Read an Excerpt
Beyond Virtual Christianity
By Michael Slaughter, Warren Bird
Abingdon PressCopyright © 1999 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
Invitation to a Journey: How God's Community Changed One Life
Do you want to be part of a God movement? You need to be challenged to take God at face value. But you can't make this journey alone. You need the camaraderie of a faith community that is significantly engaged in contemporary culture but not sold out to it. You will find help from a radical community of real followers who get honest with God.
Carolyn and I had a big argument during our second week of marriage. Our brief honeymoon on the East Coast was great. We had been married in late August, and when we got back to Ohio, I immediately had to begin my final year of college.
During that fateful first week of the fall semester, I left in the morning for school. Then in the afternoon I went directly from campus to meet with a church youth group I was leading.
When I walked into our apartment, it was about 7:00 P.M. There was Carolyn, standing in the hallway, projecting lots of negative energy. "Where have you been?" she asked. "I made a nice dinner for us." While I searched for just that right word (which never came), she continued, "You didn't even call."
Uh oh. No one had ever before asked me to call like that. I had never needed to.
"What have I done?" I asked myself. For the first time, I realized that marriage means that I'm not my own anymore.
I carried on a brief dialogue in my mind: "I can't live the way I used to live. I'm only twenty-one years old and I've said I'll remain in this relationship for life. That could be a very long time! Do I really want this?"
My answer back was, "Yes." I knew that to have a good marriage, I'd have to change. I would have to learn responses based on commitment, not on feelings.
Community with God
Marriage is a lot like a relationship with God. When I said, "I do," to Carolyn, I pledged to be monogamous—to commit to one person for life. Likewise, becoming a Christian means to give up all gods but one. It means to have a personal faith-based relationship with this God through Jesus Christ.
Shortly after that argument, I remember attending a psychology class as part of my schoolwork. I and another student in the class were to sit in a dark, quiet room and observe counseling sessions through a one-way glass. There I was, in a cozy corner for long hours with an attractive woman who smelled good. As a newlywed I was surprised at my feelings, because I figured that God had cut the temptation nerve now that I was married.
It is not natural for a marriage to grow and thrive. We have passions inside that tempt us to do tnings that aren't healthy. That's why need Christ to help me and transform me.
In the same way it's not easy to be committed to one God for life. I have several gods each week. Self-sufficiency, envy, anger, rage, and indifference would rather rule me, to name a few. Sin is the breakdown in my relationship with God. It changes me from being like God to being on my own.
God's solution comes in two words that Jesus spoke during the first days of his ministry: "Follow me." (For example, see John 1:43.) He issued the "Follow me" call throughout his ministry on earth. (See John 8:12; 10:27; 12:26; 13:36.) Then when Jesus rose from the grave he continued to say, "Follow me." (See John 21:19.) That is the crux of Christianity. Not "let's do lunch." Not "please form a social club."
The name "Christian" has been terribly cheapened and degraded. If I'm a follower of Jesus Christ, then I've left everything to follow him. I'm someone who maintains the mind-set of a servant. I'm someone who looks for community with God and with God's people.
The Central Idea of This Book
The underlying theme of this book asks what it means to be a real follower of Jesus. Just how many people do you know who are truly following him? Many inquire about Jesus, study about Jesus, and even "believe" in Jesus, but how many people are genuinely following Jesus?
The rest of this book explores this issue, but here's the short answer: Real followers go a different direction from the mainstream of our culture. The clear call of Jesus is this: "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it" (Luke 9:23-24).
In contrast to taking up a cross most Christians seem t o b e scaling a ladder, as we'll talk about later. Throughout our lives, our culture teaches us to be ladder climbers. In order to get to the top, we're told, we need to achieve certain goals. Our success is measured by the kind of house we own, the car we drive, and the people we know. Today's "ladder life" is about acquiring, reaching, and attaining.
For many of us, meeting Jesus doesn't change our prior stereotypes of what Christianity is all about. We bring Jesus into our world of ladder climbing, and ask him to help us in our ascent. We look to him to attain goals that center around comfort and security. It's almost as if we serve the "plastic" Jesus described in this song by an anonymous poet. The song is growing longer as it moves across the Internet:
I don't care if it rains or freezes
Long as I have my plastic Jesus
Riding on the dashboard of my car.
