew! That seems like a lot of stuff! But, we can learn what we’re to do in accomplishing God’s will or discovering the answers to our prayers by doing these things:

•           Study the Bible, which teaches principles that help in decision-making (2Timothy 3:16-17).

•           Ask for wisdom (James 1:5-6).

•           Seek wisdom (from family, friends, spiritually mature, etc.) (Proverbs 13:10).

•           Pray!!!

But, we can hinder the accomplishment of God’s will or desires – even for us – through:

•           Bad motives (James 4:3).

•           Bad relationships (1Peter 3:7).

•           Unrighteousness due to disobedience and the lack of the Spirit (John 9:31).

Summary: God has a plan for humanity: salvation through Christ. He also desires fellowship and obedience from us in a pursuit of holiness. We can join in and help accomplish God’s plans or desires, or we can rebel and keep Him from using us or even answering our requests. Of course, this rebellion will result in death. Next week, we’ll take a look at demons with job titles & the ‘spirit’ of biblical abuse.

Blessings and peace,

Ron Braley

The Value of Worship

Last week, we explored the history behind our fractured Christianity. This week, we’ll take a brief look at the ‘Big-T’ non-negotiable practices of shared faith and contrast them against ‘little-t’ subjective truths of how we engage in religion, how we worship. But first, let’s define the term.

It is a 16th-century compound word that combines ‘worth’ and ‘ship.’ Basically, the word is action-oriented and represents how we assign worth to what we value. In the Bible, worship was actionable: bowing down, singing, praying, giving, sexual purity, kindness, etc. Jesus’ related point was that we tend to put our resources (worth) into what we value (Matthew 6:21). Let’s go back to the first century to contrast Christian mandates with today’s religious practices.

Two thousand years ago, Christians were charged with honoring their heavenly Father with all they were and had and to treat each other with the love of Christ (Matthew 22:34-40). They were to make disciples and baptize new converts into the faith (e.g., Matthew 28:18-21); those faithful newbies received the Spirit of God in return for regeneration (e.g., Acts 5:32 & Titus 3:5). Simple devotion, baptism, charity, and disciple-making while walking by the Spirit of God in the Christian community were essential Christian activities. Being a community, Christ-followers enjoyed table fellowship that brought the remembrance of what Jesus did for humankind and why, initially on Saturday evenings during corporate worship (prayer, teaching, singing, etc. (see Colossians 3:16 for a foundation)). No mystery or magic; no strict religious focus or a one-to-many format – well, not yet anyway.

By the fourth century, candles, chants, and rituals turned baptism into a solemn religious experience, although the primary intent remained: devote to God and renounce sin. Similarly, simple table fellowship and a communal remembrance of Jesus’ sacrifice and the covenant it enabled became a formalized and mystical experience that not everyone could administer or enjoy. Corporate prayer where members in a Christian assembly participated has ceased to be a shared, communal experience. Collaborative teaching and the sharing of spiritual gifts have given way to preaching and a strict format that leaves little if any room for in-depth and applicable biblical teaching or movements by the Spirit of God.

“But, Ron – does how we sing, teach, pray, baptize, or take Communion in a worship service matter?” The answer depends on whether biblical teaching in disciple-making, heartfelt prayer, faith-fueled baptism, intimate sharing in covenantal remembrance or corporate singing and exercising spiritual gifts occur in true worship while involved in religious activities. We may practice our faith differently depending on religious culture. But, we must never forsake Communion’s intimate sharing, the devotion of baptism, communal prayer and singing, or the maturity found in discipleship.

Oh – I mentioned the phrase “Christian love.” Please join me next week to look at the different ways we do, and should, love!

Blessings and peace,

Ron Braley

One body, 30,000 toes??

“Ron: Why do we have so many different kinds of churches??” Wow! Where on earth do I begin in answering this question? One source estimates that 30,000 or more different Christian organizations exist globally, and another states that more than 200 different church flavors make their home in the United States. The short answer is that it was never meant to be this way and wasn’t until about 400 years ago. Since then, a tendency toward individualism and a theological ‘wild, wild, west’ have led to many personal interpretations of the Bible and segregated churches. Add to that unchecked personal beliefs that God has given special revelation to some, and we end up with more Body of Christ fractures than the oil fields of western North Dakota! Perhaps a little church history would help us understand how we got here in such a short time – in about one-fifth of Christianity’s history.

The earliest and simplest Christianity modeled Christ in community and trained and then baptized anyone devoting their lives to the Father through the Son. Of course, there were occasional heresies and rebellions, but that was the basic approach. Over time, the Church split over differences in faith practices. For about 1,600 years, only two primary partitions of Christianity existed: Orthodoxy in the east and Roman Catholicism from about Rome westward.

Sixteenth-century Roman Catholicism, like many institutions, suffered corruption and some supposed unbiblical practices. Protestor Martin Luther (and others) pushed back against such things as indulgences and the idea that good deeds or money could earn a ticket to heaven. Although it doesn’t appear that Luther intended the eventual splintering of Christianity that we’ve witnessed over the last 400-ish years, this is what ensued. What began as an intended reformation of the Roman Catholic church brought on many unintended theological divisions and different worship practices.

