A New Personal Project…and I Need Your Help

I don’t do this very often, but this is a special circumstance.

I’m working on a new personal project. I’m not sure if it’s going to be a book or a series of blog posts or a podcast…maybe even a documentary, who knows. But I’m surveying people.

It’s not a scientific survey, it’s more on the anecdotal side. There are a couple yes or no questions, but mainly, it’s about hearing about experiences and thoughts about growing up in church. Here’s what I wrote on Google Forms:

“Hello! I’m working on a personal project about being in high school and being a Christian. As part of the project, I want to get some input from teenagers and former teenagers about their experiences as Christians in high school. This won’t be a scientific survey, but simply one getting some other stories and input.

IMPORTANT NOTE: The results of this survey will be used in one way or another for a future public project. I haven’t decided exactly what that will look like. You can remain anonymous if you wish, or you can give your name, or initials, so on.

This survey will ask questions about how your church/youth group approached topics like sex & relationships, social media, media consumption, politics & government and more, as well as what you learned about them from your time in church as a teenager. The idea is to get a picture of what these groups are teaching about these topics ‘from a Christian worldview.’

It’s a decently lengthy survey, so give yourself some time if you’re willing to answer. Don’t worry about writing too much. The more, the better.

I’d prefer to hear from people who are 13-29, current teens and people who were teenagers in the ‘social media age,’ as it were, who grew up in church or became a Christian during their high school years. If you have any questions, let me know — zacharyhornereu@gmail.com.”

Please, please, please fill this out if you qualify! I’ll give you a hug…digital or otherwise. You can find the link here: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSfxu9dbFKuF7ObEncTmBGPV6mt9hVd4MdDy3mvnfQtdfQdX6w/viewform?fbclid=IwAR0bhdGLWxcWKSE24pMdp9c2kSrZkRyGhh4vI4TH1zgN9WJF8BFPRJ1LMVQ.

Thanks!

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The Emotional Turmoil of A Truly-Held Belief: A Review of Netflix’s ‘Come Sunday’

“I can take that Bible and denounce what I’m teaching.” – Carlton Pearson, NPR

I don’t write a lot of movie reviews, at least not anymore. I used to write a ton. But I’m taking it back up because “Come Sunday,” a new movie on Netflix, challenged me, my heart and my faith in a way only one or two movies ever have.

The story follows Carlton Pearson (played by the excellent Chiwetel Ejiofor), a popular evangelical Pentecostal preacher in Tulsa, Alabama. His church, affectionately referred to as “Higher D” by members and staff, is growing and popular. It’s fully integrated, with blacks and whites worshipping together in harmony. Pearson is counseled by Oral Roberts (Martin Sheen, who plays President Bartlett in The West Wing) and supported by his right hand man Henry (Jason Segel from How I Met Your Mother) and wife Gina (Condola Rashad).

But one night while watching a television broadcast about the suffering in the Rwanda genocide of 1994, Pearson hears from God. Hell can’t be real, because why would God let children who’ve never heard of Jesus go to hell? That God would be worse than Hitler, Hussein. He forms what becomes known as the “Gospel of Inclusion” — there is no hell, everyone goes to heaven when they die because Jesus died for all.

The film explores how Pearson responds to this new belief he has, how those around him react and the decline of his church. Come Sunday is based on a “This American Life” episode titled “Heretics,” which you can listen to here. I listened to the episode, and it seems that the filmmakers captured actual events pretty well.

This will not be a traditional film review. That being said, I enjoyed the performances, particularly of Chiwetel Ejiofor and Condola Rashad. It was fun to see Jason Segel in something like this, and Lakeith Stanfield — appearing as Reggie, a worship team member struggling with homosexuality — was great.

I want to dive into a couple of the themes throughout the film and how they affected me as a Christian, a person and someone interested in the culture of religion and the church.

‘The Gospel of Inclusion’

The crux of the film’s story is Pearson’s acceptance of what he later terms the “Gospel of Inclusion.”

