Recently, I had the privilege of leading a conversation at a retreat for leaders of a business. My topic was vision and mission.
In the conversation, many questions arose, a few of them mine. One of them, which had been gnawing at me for some time, had to do with their business name, which contained the word "Christian."
My question was, "What is it about what you do that makes it 'Christian'? How is what you do different from some 'secular' competitor down the street? Or is calling yourself Christian merely a marketing tool?"
I think it's a good question, though it leaves behind some wildly rocking boats. And I think, beyond that specific situation, the question might be asked of any group or even individual identifying as Christian.
What is it about a church that makes it different from, say, a social service agency?
Or my small group: What is it that makes it Christian, distinct from any other gathering of a dozen or so people?
And what about me? How is my life different from those around me?
If there's no difference, whether we're talking about my life, my small group, my church, or my business, then there's a serious problem.
I think these questions are profoundly important, and need to be asked and carefully considered. Assumptions are not acceptable; the stakes are too high.
For some folks, Christian means they are not Muslim, Buddhist or something else. It's the default answer, like a multiple-choice test. In many other cases, however, "Christian" means I "do things that Christians do, and avoid doing things that Christians don't do." But what are those things? When I was a boy in a fundamentalist church in Colorado, we had a saying, "I don't drink, cuss, smoke or chew, or go with girls who do."
Slightly humorous now, but no longer true of most groups of Christians, who drink, cuss, smoke and chew pretty much like the world around them. And yet, we might ask, should the life of a Christian be visibly different?
I think there's a good argument that it should. That's because genuine Christianity is about a relationship, not keeping rules. And that relationship is of such a nature that it produces changed lives. But not everyone understands that.
I often see Christians smoking. It is, of course, their right to do so. However, a Christian is not his own, but is rather the servant of another, representing that other - who is Jesus - to the world. Speaking for Jesus while engaged in a habit like smoking is unimaginable.
How about drinking? I belong to a small group, some members of which enjoy beer. So when we meet, there is usually beer. And I don't think there's necessarily a problem with that. But an experience I had once puts a different light on the situation, from my perspective.
I was living in Bavaria, the southern part of Germany, and went with another couple to a favorite Italian restaurant. There, while waiting for our meal to arrive, I ordered a glass of wine, and everyone else followed suit and did the same. After our meal, I had sipped half of my wine. The other couple had consumed several glasses.
I had not known that their history included serious alcohol abuse, from which they had been recently delivered. And when they saw me order wine - I was an elder in our fellowship - they assumed permission to do likewise.
After dinner, we left, going down some fairly steep, narrow stairs to the street. I had no problem. They had difficulty, and were clearly "under the influence."
Who was responsible? It was their choice, of course, and they were adults. But I was their elder, a spiritual leader, and I set the expectations by my behavior. By the rules of the world, it was their problem. By the rules of the Kingdom, I'm not so sure.
Since then, some 35 years ago, I have never ordered wine in public. As a Christian, my behavior should have been different.
The style of dress - for both sexes - is another area of consideration. Modesty is a virtue.
But these things, which are easy to talk about, and not the central problem.
The central problem is this: we don't believe the Bible or consider it important. We don't believe the things written there are really true or that they apply significantly in our lives today.
Especially, we don't believe that we need the Holy Spirit in our lives in order to live a life that is biblical and that honors God. We can do it "all by myself," and don't need anyone's help. After all, we're big boys and girls now.
But we're not. The whole idea is laughable if we consider that even Jesus needed the Holy Spirit to accomplish that for which he came.
And so, we buy into the terrible idea that to be a Christian, a follower of Jesus, is little more than being a nice person and attending church now and then. We reduce Jesus to something less than the personal Lord and Savior that he is, and we make Christianity a powerless, feel-good pablum that does no good for anyone.
Surely, this is not what God had in mind.