Applied vs. Theoretical Christianity

General George McClellan

Applied vs. Theoretical Christianity

In 1861 President Lincoln gave General George McClellan the responsibility of building and training the Union Army and he did so with excellence.  McClellan was a master of organization and so while he did an admirable job of building the Army and was popular with the troops, he was still removed from command less than a year later.  Why?  Because despite General McClellan’s skill as an organizer, he was described as “ineffective” when commanding the army on the battlefield.  Just as we see in science, where theoretical physics and applied physics are two entirely different fields of study, the theory of battle and the application of that theory can be, and often are, vastly different and require an entirely different mindset.

There is an old military adage that likely dates to a German Field Marshal in the early 1800’s that says, “No plan survives first contact with the enemy.”  And the reason that is true, is because theory and application are always different.  That means that an effective battlefield command must be able to adapt as conditions change, or as members of our Marine Corps often say, “Adapt and overcome.”

In the church, we encounter that same disconnect between theory and application.  Thinking, learning, and teaching about Christianity, are often quite different from the practical reality of living a Christian life or of putting “boots on the ground” and doing the things that we talk about on Sunday.  We see that difference in the hundreds of church growth books that are on the market.  It seems like every year someone else has a new book, with a new formula, that’s sure to grow your church ten percent in the first two months.  But those formulas are what worked for the author, and although there may be lessons that we can use, what worked in their church, in their city, at that time, has no guarantee of being effective in our church, in our city, at the time we decide to act.

But the second disconnect between theory and application is even bigger and it’s been a problem… well, forever.  Jesus called out the Pharisees for it when they criticized his disciples for not washing their hands.  Nowhere in the Law of Moses is handwashing required, only tradition required it.  But the Pharisees, although they knew the law better than anyone, gave gifts to the church but left their parents hungry.  They learned the law, they knew the law, the taught the law but they kept a tradition that broke the law.  There is, and always has been, a gap between knowing what to do, and doing it.

Our challenge, as the followers of Jesus Christ isn’t just to learn about Jesus, but to put “boots on the ground” and do the things that Jesus taught us to do.  It’s one thing to learn, and know, and even teach, about being generous, merciful, kind, forgiving, and loving, but doing those things is often another thing entirely.  We have not been called to be experts in theoretical Christianity, but to actively practice applied Christianity. Our calling isn’t to know things about Jesus, our calling is to be like Jesus.

Because knowing a lot of stuff about Jesus isn’t going to change hearts or grow our church.

But acting a lot like Jesus will.

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Vaccines, Bananas, and Christianity

Vaccines, Bananas, and Christianity

Our current environment of pandemic has returned the word “Vaccine” as a regular term of discussion in ways that it hasn’t since the national fight against Polio in the 1950’s and 1960’s.  Everyone is talking about the safety of the various vaccines available, when and where a person might be able to get one, whether they have started, or finished, the vaccination process yet, and how soon vaccination rates might it possible for our lives, and our churches, to return to something resembling the “normal” that we had a year and a half ago.  Vaccines are something that are designed to protect us and keep us safe.  If we are vaccinated, we hope that they will either keep us from contracting the disease or, if we do contract it, will prevent us from becoming as sick as we otherwise might have.

But as we think about immunizations, it might also be useful to remember that Christianity is not a vaccine.  Our Christian faith is not something that we take once, or occasionally, to protect us from evil, from misadventures, or even to protect us from God’s condemnation.  Bad things do happen to good people.  Christians are afflicted by the forces of evil.  And Christian faith means more than periodically showing up to church, or putting money in the offering plate, or memorizing Bible verses.  Instead, Christianity, and Christian faith, is a lifestyle to which Jesus calls us and, having accepted that call, it becomes a way in which we choose to pattern our entire lives.  Christian faith shapes how we make friends, how we go on vacation, the clothes that we choose to wear, the places that we choose to spend our money, the occupations, and careers that we consider for our life’s work and influences nearly every aspect of our lives.  Christianity is less about what we do, and more about who we are as human beings.  When we choose to follow Jesus, we announce our intention to pattern our entire lives upon the life that Jesus modeled and taught.

But while Christianity is not a vaccine, our churches, and their members, can, sometimes, act a vaccine against it.  While we are good about bringing our children, grandchildren, to church, and even occasionally inviting friends and neighbors, we often fail to “make the sale” and ask them to follow Jesus and become his disciples.  The result is that having come to Sunday school a few times, memorized the occasional Bible story, and otherwise had a “little bit of Jesus,” rather than becoming committed followers and disciples of Jesus, they become vaccinated against Christianity instead.  Rather than discovering a Jesus that is worth following, they spend their lives thinking that, like a flavor of ice cream, they tried it, but didn’t find it to their liking.

In my mind, it’s a bit like our daughter Lina’s adventure with bananas.  When we first met her in China, we tried feeding her bananas, she smiled, she liked them, and wanted more.  But one day, as we attempted to give her some bitter tasting medicine, we tried to hide it in a spoonful of bananas.  She could taste what we were doing and rejected both the medicine and the banana.  And after that single experience as a ten-month-old infant, she wouldn’t eat bananas again for almost two decades.

Too many of our churches, or their members, do this same thing to the children, grandchildren, and visitors that come through our doors.  They come to church, or meet church members in secular places, and come away with an experience that leaves a “bad taste” in their mouth.  And those bad experiences, whether they happened in church, at work, at school, or anywhere else, can prevent them from returning to church, or to faith, for decades, and sometimes forever.

As we celebrate Easter and the resurrection of Jesus, let us recommit ourselves to being true disciples who look and act like Jesus seven days a week, everywhere we go, and in everything that we do.  Let us live so that others will want what we have, and not be vaccinated against it, or are left with a “bad taste” that might keep them away.  After all, it was Jesus who commanded his followers this way:“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35)

I pray that we may be known for our love.


Pastor John

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