He explains it using the Bible. He points to verses like 1 John 2:1-2, which say, “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”

Based on the text of that Scripture, he says, how does the blood of Jesus not cover everyone’s sins? Who are we to say that the blood is not that powerful? 

I think it’d be easy for us to just write off this theology as obviously flawed. There are so many biblical passages that preach the need for repentance and belief in God — the film particularly cites Romans 10:9 — that contradict Pearson’s view. Even the original Greek of 1 John 2:2 states that “the whole world” referred to Gentiles, or anyone besides Jews. It means the forgiveness of the Gospel is available to all, not just freely given to all without repentance.

But can we for a minute try to understand where Pearson is coming from? It’s obviously a more appealing message, for one thing, and from our human understanding, it seems to be more reflective of the God we worship. Why would a good God send people to hell, goes the common question.

But for us to solely focus on the “goodness” of God in His grace and mercy is to leave out his passion for justice and righteousness. He will not let sin go unpunished, unless it’s taken on by Jesus on the cross. Then it is still punished in the form of Christ’s death.

I sympathized tremendously with Pearson and his search for understanding God. He just missed one of the biggest parts.

The Interior Turmoil

Pearson wrestled with this change in his theology. He said he heard from God directly that what he had believed all his life was in error, and that he needed to change.

In the evangelical Pentecostal vein of Christianity Pearson operated, hellfire and brimstone were as common as speaking in tongues and shouts of “Hallelujah” during worship time. The acknowledgement of sin of any kind would be replied to with, “It’s gonna send you to hell.” In his interactions with Reggie, who’s told his hero Pearson about his struggle, the pastor says he can’t “save” Reggie until he gives up his homosexual leanings.

It’s in this background that Pearson’s change of heart is explored, and it’s tough for him. He knows that he’s bucking years and years of church tradition and what he’s believed. He’s concerned about people leaving his church. He’s worried about how it will be taken. But it’s his new heartfelt belief that everyone goes to heaven, and he can’t ignore the strong conviction in his heart.

If we are unable to sympathize with Pearson, even while disagreeing with him, we are lacking. He just wants to love people, and based on what he believes God told him, this is how he can love people. There’s a couple times he almost changes his mind because of how those around him react, but he sticks to what he believes.

As Christians, we are called to love those around us with what we believe to be truth, just like Pearson. We might face backlash for our stances and what we believe, but it’s our call to stick with what God has revealed to us in Scripture.

The External Backlash

The climactic scene of the film is Pearson’s appearance before a council of charismatic bishops who are deciding whether or not to allow him to continue as one of their members. Pearson speaks passionately, even directing some words straight to the chairman of the group. I won’t spoil the scene because it’s powerful and you need to watch it on your own.

But he’s in a room full of people who are ready to crucify him. And that’s after months of criticism — to his face, on television, at the grocery store to his wife, everywhere. He loses the blessing of his mentor Roberts, the support of his ministry partner Henry and the large majority of his congregation.

How many of us Christians have lost friends and seen family abandon us based on what we believe? I hope no believer who sees the film is able to watch that and not feel sympathy. Just because we don’t agree with the reason for his change in belief doesn’t mean we can’t feel for Pearson.

It’s heartbreaking, honestly, and Pearson takes it hard.

Church culture usually doesn’t take too kindly to people who rock the boat. I understand the need for correction for incorrect theology, but the way we often go about it is displayed near-perfectly in Come Sunday. There are some in the film, particularly Henry, who do approach Pearson the right way, the biblical way. But for the most part, people speak about Pearson in a harsh, negative, unloving manner.

And that’s not what God would have wanted.

Summing Up

I don’t believe God would have wanted Pearson’s change of heart either. But I understand where he’s coming from.

And that’s what makes Come Sunday a compelling watch. Agree with him or not, Pearson and his quest for what he believes is truth is incredibly relatable, and I think it would be good viewing for all believers. Not just as a movie, but as a learning experience.

