IT WASN’T LONG AFTER entering the United States Naval Academy in the summer of 1964 that I began to realize I was over my head with the rigorous academic challenge set before me. I had no problem with the physical demands of plebe (freshman) summer, but there were a few simple math courses that were given prior to the academic year so that we might taste the mental challenge that would soon be upon us. What seemed elementary to everyone else was not elementary to me. I was drowning in equations, formulas, and the basic math skills needed to survive. The proverbial handwriting was on the wall, and I sensed that I would soon be an academic casualty. When the first grades were released in mid-fall, I was the proud owner of a .56 GPA out of a possible 4.0. Things were not looking good. I felt like I had shown up at the Dayton 500 with a tricycle.
Word spread quickly, and it wasn’t long before an upperclassman took pity on me and decided to coach me on those subjects where I was struggling (which, in my case, happened to be all of them). We met regularly, and since he was at the top of his class, he was most qualified to be my tutor. As time went on, we developed a close relationship, and it wasn’t long before I noticed a unique confidence in God that permeated his life. He acted as if he knew God personally. He would pray for wisdom before each session (and believe me, with the challenge he was facing, he needed it more than I did).
There were other midshipmen who started to show up on my doorstep who had this unusual relationship with the Lord that was so foreign to my thinking. I was very religious but had never really understood the gospel. At the end of my plebe year, I faced the academic board with two choices: I could leave or repeat my plebe year. I chose the latter. After repeating my plebe year, I eventually got through my sophomore then junior year with a GPA of 1.97. The academic board felt, and rightly so, that my senior year would be too much for me to handle, and I was thus dismissed on academic grounds. It was very hard, almost traumatic. I had invested four years of my life in one of the world’s greatest schools. I had many deep friendships that would be severed. I would not toss my cap into the air at graduation. I would not put on my ensign shoulder boards. In fact, I would not be a naval officer, but life must go on.
I pursued a political science degree at another college and finished in 1970. Another classmate of the gentlemen who tutored me had just returned from Vietnam. Since he knew I was in the area, he called and invited me to his place for dinner, which I gladly accepted. We became fast friends and decided to tour Europe together in June 1970. The timing was perfect; he was transitioning out of the military to work for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and I was transitioning from college into the business world. We had this window of opportunity and spent a wonderful month traveling and seeing parts of the world we had never seen.
Here again I was introduced to someone who seemed to know God personally. My friend would pray spontaneously throughout our travels, and I saw answers to those prayers that were so amazing that I knew he was in touch with a God I was totally unfamiliar with. He gave me a copy of the Bible and asked me to read the Gospel of John. Since we traveled by train, there were long stretches during which I could settle back and read. By the time we arrived at Copenhagen, Denmark, I had completed my assignment. Yes, I had questions, but once I discovered that salvation had nothing to do with how good or religious I was, I got on my knees and called on Christ to save me.
I’m not sure what Shakespeare meant when he said, “There’s something rotten in the state of Denmark,” but for me it was the birthplace of my soul. It was where my pilgrimage began. The scales had fallen from my eyes (see Acts 9:18), and I began to see life through the clear lens of Scripture and not through the clouded lens of human reason. The confusion of the world began to make sense. I could see why humanity was furiously struggling to extricate itself from a fallen world. I became fascinated with the power of God’s Word and how precise it was in examining not only my own heart but the hearts of those around me. I knew I had been born again. The pilgrimage began, and what a journey it has been!
Today as I write, I have known the Lord for about thirty-six years. For thirty-two years I have pastored the same church, one the Lord graciously called me to start in the summer of 1974. I am a student of people, which I assure you, I study much better than I study math. (I might not be a 4.0, but I’m a lot higher than .56.)
Throughout my years in ministry, I have seen many inconsistencies, not only in my own life, but in the life of the western evangelical church. Statistics show that professing believers live no differently than the world. Something is clearly wrong when followers of Christ are not following. Something is clearly wrong when believers don’t really believe. I once heard an old pastor say, “You believe only what you act on; all the rest is just religious talk.” This is a book about a western jesus and the transcendent Christ. It is a book about how we have diluted, watered down, and compromised Jesus in our western culture to the point that he is hardly recognizable. We have made Jesus fit our culture to the point that he follows us. We call the shots, for our yoke is easy and our burden is light. We direct his steps, for we are a lamp unto his feet, and a light unto his path. We tell him to trust in us with all his heart and that he should not lean on his own understanding. This is a book about how our pilgrimage has been made shipwreck by western thought.
