I am seeing two broad and worrisome trends in the North American church today: a nitpicking, name-calling crankiness, and a shoulder-shrugging, yawn-stifling complacency. We have a surging tide of angry self-appointed prophets, and a sprawling mass of apathetic self-indulgent spectators.
It’s not our finest hour.
On the one side are the rigorists and dogmatists. They lather each other up, largely through blogs, into fits of vitriol. Their main activity is to ferret out and denounce anyone whose theology doesn’t line up neatly with their own. Their black list includes, variously, Mother Theresa, Billy Graham, Bill Hybels, Dallas Willard, Brennan Manning, Rick Warren, Richard Foster, and many others (and all who approve of those on the black list). In other words, the list includes men and women whom God has used to further his kingdom and deepen our faith. But never mind that. Somewhere, on page 303, say, of so-and-so’s book on such-and-such, he quotes a medieval mystic on prayer whose doctrine of salvation is, let’s say, quirky.
Off with his head!
Or at a conference in Toledo she appeared on the same platform as a mega-church pastor who endorsed a book by someone who once said something questionable.
To the gallows!
Or he wrote, in his very own words, something stupid and regrettable (as most of us are prone to do from time to time).
I even stumbled across my own name on one of these black lists. Last year, when I was preparing to speak at a well-known Christian university, I searched my name along with the name of the university to find out my speaking times. What popped up first was a website warning these university students against my dangerous thinking. My crime? I was friends of someone who was friends of someone who had been influenced by someone whose theology the writer found objectionable.
I’m neither joking nor exaggerating.
This is tiresome, foolhardy, and futile. It is the wrong fight. I am a great proponent of clear and biblical thinking, but this is not that. This is an exercise in hair-splitting that effectively shuts down the Great Conversation and replaces it with diatribes, jeers, and mud-raking. It is generating massive heat and almost no light.
Then on the other side are those who are no more interested in theological inquiry than in learning Sanskrit. They don’t care about creed or doctrine: they just want to “be encouraged,” “feel good about” themselves, “be inspired by the sermon,” “enjoy the worship” – all phrases I’ve heard many times. It’s a faith cobbled together from hunches, slogans, emotions, but not much thought. It’s an elixir for the narcissist. This is a caricature of biblical faith, and provides no defense against error and no ballast against storm.
I plead for us to transcend both dogmatism and complacency. And I know just the thing: conviction. What the most robust, winsome and effective Christ-followers have always had in spades is deep conviction. Here’s what that looks like: being willing to die for your beliefs, but never to kill for them. It’s being willing to face prison or torture for your faith, but to imprison or torture no one who refuses to share it.
I think of Tevye, the father in Fiddler on the Roof, booming out the keystone of his life: “Tra-di-tion!” But in this case the keystone is Con–vic–tion!
Conviction is when we are personally gripped and transformed by what we believe, and when we love to share those beliefs, but when we feel no compulsion to crusade for them, force them on others, or denounce those who think differently. Virtually, all holy wars spring, not from the overflow of belief, but from its deficiency. They are a way we overcompensate for doubt.
Jesus said a Christ-like life, not the loudness of our pronouncements or the deepness of our feelings, is the primary evidence that we know him.
That only grows in the soil of deep conviction.