When Your Sin Doesn’t Go Away

Whenever I get sick — cough, allergies, fever, etc. — I think it’s never going to go away.

I sink into it. I’m of the mindset that I will be sick for the rest of my life and nothing will ever change. I’m always going to have this cough, this nausea, etc. I don’t know how I got this way. Maybe it’s the cynic in me coming out. But that’s how it works.

I feel that way all the time with my sin. Whatever it is — lust, pride, laziness, jealousy — I don’t think it’s ever going to go away.

Well, and this is the bad part, it never will, this side of heaven.

My greatest desire in life is to be perfect, to not mess up, to not do anything that would be an offense to God, to my wife, to my friends, to my family, to anyone. I long for the day in heaven when I will be free of the sin nature that cloaks me every day. “What a day of rejoicing that will be,” as the hymn goes. My imperfections are the things that keep me up at night, that cause the most depression.

Sin is a nasty beast, lurking around every corner. You can feel as confident and comfortable in your pursuit of righteousness, I believe, that you can forget that sin is even possible. I know I feel that way sometimes. But it’s in those moments in particular that I am most susceptible.

It makes me wonder, “Will I ever stop sinning?” Or even, “Can I quit this one sin?”

The answer to the first question is a flat out no, at least here on earth. The answer to the second question is a little different.

Throughout the Bible, we see stories of men who have their obedience and righteousness worked out, only to lose it later. David is a strong and mighty warrior of God, faithful to trust Him enough to not kill his enemy when he’s a knife slash away. But he pursues the body of a woman not his own, and it leads to murder. One of my favorite Bible stories is in 2 Chronicles 14-16, where a king named Asa trusts God so intensely, but gives it up in the face of one army mounting up against him. Paul wrote half the New Testament, but still admitted he was the chief of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15).

So maybe the besetting sins in our life, the ones that seem to haunt us, will never go away on earth. Maybe it’s a battle we’ll continue to fight.

It’s comforting, to me at least, to know that grace is there whenever we fall. Always. It’s a cliché to write that, sure, but it’s true. The Gospel comforts us in our repeated weaknesses.

But ask yourself this, as I am right now: Do you really truly desire God more than that besetting sin? It may be that way 90 percent of the time, but beg the Lord to make it 100 percent. If we’re pursuing righteousness, if we’re pursuing obedience, that in itself is glorifying to God, and honoring the Father.

(For)Getting All the Feels: Rethinking the Way We Follow Jesus

Perhaps the most important thing I’ve ever learned about following Christ is that you can’t base your relationship with Jesus on emotions. Just because it “feels like” it’s not going right doesn’t mean that it’s not. And vice versa.

But after going to church and being around the Christian culture for 23-plus years now, I’m left to ask this question: Why does it so often seem like we try to get people pumped up emotionally?

Let me explain what I mean.

The Emotional Church Experience

Ever been to a megachurch? You know, the ones with the lights and the full band and the backup singers and so on and so forth. I’ve visited a couple, and in that atmosphere, it’s so easy to get caught up in the emotional side of faith.

That one song comes on and you’re swept up in the butterflies of the piano chords, the melodic harmony of voices, the dimmed lights, the rising choruses. Perhaps it’s a song about how good God is, or maybe how His love is so great.

Or maybe the song is about us, that we’re children of God, and how awesome it is. The hands get raised. Tears start streaming down your face.

Then the preacher comes on. He utilizes the most powerful story of death to life, with all the appropriate pauses and voice-raises he can muster. The band comes on as he closes and those guitar strums as he hammers home his point.

Then one more worship song where you surrender your emotions to the Lord, let Him “lead you” while you sing with all your feels.

But during the week, the emotions get lost. Maybe you don’t listen to Christian radio for whatever reason. So by the time you get to Sunday, you’re emotionally-starved again. So it’s back to church, back to the worship, back to the tear-jerking stories.

Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

Now, two caveats:

  1. I’ve visited a megachurch with the lights and the full band and have had genuine worship with genuine songs that weren’t about making me feel good. The pastor spoke about reality and was honest about himself and his own sin. It wasn’t fluff. It was real worship and real truth.
  2. The worship songs are often all true theologically. Completely accurate. But…

The Loss of the Intellect

I haven’t done a lot of serious research into church culture (I’d really like to someday), but I’ve done a lot of observing. I’ve thought a lot about why churches do what we do, and I’ve come up with a theory. This theory could be disproven by some serious research, but I’ll take a stab.

Humans are emotional creatures. Always have been. Adam and Eve were swayed by the emotional draw of being like God. David’s lustful feelings drove him to pursue Bathsheba. When Stephen’s being stoned to death in Acts 8, Paul “approved” of his execution; there had to be an emotional element to that.

And emotion is not all bad. Sometimes God uses our emotions to help us realize we need Him. Our sadness following a loss of a close friend or family member can lead us to remember that God has them now if they’re a believer, and rejoice in that. My great excitement and happiness on my wedding day pumped me up even more for the beauty of the ceremony and the marriage that I’m now two months into.

But what happens, unfortunately, is that we often shove aside the intellectual part of it and cling to the emotional side when it comes to being a Christian. That’s what happened to me.

When I was younger in the faith – late high school, early college – I really began to dive into the emotional side of following Christ. I would raise my hands during worship, close my eyes and sing, and sometimes I might shed a tear or two.

But when I wasn’t in worship mode, I was wondering where God was. I didn’t feel Him, so was He really there? I didn’t feel saved, so was I really God’s child? I saw my sin and felt like crap. I felt bad, so obviously God wasn’t with me and wasn’t happy with me.

Things started to take a turn during my senior year of college. I’ve written about this before, but I’ll write it again – a guy named Curtis Allen spoke at a college ministry conference I was attending and said the most important thing I’ve ever heard about following Jesus:

The secret to Christianity is not changing how you feel, the secret to Christianity and obedience is changing how you think.

Boom.

I started to (slowly) recognize that I had been living my life with Christ based on how I felt I was doing and that was not at all what it meant to follow Jesus. Following Jesus is first and foremost an exercise of the mind, an exercise of faith in the truth. And faith is not emotional. Faith is something you think, something you believe with your mind.

The Reality

It’s not sexy to present faith in Christ as a mind exercise. It’s not something that, on the surface, will draw in thousands of people to a worship service.

We want to feel good. We want to feel that emotional high.

But like any other kind of high, it won’t last. So we have to go back. And churches love when people return again and again and again.

Church leaders and bloggers and authors wonder why my generation, the college-aged, is leaving the church. I’d wager one of the reasons is this – there’s no substance to their faith. It’s built on that emotional high that they got at camp one time or maybe that one night they had a serious conversation with their youth pastor. Perhaps we were genuine in that moment, but without any serious intellectual foundation or building upon that moment with truth, we lose the drive, the desire.

It’s in the moments when we lose the emotional side of following Jesus that our faith is really tested. And often it’s in those moments where we lose our faith.

If we’re going to follow Christ, it has to be first and foremost about what we think. Belief isn’t about emotions; it’s about truth. To my knowledge, the Bible never speaks about trying to “feel” a certain way, but to think a certain way. A few examples:

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. – Philippians 4:8

Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus… – Philippians 2:4-5

For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. – Romans 8:5-8

So What Should We Do Instead?

I’m not an expert. Let’s just go ahead and get that out of the way. But I can’t help but think there need to be changes in how we present church and worship and truth.

I’m not saying we need to get rid of megachurches and that all are bad. As I said before, I’ve been to one where there was genuine worship, genuine preaching that wasn’t just intellectually true but stimulated a real approach to faith. I do believe there are some that are not helpful. And I think that you can go to churches that aren’t mega and find worship and preaching and teaching that stimulates an emotional response.