I can go 90 miles per hour
Long as I have that plastic power
Riding on the dashboard of my car.
The mandates of denial and giving up usually don't fit into our plan. Yet the Kingdom is not about ladders; it is about crosses. Jesus' message is that you don't find life in ascending; you find it in serving. Life is not saving and securing; instead, life comes from giving up. Life is not about success; life is about significance.
How My Journey Began
Each year, when we celebrate Christmas, I'm reminded that God comes to everyday people in ordinary, hard-to-find places like Tipp City, Ohio, population 6,000. God seems to delight in showing up around third-shift workers, like the shepherds of old who were working the graveyard shift. The angel chose to appear to them, and not to the politicians, celebrities, and superstars of Caesar's palace.
I know God still uses commonplace people, because he spoke to someone like me. I'm the kind of person who couldn't even successfully make it through a third year of high school math.
I grew up in a strong German Catholic neighborhood in Cincinnati, Ohio, and was raised within a mainline, traditional church setting. Most days, the last thing in the world I ever wanted to do was go to church. The last place I wanted to be was around religious people.
During my teenage years I found the church to be especially irrelevant to my interests and needs. 1 had gone to church enough to realize that it had the greatest message in the world. Yet church was the most boring experience I had in life.
Even when I had all but forgotten about God, he loved me with a love that refused (and still refuses) to let me go. That love showed up through God's people. My second grade Sunday school teacher told me: "Michael, God has created you with a purpose." My sixth grade public school teacher, a follower of Jesus, took me under his wing, almost like a son. He kept reaching out to me long after I graduated from his class.
My search for truth began in earnest at age nineteen during a particularly turbulent time. I was on a fast track to hell. My best friend would die years later at the age of thirty-one of a drug overdose, his body worn out from abusive living. Could 1 have been headed down the same path?
I was about to flunk out of high school. I was also in a rock group that broke up when two members of the band were arrested for drug possession. In the midst of all that chaos, I had my first encounter with Jesus Christ.
In the coming years Jesus Christ became very real to me. During that time, something inside of me knew God was implanting an idea that said: "I've got a message for you, a mission for you. You're going to share my good news in a way that makes sense to everyday people. I want to use you to reach persons who suffer through the mundane, ordinary worlds of boring jobs, routine marriages, unexciting relationships, mediocre dreams, uneventful places, and even dull churches." I knew God wanted to use me to help people experience Jesus right where they are—on the job, at home, in marriage, and around their community.
When I am asked, "What do I hope people will remember me for?" My answer is: "That my life was a demonstration of a life lived in Jesus' hand, a demonstration of what God can do with the ordinary."
To this day my mission is to connect people to their God destiny. I have given myself—whatever days, months, or years I have left—to live the destiny God created me for and to help others discover and yield to their future.
Why Community Isn't Optional
My personal renewal is only half the equation, however. Beginning with my late teenage years, I've come to understand to whom I belong. When I went to college, I discovered a model of discipleship that closely paralleled the radical, faith-based community found in the book of Acts.
Through a campus Christian group, I learned that Christ's followers do their work in community. "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:34-35). Lone Ranger Christianity will never be used by God to turn the world right-side up.
During this era, I also began to be influenced by Tom Skinner's book, Black and Free, and Howard Snyder's The Problem of Wineskins. Both writers stretched my imagination about what a church could become as people became transformed followers of Jesus Christ.
Then 1 was appointed to a committee-based congregation located in a town called Ginghamsburg, which had fewer than twenty houses. Our worship services were as lifeless and predictable as a mathematical formula. The church had formed in the 1800s when fourteen people made the commitment to be authentic Christ followers during a revival. In 1979, when Carolyn and I arrived, much of the church's spiritual vitality had been replaced by a small-minded focus on itself and on its comfortable traditions.
Although I had never seen or experienced radical discipleship in a church, I at least knew what it would probably look like. So Carolyn and I opened our home to a Wednesday night Bible study. We began building a group marked by a biblical sense of community.