Our thinking has been twisted and distorted, as the evangelical mind-set has been shaped by its own bias and Jesus has been made to conform to our image.
This is a book about our pilgrimage. It is about a destination. It is a book about the temptations pilgrims feel along the way. It’s about mid-course corrections. It is about a jesus that has no teeth in his bite. He is tame, anemic, and timid. He has been fashioned by our western culture to accommodate our flesh. He doesn’t rule. He calls no shots. He is, in fact, not the Jesus of Scripture, not the transcendent Christ, the King and sovereign Lord who makes no suggestions and offers no opinions but speaks with great earthshaking authority. The transcendent Christ cannot be tamed nor does he bow to the western church and its compromised views. This book is about seeing life through the eyes of a pilgrim and his temptation to follow a western jesus.
I want to take you on a journey, the one Scripture describes. This is as much about my life as it is about yours, and I have come to realize that even through thirty-two years of teaching the Scripture, I believe only what I act on; all the rest is just religious talk. I have seen many areas of my life that fall well short of the biblical standard. Still, this is not a book designed to make us feel guilty at every turn, though we may feel a twinge from time to time. On the contrary, I trust that each chapter may help free us from such angst. We will see many verses that the western church does not believe. One could say we are “unbelieving believers.” I hope that through a careful study of God’s Word, everyone’s feet will be held to the fire, including pastors, theologians, Sunday school teachers, and just plain church attenders with no special title.
I have put myself under biblical scrutiny and been found wanting. I point no fingers. I only want to put my arm around your shoulder and take you for a long walk. I want to help you think through this thing we call the Christian life. I want to push you into some areas which, perhaps, you have not wandered or have been reluctant to explore. I will ask some hard questions. I will press western evangelical thought to the wall. I hope to make you think hard about what you really believe and distinguish it from culture, tradition, and western thinking.
The entire message of a western jesus was born out of the muddy clay (see Ps. 40:2). Through my years of ministry, I have experienced what all pastors experience—praise, satisfaction, and great joy coupled with criticism, hopelessness, and great sorrow. The apostle Paul says it comes with the territory. He dedicates the entire book of 2 Corinthians to this truth.
Since I started the church that I presently pastor and knew its personality from its inception, many years down the road I began to grieve at how much it had changed over time. I didn’t like what I was seeing. Change is inevitable, and I could accept that fact, but we seemed to be losing our way. Our church was becoming more of a business than a community of believers. We were conducting four services, with about 2,500 in attendance. Yet getting big wasn’t what bothered me. What bothered me was that we were losing the spiritual dynamic that had characterized our body for many years, particularly in its early stages. I had always taught our people that there should be no human explanation for our lives, and certainly no human explanation for the church. But all this was changing. Transfer growth was quickly replacing conversion growth, the latter being what made up the bulk of our body in its earlier years.
After many years of a growing staff, attendance pushing capacity, and giving on the rise, the church began to encounter numerous obstacles. I found myself to be the senior leader of a large and growing church, and the demands were way beyond my capabilities. I felt I was reliving my days at the Naval Academy, only I wasn’t drowning in equations but leadership decisions. All I wanted to do was teach. My spiritual gift is not leadership, but like it or not I was forced to make some hard decisions, and decisions made under pressure in a hasty fashion are rarely if ever profitable.
People I cared for and had shepherded for years began to leave. Attendance dropped dramatically and giving took a nosedive. The domino effect took over, causing close friends to depart without explanation. Our church was giving $1.7 million a year to support 260 missionaries, and I started to worry that missionaries would be forced to come off the field due to my faulty leadership. How would our staff be paid? Suddenly there were many differing opinions as to how things should be remedied—all of them seemingly backed by Scripture, yet somehow opposing one another. To make matters worse, we were in the middle of a building program. Someone once said the reason God invented time was so everything wouldn’t happen all at once. Not so this time. It happened all at once and I found myself in the crossfire. The pain was excruciating.
Although it was one of the darkest times in my ministry, I can honestly say God spared me from bitterness. Still I did not understand why so many left. I spent long hours, weeks, and months grieving over the loss of such sweet fellowship. Not that I’m minimizing my shortcomings, but my failures were not moral or ethical, but rather a failure in leadership. I wondered why people couldn’t forgive me and continue serving as part of our community. Hadn’t I walked many of them through their pain, buried their parents, taught their children, visited them in the hospital, and taught them faithfully through the years? Of the many who left, only one actually met with me prior to leaving to thank me and tell me why he was moving on. The rest just drifted away, probably not wanting to hurt me, but fully realizing I would eventually discover their disappearance.