I also understand there’s another challenge: You can do everything you possibly can to make faith an intellectual thing in your church, but people will still respond primarily with their emotions.

I’m also sure there are plenty of preachers and churches that have the best intentions in the world that are doing this. They’re not trying to lead people into making their faith emotional, but for whatever reason that’s how it’s turned out.

We can’t change how people respond to what we do in church. But we can change what we do.

I wish there was a fix-all, but here’s a couple thoughts:

I wish that we’d be more careful in how we choose our worship songs. Maybe break out the old favorites every once in a while for some emotional worship time, but not lean on them.

Before we sing, explain to us what the lyrics mean. What truth are they presenting? What should we believe? What are we affirming when we sing?

I wish we’d rethink the way we preach, presenting more of the Bible and more of truth rather than concocting the best emotional plea. Prosperity gospel preachers somewhat make their living off of this idea. And some non-prosperity gospel preachers do too. Tell us how we should think, not what we should feel, and base it on the Bible.

That’s just a couple thoughts.

I really hope you don’t walk away from this emotionally-charged.

The Cure to One of the Most Common Human Emotions

I’m no sociologist or psychologist (although I wouldn’t mind being one), but I’m going to take a stab at something that would make you think I aspire to be both.

I think one of the most common human emotions is hopelessness.

I did some research this morning to see if my hypothesis could be backed up by research, and alas, I didn’t find anything to support my guess. But hear me out.

  • The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention reported that, “in 2013 (the most recent year for which full data are available), 41,149 suicides were reported, making suicide the 10th leading cause of death for Americans.”
  • The World Health Organization reports “globally, more than 350 million people of all ages suffer from depression.”
  • I stopped counting, but there are at least 20 songs on iTunes called “Hopeless.”

If you are hopeless, you are literally without hope. You’re likely to exhibit negative thoughts and feelings about life, your current situation, friendships, relationships, work, career, but particularly things you may have once expressed a lot of excitement about.

I know what it’s like to feel that way. Yes, me, a Christian, knows what it’s like to feel that way. In fact, I wrote a post yesterday in the depths of my hopelessness. By writing the post, I hoped to reveal that it’s possible for a Christian to experience this while still being a believer. Being a Christian doesn’t restrict you from feeling hopeless.

However, being a Christian gives you access to the greatest hope in the world. The cure for one of the most common human emotions is thinking on the thing that can give anyone hope. That thing is Jesus.

We crave hope. And hope is one of the best things in the world. It’s one of the things that Paul says “abides” in 1 Corinthians 13:13, along with faith and love.

But hope is not the greatest. Love is the greatest. For a minute I was thinking through why this was true. Why is love greater than hope? Why is love greater than faith? After all, isn’t it our faith in Jesus that is part of our salvation? What about our hope in Jesus?

I realized something huge: we have hope because of love. We have faith because of love. We have love because of love.

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

We have hope because of love.  God loved us and gave us Jesus, therefore those who believe in Him will have life everlasting. God’s love, shown through Christ, gives us hope of a life eternal with Him, of grace and mercy towards us in our sinful states, of an eternity separated from sin and worry and fear and pain.

We have faith because of love. God loved the world and gave us Jesus, so that whoever believes in Him will have eternal life. We have faith in God because of the love He showed us in Jesus. We trust Him. We believe Him. We have faith that He will follow up on His promises.

We have love because of love. God loved the world. “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). As a response to God’s love of us, we love not only Him but others, and even ourselves. We see what love looks like, and we seek to respond in kind.

Everything revolves around the God’s love for us. His forgiveness of our sin, His faithfulness to us, His setting us apart for special attention and care, His building a place for us when we go to heaven. All of it. Because of His love for us, we can have hope.

We often run into hopelessness this side of heaven. We face divorce, cancer, depression, kids not behaving how we want them to, a job we can’t stand, a church that lets us down. We feel as if we are without hope on this earth.