I jokingly called the process "sanctified Amway" because of how devoted people became to our product— a life-changing relationship with Jesus Christ. I foresaw the leaders who emerged from our small-group community becoming the Joshuas and Deborahs of tomorrow's church. I had read stories of Fidel Castro overthrowing Cuba by training twenty or so revolutionaries. I knew that God could do the same with a church through the power of the gospel, even if we started with some pockets of rather frigid air.
John Ward (see sidebar) is one of those "revolutionary" people. He has often reminded us that from Ginghamsburg's inception, when a circuit rider proclaimed that the small prayer group from Ginghamsburg would one day have "impact on the world" from that place, God had a plan, which perhaps only now is fully unfolding. John has described many events surrounding our first years there, concluding that "it was the very hand of God who positioned a number of people, including Mike, to accomplish the work he intended to accomplish here."
As that small, committed group of disciples grew ancl matured and became more visible in our community, I've need to remember that true followers of Jesus are never going to belong to the majority on this earth. Instead, we will always be a part of the minority.
Wherever Jesus taught he drew three kinds of people: the curious, the convinced, and the committed. The largest section was the curious. They heard about this miracle worker and the fact that he did some rather exciting feats. They wanted to come out and see what all the excitement was about. The second-largest section was the convinced. These people believed that Jesus was the Son of God, but believing in Jesus does not always mean that you are committed to him. The third section was the committed. They had gone past the point of no return. They jumped. They took the leap of faith . For them, there was no more going back.
God did just that with ... that tiny band of people known as Ging hamsburg Church Soon enough we began to develop a new mutual kingdom-of-God mind-set. We discovered that real followers believe we can fly in the sense that nothing holds us back. To be in Christ means to begin erasing all our self-imposed shortcomings, what we feel about ourselves, our inadequacies, our handicaps, our lack of formal education, our lack of religious background. As real followers we can begin to soar higher than we previously thought possible.
Our Marriage Is Like Walking with Jesus
Carolyn and I struggled with our marriage for years. We seriously contemplated whether we should divorce.
On June 1, 1992, our marriage totally turned around. On that date we both made a decision of unconditional commitment, no turning back, for better or worse, until death do us part. Although our marriage ceremony was almost twenty years earlier, my unconditional commitment did not occur until June 1,1992.
In like manner, a lot of people believe in Jesus. We call it a commitment because we believe an intellectual truth or because we have committed ourselves to an intellectual idea.
However, commitment is more than a mental judgment. It goes beyond emotion or feelings. Sometimes people believe that because they "felt" something during worship, then God must have been there. Yet feelings change; deep, durable commitment is an act of the will.
Community Requires Commitment
This book is not only a call to that kind of radical commitment, but it's also about a commitment in community. Christianity is about the restoration of community. "Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them," says Jesus (Matt. 18:20).
The movement of Christ is a movement of reconciliation. When sin came into the world, bringing brokenness, it destroyed community. Cain said about his brother Abel, "Hey, I'm not my brother's keeper." Wrong! Likewise, the human race keeps evolving into a culture of rugged individualists. White people have tried to rule over black people. Men have tried to rule over women. The rich have withheld power from the poor.
When I watch religious television, I usually want to puke. So much of what masquerades as Christianity is a self-absorbed, personal spirituality.
Instead, Jesus spoke continually of a new kingdom that God is putting together. When Jesus talked about the church, he didn't use the language of an institution or a club where the measure of faithfulness is attendance or performance. Instead he spoke of the church as a body—his body.
Fingers don't walk around by themselves. Toenails that are detached die. Being a part of the body of Christ is not about attending, but about connection. It's not even about believing in Jesus, so much as being in Jesus.
When the Spirit of God invaded the earth, all the believers were together in one place. In the following description of the first followers, notice how many times the word together is stated or implied. "All who believed were together and had all thins in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts" (Acts 2:44-46).
In that quote, 1 found at least five times that the message is implied: "Following Jesus is about being together in community." What makes me a member of the Body is that I'm connected to Christ, and if I'm connected to Christ, I have to be connected to his people. I can't be connected to Christ if I'm not connected to Christ's People
Jesus' Strategy Is militant Love
Do you know that Jesus' strategy is to change the world through you and me? How will God do this? Through a militant love. There are a lot of people—even religious people—who are militant, but they don't understand that their passion is for love.
Excerpted from Real Followers by Michael Slaughter, Warren Bird. Copyright © 1999 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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