I don’t normally get invested in celebrity gossip. I leave the Kardashians and Paris Hilton and the royal family to others. I don’t follow pop culture news stories or scandals beyond what’s written in Rolling Stone magazine (I wait expectantly for every issue). So when I heard that Paul Walker had died suddenly and tragically, I made a note of who he was (I remember him from Varsity Blues not Fast and Furious), and like many I’m sure, I took a moment to reflect on how quickly life can be taken away and then moved on about my day.
As the story developed, I kept seeing new bits and pieces of information about the crash and about Mr. Walker’s life, but didn’t pay much attention. But then for some reason, I was struck by the fact that I had yet to hear any mention of faith or church or God from friends and family as they talked about Paul Walker.
Let me be the first to say that the absence of talk about God does not equal the absence of God in Mr. Walker’s life or anyone else’s. After a little digging I discovered that Paul Walker grew up Mormon, attended an evangelical Christian high school and professed his faith as a non-denominational Christian.
In the wake of his death, I haven’t been the only one interested in Walker’s faith. Several media outlets have reported Walker’s own statements about his faith and gotten predictable responses in the comments sections of their websites, an equal mix of challenging skeptics and atheists, Christians offering prayers of support, and others somewhat hatefully questioning the validity of Walker’s claims to Christianity. And now Westboro Baptist Church (if you’re not familiar you can see more about them here) has announced they’ll picket his funeral.
But for the most part, Walker’s faith has been a non-essential, largely unreported part of this tragic story.
The truth is we live in a largely post-Christian culture. In large parts of our society, any connection to organized religion is treated as an afterthought, a curiosity mentioned only as a footnote to the story of our lives. Here in the Bible belt, we’re the last to realize that the worldview familiar to us as regular church attenders is no longer the norm.
When the world shifts around us, the natural reaction is to act out of fear or anger to preserve that which is familiar and to defend the faith that is so important to us. We want to quickly claim the moral high ground, appeal to tradition, point to days gone by when the world was a better, more ordered place, and argue that if more people would just follow our lead a lot of the world’s problems could be fixed.
But our culture no longer sees Christianity the same way we see it. We can no longer expect that the larger culture will see Christianity through the lens of scripture and prayer and a personal relationship with Christ. The only way the larger culture sees Christianity is through us.
So when they describe Christianity as fearful, angry, defensive, hypocritical, judgmental, too interested in preserving power and wealth and institutions, or intolerant and out of step with the culture, they’re not describing Christianity; they’re describing us.
To those characterizations of our faith we want to scream, “NO!” We follow a God revealed in Jesus Christ who is kind, compassionate, loving, and forgiving to a fault. Ours is a God of hope and peace, of joy and comfort, of promise and transformation. Our God accepts the outcasts, binds up wounds, heals the sick, comforts the afflicted, and brings good news to the poor.
If they would only read scripture, come to church and ask Jesus into their heart they’d understand, right? But many never make it that far because their first encounter with Christ is us. And far too often we come across as angry, mean, hypocritical, judgmental and intolerant.
Think about the messages that those who claim to speak for the Christian community broadcast to the world on radio and TV. Think about the messages that our non-Christian neighbors are most likely to hear from our most ardent Christian politicians. Think about the way you express your own opinions on hot button issues around your office or at the PTA meeting. How do the loudest Christian voices address issues of race, class, sexual orientation, poverty, war, violence, crime? How do you?
Are our voices worthy of the Prince of Peace? Would any non-believer conclude that the defining characteristic of God is love after listening to us?
We earn our reputations. If our church is going to reach new generations of North Atlantans, we won’t be able to rely on some pervasive cultural sense of who God is to do it. For better or worse, people will get an understanding of who God is by looking at who we are. And the only way they’ll come through our doors and sit in our pews is if we give them a reason to stop googling why Christians are so mean, angry or hypocritical. Those are tough questions for us to answer.
Instead, we need people to start googling why Christians are so loving, forgiving, accepting, and kind. The answer to that question is easy. Jesus. What a great starting point for communicating the gospel.