There is a sense to where we are without hope on this earth. We won’t find the fulfillment of our desires completely on the earth. We will consistently be disappointed.

But we can have hope in Jesus, hope in the Lord of all creation, because of His great love for us. We can hope that His Word, His truth, and His Spirit working in us will get us through the difficulties we face. We can hope in a future where pain and sorrow are non-existent, not even words in our vocabulary, a future in heaven with Jesus as our friend and comfort. Eternally.

There are days when I struggle to believe these things. There are days I do OK believing them. But the beautiful truth of this is that no emotion of mine or action of mine changes the truth of these facts. They’re not based on me, they’re based on Jesus and His faithfulness.

That’s a hope I can buy into. Particularly when my circumstances and my emotions feel so dire. It’s not always easy to buy into it, but it’s worth pursuing. You’re not always going to have the good feelings. But you can have the good thoughts, and the peace, comfort and joy that come with thinking those things.

It’s not easy. But it’s worth it. I promise.

Ideal Is Not Real. Jesus Didn’t Wait for the Ideal. Neither Should We.

I’m a quitter. Always have been.

My mother tells me that, when I was younger, I would play with blocks, and if the tower I was trying to build gave out on the first attempt, I would just quit and do something else. And as I look back at my life, I would say that I continued that trend. I can’t tell you how many books I started writing and then quit because they weren’t going how I wanted them to. I’ve thought about dating a number of girls but chose not to even pursue it because I thought it would bomb.

There are a number of things in my life now – including a beautiful young lady – that are changing my mind on my quitting ways. It’s forcing me to confront something I’ve been terrified to confront for a long time.

Ideal is not real.

For so long in my life, I wouldn’t do something unless it was exactly how I pictured it to be, entirely complete and perfect. And when things would get difficult, the first thought was “I should quit.” Relationships, jobs, classes in college, blog posts (reading and writing), books (reading and writing), movies (watching).

In response to this, a few months ago I began a daily reminder on my phone. It’s Proverbs 3:5, which says, “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding.” It buzzes on my phone every day at 8 a.m., around the time when I start work. It’s a reminder to me that, even if things aren’t completely making sense with what’s going on or they’re super hard or annoying or difficult, I need to rely on God’s provision and where He’s placed me in life.

It reminds me that I don’t need to wait for everything to feel right, for everything to be “ideal” before I move forward with something.

See, particularly when it comes to ministry and romantic relationships, I think there’s this notion in the current evangelical culture that things need to be a certain way before you embark on either. If you’ve got a certain sin, you’re not qualified for either. If you haven’t dated “long enough,” you shouldn’t get married. If this, if that. We wait for this “ideal” situation to come along before we take a “step of faith.”

Thing is, if we wait for it to be “ideal,” it’s not a step of faith. If we’re going to take the Hebrews 11:1 definition of faith – “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” – waiting for the ideal all the time is not trusting God.

Now, there’s times where waiting for the ideal isn’t a bad thing and might even be wise. But if it’s how we live our life, we just might be missing out on something awesome God has for us.

And we can take our cue from Jesus on this. Romans 5:6, 8:

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly…but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Jesus didn’t wait for us to be perfect before He came. He didn’t wait for us to have all our crap together before He came to earth and lived a perfect life, died and resurrected Himself. He just came at the right time! In fact, I think it was our lack of being ideal that made it the “right time” for Him to come.

I’m not saying throw yourself into every situation ever just because you might want to. Obviously I need to think and pray carefully about decisions I make. But I don’t need to not do it or quit what I’m already doing just because it’s not “ideal.”

Because let’s be honest – rarely is ideal ever real. We live in a broken, screwed-up world. We’ll never run into something that is perfect. Ever. Perhaps God is putting me into imperfect situations so I can rely on Him to work through them.

Maybe now I’ll go back and finish that tower.