ODYSSEYING WITH PAUL – REACHING THE NONES AND DONES!
July 2, 2017
It was said that my Aunt Mozelle baked the most delicious rhubarb pies in Chase City, three surrounding counties and the greater free world! I could not vouch for that commendation one way or the other—I never tasted one of her picture-perfect, lattice-work creations.
You see, there was something about the way she collected rhubarb out of her garden, then sliced the celery-like stalks up into cubes, and cooked it all up into some concoction of a filling that resembled pink slime—it all just turned my stomach. And so, I never, ever sampled a slice of her signature pie. And, thinking back, that was a shame…and my loss!
However, another baked item I did eat regularly growing up was my Mama’s cornbread. At least 4-5 times a week, she would get out her yellow mixing bowl, fill it with corn meal, baking powder, buttermilk, eggs. She would pour the batter into a huge ol’ black iron skillet and bake it a while. And we would have piping hot buttered cornbread for supper—crisp on the outside, moist on the inside.
Now, as I got older and left home, I never ate cornbread anymore. I was over it. To me, it was a sign of being poor, Southern and unsophisticated. None of my friends at college had ever heard of cornbread. They teased me badly enough over my Ward Burton-esque Southside Virginia accent. I never ate my mother’s cornbread again.
My mother passed away 23 years ago this past week. What I wouldn’t give to have a slice of her amazing cornbread again! I haven’t tasted anything as good since!
THE TIMES, THEY ARE A-CHANGIN’…
A new religious group of Americans has emerged in recent years. It is called the “Nones,” not to be confused with habit-wearing “nuns,” of course. These “Nones” are those with no religious affiliation. When surveyed or asked about their religion, they check the box, “None.”
According to Gallup, this is the fastest growing “religious” group, comprising a whopping one-fourth of the U.S. population.
This has caused a great deal of hand-wringing in Christian circles in regards to the future as the church seek to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ.
The Nones have much the same attitude toward matters of faith that I harbored toward my Aunt Mozelle’s rhubarb pie. They may have heard of it, but they have no desire to taste of it. In previous generations they might have been compelled to at least explore what Christ might have to offer. However, in today’s highly-secular, wholly ADD society they have dozens of other pie flavors to choose from that on the surface appear much more appealing. They don’t know what they’re missing in Jesus, but they don’t really care. To them, Jesus is obscure, obsolescent rhubarb pie- not really relevant to their post-Christian lifestyle.
There’s also another group we in the church wring our hands over today – the Dones. Three million of them leave the church and often the faith behind each year, and in their wake some 8-10,000 churches close their doors.
Yes, these folk used to be quite faithful in their church attendance. Maybe they were even leaders in a congregation, and never imagined life on the “outside” of institutional faith. But now they have checked out and gone home. They are “done.”
There are many factors: Demographics, technology, and church scandals to name a few. Many of these folks are simply burned – burned up and burned out – tired, exhausted, even harmed by the very institutions they trusted to give them life and meaning. They were 10% that the preacher relied upon and guilted into getting 90% of the work done, and now they are disillusioned and disinterested.
Others say they have “outgrown” the faith of their church or denomination. That is, they feel like they don’t “fit in” any longer, or have come to spiritual conclusions inconsistent with those with whom they share a pew. They once ate the cornbread, but now they feel they’ve grown much sophisticated beyond that—wanting nothing but the artisan bread from Panera instead.
Sadly, that’s where my own two children are right now. They see faith and the church as relics of some bigoted bygone era…and as a father it hurts to see them walk away from what used to be an integral part of their lives.
Listen to the bitterness in millennial columnist Neil Carter’s voice:
“The dones are those who have been there and done that, and probably have a t-shirt (or thirty). I’ve got drawers full of them in fact, as does anybody else who has spent any amount of time in church youth culture. People like me aren’t just unaffiliated, we are anti-affiliated….”
“We were once in the thick of it, but then we left and have no interest in going back. Unlike many of our counterparts among the nones, we know much more intimately what it is that we’re staying away from because we spent years inside that world and we’ve had enough to last us a lifetime, thankyouverymuch. We’re not unchurched, we’re “done churched.”
OUCH!!! We are not in Kansas anymore, are we? How do we as Christian folk who long for others to have a meaningful relationship with Christ deal with the Nones and Dones of our culture today? How do we begin to engage them?
I believe the Apostle Paul offers us some helpful insights.