Today, many Christian fragments exist, even within denominations. And they fall along a continuum of extremes. For some congregations, humans have no free will to choose a partnership with God. At the other end of the spectrum, God has no influence and exists only to make people feel good and respond when they need Him. Perhaps we should stop deciding for God how He will use His authority! He is indeed the Lord of all, and He seeks relationships with those who choose to receive the Living Water of Christ and walk by the Holy Spirit.

To summarize, there are 30,000 Christian ‘toes’ because each has a mind of its own and often wiggles to its own beat. Now, it isn’t all bad: some Christ-minded cultures that devote to God and love others have provided diverse and meaningful ways to put true faith into practice. Next week, we’ll explore worship and contrast Big-T truths of the Christian faith against the little-t truths of those worshipful practices.

Blessings and peace,

Ron Braley

The Holy Spirit Part III: No Root, No Fruit!

Last week, I explained that the Spirit of God is our heavenly equipper. He enables capabilities through skills and dynamic heavenly gifts such as divine and human languages and interpretation, wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, and discerning spirits. The Father still gives Christ-followers His Spirit for service by way of the gifts I just mentioned. The Spirit also helps us in our transformation. What kind of transformation? A changed heart (mind) that drives changed behavior according to God’s ways. This is what God desires – not empty belief-only. “But Ron – if the Spirit is at work in a Christ-follower’s life, shouldn’t he or she look and act differently?” Yep!

Some people in Christian communities work according to the Spirit, and some don’t. Those who do walk by the Spirit of God produce loving action out of their faith. And, their behaviors and demeanor reflect the Spirit at work within them. The Bible calls those fruit-producing, Spirit-driven Christ-followers children of God (e.g., John 1:12; Acts 17:29; Romans 8:16-17; Matthew 13:38). They love, house, feed, clothe, sow peace, grow in faith, and make disciples who do the same.

On the other hand, many people are Christ-believersonly, producing nothing of value for God. His Spirit is not at work in their lives, as shown by the lack of fruit – manifestations of a Spirit-enabled faith. The Bible calls them spiritual ‘weeds’ (Matthew 13:24-30 & 41-42), and their fate is inevitable.

“Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me nothing to drink; I was a stranger, and you did not invite Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me.’”Matthew 25:41-43.

“Alright, Ron – I get it. True followers of Jesus can be identified by what they do, how they live, and how they love because of their faith. What kind of behaviors and activities should we see from them?” Here are the fruits (manifestations) of a Spirit-enabled Christian according to the Apostle Paul (notice that they are action-related in some way!):

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. —Galatians 5:22-25.

In summary, no root (Spirit), no fruit (Godly behaviors and output). Pray that the Father will give His Spirit to produce fruit that will stand the test of time! Next week, we’ll explore lying and empty promises in Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire!

Blessings and peace,

Ron Braley

The Holy Spirit Part I: a Life-saving Gift!

Last week, I mentioned that the Ruler of heaven gives His Spirit to anyone who is wholly devoted to Him and His Kingdom. We often allow humanmade doctrine and a lack of knowledge to complicate the simple, pollute the pure. The subject of the Holy Spirit is no exception. So, I thought I’d devote the next three weeks to providing clarity.

This week, we’ll learn about the Holy Spirit and why He is necessary for our transformation now and salvation to come. Next week, we’ll explore if and how the Spirit gifts and equips us for God’s good pleasure and our spiritual growth in this life. Finally, in the third week, we’ll uncover the fruit (manifestations) of the Spirit at work in Christ-followers as well as the consequence of being unfruitful.

First, the Holy Spirit is a gift from God to Christ-followers. By the way: I’ll write about the Bride of Christ soon to help you understand that gifting is part of a holy betrothal process!

And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”Acts 2:38.

Second, the Spirit of God regenerates the one who receives the living water of heaven, Christ. No regeneration, no heaven or dwelling with God in the new age to come.

Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. —John 3:5.

Since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God1 Peter 1:23.

He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy SpiritTitus 3:5.

Third, rejection of the Spirit of God = spiritual death.

Truly I say to you, all sins shall be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sinMark 3:28-29.

Why is the rejection of God’s Spirit the only rebellion against Him that is unforgivable? Because God’s forgiveness requires repentance (change in behavior because of a changed heart), no repentance is possible while someone rejects God.

So far, we’ve learned that the Spirit of God is our connection to the Kingdom of Heaven. Regeneration by the Spirit after devoting to the Father in response to Christ the living water is the only way to enter. So, learn, decide, and devote. But what then? Next week, we’ll see how the Holy Spirit of God equips for spiritual growth, faithfulness, and service.

Blessings and peace,

Ron Braley

How Many Years??

In early August, I responded to this question in an article I wrote for the Taylor Press:

“Hey, Ron – was Jesus’ ministry really three-and-a-half years long? If not, why are we told that?”