I find it interesting to note that the Paul would feel just as home in 21st century America as he did in 1st century Athens. Both are cosmopolitan societies in great flux, mirror-images of each other. Pluralism abounds. A chorus of diverse philosophies and religions rings in people’s ears. People dabble in many beliefs, but do not devote themselves to any one in particular.
Let’s listen in on some encounters he had with folks in Athens:
16 The longer Paul waited in Athens for Silas and Timothy, the angrier he got—all those idols! The city was a junkyard of idols.
17-18 He discussed it with the Jews and other like-minded people at their meeting place. And every day he went out on the streets and talked with anyone who happened along. He got to know some of the Epicurean and Stoic intellectuals pretty well through these conversations. Some of them dismissed him with sarcasm: “What an airhead!” But others, listening to him go on about Jesus and the resurrection, were intrigued: “That’s a new slant on the gods. Tell us more.”
19-21 These people got together and asked him to make a public presentation over at the Areopagus, where things were a little quieter. They said, “This is a new one on us. We’ve never heard anything quite like it. Where did you come up with this anyway?
Explain it so we can understand.” Downtown Athens was a great place for gossip. There were always people hanging around, natives and tourists alike, waiting for the latest tidbit on most anything.
22-23 So Paul took his stand in the open space at the Areopagus and laid it out for them. “It is plain to see that you Athenians take your religion seriously. When I arrived here the other day, I was fascinated with all the shrines I came across. And then I found one inscribed, to the god nobody knows. I’m here to introduce you to this God so you can worship intelligently, know who you’re dealing with.
24-29 “The God who made the world and everything in it, this Master of sky and land, doesn’t live in custom-made shrines or need the human race to run errands for him, as if he couldn’t take care of himself. He makes the creatures; the creatures don’t make him. Starting from scratch, he made the entire human race and made the earth hospitable, with plenty of time and space for living so we could seek after God, and not just grope around in the dark but actually find him. He doesn’t play hide-and-seek with us. He’s not remote; he’s near. We live and move in him, can’t get away from him! One of your poets said it well: ‘We’re the God-created.’ Well, if we are the God-created, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to think we could hire a sculptor to chisel a god out of stone for us, does it?
30-31 “God overlooks it as long as you don’t know any better—but that time is past. The unknown is now known, and he’s calling for a radical life-change. He has set a day when the entire human race will be judged and everything set right. And he has already appointed the judge, confirming him before everyone by raising him from the dead.”
32-34 At the phrase “raising him from the dead,” the listeners split: Some laughed at him and walked off making jokes; others said, “Let’s do this again. We want to hear more.” But that was it for the day, and Paul left. There were still others, it turned out, who were convinced then and there, and stuck with Paul—among them Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris.
PAUL’S ANCIENT/CONTEMPORARY FAITH-SHARING APPROACH…
I believe that in observing Paul we discover a fascinating blueprint for making Jesus real to others:
- Be Relevant
The Book of Acts tells us that Paul gets out on the streets of Athens and talks to folks. He observes what is going on around him—the worship of idols and the building of shrines. He takes time to learn about the culture he is now engaging. He is up-to-speed on what is happening in the real world.
If you want to be an effective faith-sharer, you better immerse yourself in the world that surrounds the people you want to impact. What are the issues that affect their lives? What are their greatest dreams, the deepest disappointments? What happened on SNL last night? How is Beyonce’s pregnancy going?
Churchfolk tend to be the most naïve, insulated persons. We spend our time providing answers to questions no one is asking anymore. There’s an old saying that “if the 1950’s ever come around again, we in the United Methodist Church will be ready for them!”
We even speak a whole different language than folks in the real world, sheltering ourselves with strange terms like redemption and rapture.
If you truly desire to share your faith with someone, then meet them on their turf. Be relevant. Leave all your pious-sounding religious cliches and your preconceived notions at home. Like Paul, make it a point to learn what language they speak and where they are coming from.
- Show Respect
Athens is the ancient epicenter of the world’s culture and philosophy. It is a university town, much like Harrisonburg, Blacksburg or Charlottesville, except on steroids.
As a former renowned rabbi and Pharisee of Greek background, Paul is quite comfortable in such an intellectual milieu.
He is well-versed in the backgrounds of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. He welcomes the opportunity to engage them.
The Epicureans believe everything in life happens totally by chance. Their gods are felt to be remote and simply uninvolved in daily affairs. They wear their emotions on their sleeves. And they believe life revolves around the motto of eat, drink and be merry. They have much in common with that segment of our society who believe it’s all about maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain, living only for the moment, with no thought of future consequences.
The Stoics, on the other hand, believe every iota of everyday life is controlled by the gods. They are much like Dr. Spock of Star Trek fame, avoiding any type of emotional attachments and outbursts. Their motto for living is simply grin and bear it, without a whole lot of grinning. They have much in common with the fatalist folks in our world, who believe everything is going to hell in a handbasket and there is no hope.
After having some lively give-and-take with Paul, the Epicureans and Stoics invite him to go up Mars Hill in the center of Athens to the Areopagus, a court of 30 scholars who have the say-so over who is qualified to lecture on philosophical ideas in the city.
And in a very respectful manner, Paul begins his speech not with condemnation but with a compliment: “It is plain to see that you Athenians take your religion seriously.” He doesn’t trash the beliefs they hold dear, but rather uses those beliefs as a segway into sharing his own faith.
- Build Relationships
Paul is able to speak candidly with the folks in Athens because he has taken the time to build some bridges with his new audience. Bearing an attitude of humility, not haughtiness, he has earned the right to be heard. True, there are some in the crowd who think he is an airhead, a babbler. But others are intrigued and trust him enough to want to hear more.
Perhaps they sense Paul has a genuine interest in their spiritual well-being. It is a true saying, “people do not care what you know until they know that you care.”
A while back I received an email from a young woman, Jessica, whose elderly neighbor was in the final stages of a terminal illness. This dear old lady had spent her life as an avowed atheist. She was now dying, and dying with tragic bitterness. She was lashing out at her family members. She was totally not at peace with anyone or anything. She was simply scared.
And this pained Jessica greatly. She wanted her elderly friend to find that eternal hope and assurance Christ has to offer us, especially at the end of our days upon this earth. She wanted so desperately to share her faith with her disbelieving friend.
Time passed. I ran into Jessica at the supermarket. She told me that over the course of her almost daily visits she had found the courage to talk about her faith with her elderly friend.
And as her friend lay in her last hours of dying, she told Jessica in peaceful, barely audible words, “I now believe in your Jesus not because of what you said but because you’ve never left me. I know Jesus is in your heart, and now he is in mine.”
My friends, you can never offer faith to another individual until you have somehow become relevant to their world, respected where they are coming from, and built a relationship of caring trust with them.
Yes, Nones and Dones do not need graceless letters of correction, finger-pointing sermons, the unyielding gob of guilt crammed down their throats.
What they needed is the spirit of Christ—that undying compassion of Jesus, who made a career of fiercely resisting the religious establishment while simultaneously creating a gracious community for “the lost sheep.”
Yes, Paul earns the right to make the case that we can know this one true God in whom we live and move and have our being- a strange phrase to you and me, yet one in which his listeners could relate to. He speaks their language, and he tells them in no uncertain terms that this same God is the one who raised Christ from the dead.
Yes, unobnoxiously, very genuinely, Paul shares the Good News, the same Good News we have to share in our own time and place, the Good News that plants seeds of faith.
In a world filled with many gods, we believe the resurrected Christ is the clearest lens through which we see the One and True God. And that story of how he has impacted our lives has the potential to guide others to that place of grace as we live that out that grace before them. And don’t be afraid to share your story. It’s a God-thing. God’s Spirit goes before you, preparing hearts to receive seeds of faith.
Well, there you have it…Paul’s ancient yet quite contemporary approach to faith sharing: You become relevant to another person’s world, respect where they are coming from, and build a relationship of caring trust with them, and thus you earn the right to reflect the light of Christ upon their lives, sharing how Christ has made a difference in your life’s journey. This is how we begin to engage the Nones and the Dones with the Good News of Jesus.
For years a gentleman by the name of Ben Ralston was the Director of Lay Sp1 eakers on the Harrisonburg District. He was a very humble man who never passed up an opportunity to share his deeply-held faith in Christ.
When I experienced my call to ministry, it was Ben who sent me out most every Sunday to churches across our district to preach and confirm that call. He was a great mentor and friend to me.
I heard him once say, “When it’s time for me to pass on from this world and go meet Jesus, I know he’s going to give me a big ol’ bear hug and say, ‘Ben, it’s mighty good to see you. old friend!’
“But then Jesus is going to look over my shoulder with a searching eye, and he’s going to ask me, ‘Ben, who’d you bring with you?’”
And that is precisely the question Jesus is going to ask you and me as well….