Jesus’ ministry began when He was almost (about) 30 years old – so, 29, and lasted for just over a year. He was crucified at the age of 30, which may also account for the number (30) of silver pieces Judas received for betraying Him (taxes or fees paid sometimes were based on an individual’s age). The gospels agree very well on the flow of the ministry, and John’s account is the easiest to follow.

Why do we believe, incorrectly, that Jesus ministered for 3.5 years? John 6:4, which throws in a bogus Passover, wasn’t in the earliest manuscripts but added by the third century. Then, fourth-century Eusebius, wanting to crack the code of the ‘week of years’ before the end of the world, used the bad information and rounded up, perpetuating the false belief that Jesus’ ministry was three-and-a-half years long. If you leave out chapter six, verse four (as you should!), the flow of Jesus’ one-year ministry goes like this according to the Gospel by John:

  • John’s introduction, the start of Jesus’ ministry, and gathering disciples: 1
  • Jesus performs His first miracle; the ministry begins just before Passover at age 29: 2
  • Jesus’ first Passover; religious contention begins (March/April): 2-3
  • Jesus goes back to his home in the north, stopping in Samaria along the way: 4
  • Jesus visits Jerusalem for Pentecost (May/June): 5
  • Jesus heads back to the north for the summer; feeding 5,000: 6-7
  • Jesus goes back to Jerusalem for the Feast of Booths in the fall (October-ish): 7
  • Jesus stays in Jerusalem until winter and the Feast of Dedication (Hanukkah in December): 7-10
  • Jesus leaves Jerusalem for the rest of the winter: 10-11
  • Jesus enters Jerusalem for the second and last Passover in His ministry; He’s crucified and then resurrected (March/April): 12-20
  • Jesus appears to various disciples and ascends to Heaven: 20-21

So, what did we learn? First, Jesus’ earthly ministry lasted just over a year from the age of 29-30. Second, the Christian tradition of a 3.5-year ministry was started by Eusebius when trying to rationalize his belief about end-of-the-world timing.

Blessings and peace,

Ron Braley

Covenantal Anesthesia

Today, we prevent unwanted pregnancies not by abstinence but contraception. No discipline; no problem. Do whatever feels good. Promises made in the dark remain unkept in an age where words and actions are disconnected and often in complete opposition.

Today, we avert the consequences of other ungodly acts such as homosexuality through medicine and contraceptive methods. Lying and litigation are acceptable means by which to achieve objectives. These aren’t God’s ways or representative of His love, which equates to justice and mercy. His speech results in action; He has always done what He says He will do. This was the posture of the early Church: speech-action that mirrored their faith and produced good works accordingly. Their speech and actions were indistinguishable.

Second-century Christian and Church leader Justin notes this of his contemporary Christians: “… community doesn’t consider people true Christians if they simply quote Christ’s teachings but don’t live them.” (Justin, 1 Apol. 16.8 by Alan Kreider, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church, 15). He also lists the saying of Jesus under four categories: sexual ethics, actionable/charitable love, patience, and truth-telling. (ibid.) Many early Church leaders reported that the Christians lived among the non-Christians in community eating, drinking, and working beside them. However, their charity, honesty, and purity as well as patience under trials and hardships set them apart and made an impact that attracted those around the Christians to desire to learn of God’s kingdom and join the faith. Not so today in a world of watered-down preaching full of funny stories and anecdotes framed by entertaining music, coffee, and donuts; no so in a world where churches become the most expensive light-killing lampshades on the planet by hiding and entertaining consumers.

Today, the Western Church looks mostly like the world: same behaviors and worldviews; similar lack of patience, unrepentance, unforgiveness, divorce statistics, selfish driving habits, litigation, financial irresponsibility, and so-on. Why? In my experience as a minister, researcher, and writer, a driving factor is the lack of choice where a covenant with God is concerned.

Removing the consequences of immorality, lying, etc. through contraception, litigation, and ungodly laws can lure us into believing that the lack of consequences imply acceptance. Similarly, and in my experience, Western Christians are lured into believing that God exists to serve them and that prosperity is the goal because covenant and consequences have often been removed in the Church. Churchgoers are anesthetized by receiving a half-baked gospel where, if anything, a silent and personal ‘sinner’s prayer can save them without reciprocation. They are told there’s nothing they have to do – Jesus did it all! No self-discipline, no charity, no sacrifice, no two-way marriage-like covenantal response. No consequence for the pleasure-seeking individual uninterested in communal care who practices behavior antithetical to God’s ways. No accountability. No ongoing spiritual formation or discipleship (Barna, The State of the Church, 2016, for instance: https://www.barna.com/research/state-church-2016/). What to do?

There can be a fix – a positive change that once again draws others to our faith. Turn off the anethsiea of a covenantless gospel; stop entertaining and teach. Hold Christians accountable for ungodly behavior and gently train through discipleship. Move out of the church buildings and live out faith among others in our communities whether at work, play, or dwelling so that they may see our good works, patience, and purity and wonder just as the ancients did.