It was during this two-year trial that my understanding of a western jesus was birthed. I was forced to look deeply into Scripture to see what God intended his church and the Christian life to be. As people left, I began to realize they were leaving for the same reason they would leave a bank, a job, or a country club: there was a better deal somewhere else. More pay, benefits, and better hours. Reasons for departure were simply expressed in “Christianese”: “The Lord is leading us to fellowship elsewhere,” “The Spirit is moving us on,” and so on. All these reasons were actually manifestations of a western mind-set. We think church is a place you go to. We think it is a building. This is western thinking, and I began to wonder how many other areas in the church had been impacted by it. I realized that the fault was squarely on my shoulders. Had I done a better job of teaching about what the church is, I suspect many would have remained. However, God is good and my church has bounced back with a good spirit and giving at an all-time high in spite of my faulty leadership.
I believe that every pastor should feel that God has given him the greatest people in the world to shepherd. That is how I feel about those I presently minister to and those I have shepherded in the past. These are all wonderful people whom God is using to advance his kingdom.
All of what I experienced caused me to think about many areas of the Christian life. A western view of Jesus had infected the thinking of believers in nearly every area. It wasn’t just church but the Christian life. I started to take inventory of all that I had experienced as a believer as well as a pastor. I thought of all the difficult questions people had asked me through the years regarding the Christian life. I could feel a book being shaped that would confront some of the tough issues that I feel have more simplistic answers than we have given them and much of what we believe has been sanitized by western thinking. The grid in which we view the Christian life is distorted and much of what we claim to believe, we don’t really believe. When a new believer enters the kingdom, he is immediately faced with a myriad of views on how the Christian life should be lived. Most believers go through many changes in their journey. It reminds me of a mouse entering a maze looking for the cheese at the other end. But which way should he go? He could choose charismatic cheese, reformed cheese, Pentecostal cheese, or dispensational cheese. Is it any wonder that the world looks over our shoulder and smells a rat? We have a smorgasbord mentality. We mix theological systems and doctrines in order to build on our theology much like we do in making a pizza with our favorite toppings. We tend to swing from legalism to extreme liberty and everything in between.
From all of this I have distilled the theme of this book into the following statement: This is a book about our pilgrimage and how it has been shaped by a western jesus who has been shaped by a western bias. In the chapters before you, we will cover a wide variety of subjects, all of which will be examined in light of tradition, culture, and Scripture, exposing our western thought patterns. We will compare a western jesus who has led many astray, with the transcendent Christ who will never leave us or forsake us. This journey may surprise you. I pray most of all that it will delight you and that God may have his rightful place in the western church.
I have always been fascinated with nature. I love to take hikes and observe whatever nature, through the hand of God, delivers up that day. From spiders to snakes, from birds to bamboo, I love nature. I am particularly mesmerized by the migration habits of different creatures. Whales migrate for thousands of miles, as do certain species of birds, such as Canadian geese. Various fish travel long distances in order to spawn at a particular time and place. There is one particular creature that migrates up to 2,800 miles—the Monarch butterfly. This tiny insect has a most unusual pattern for migration. In the spring, a certain species leaves Mexico and heads north for Canada, but because they have such a short lifespan, they die along the way. Therefore they must reproduce so the next generation can move northward. Several generations come and go before they reach Canada, but only one generation can fly the whole way back to Mexico. They leave in late summer and are called the Methuselah generation. They are citizens of Mexico but have never been there. They are hardwired with genetic coding that stays the course until they arrive at their final destination. You could say, “They are looking for a city.” They run into natural forces, such as wind and rain, that knock them off course, yet they make every necessary midcourse correction because they are in a relentless pursuit of their citizenship. They are, in fact, on a pilgrimage referred to in the world of nature as migration.
We can draw a number of comparisons and contrasts between our pilgrimage and that of the Monarch butterfly. For instance, they are born again and so are we. They are genetically predisposed to look for a city; at the moment of our new birth, we are spiritually predisposed in search of our heavenly country. “You previously walked according to this worldly age,” says Paul in Ephesians 2:2. The butterfly’s life is short, and so is ours—“a bit of smoke” according to James 4:14. Monarchs have certain forces that resist them on their journey and so do we.
Yet despite all the comparisons, we are faced with one major contrast—Monarch butterflies are never tempted to settle in anywhere but home. We, on the other hand, are drawn away daily by a spiritual enemy and a fleshly nature that wars against us in our journey. The apostle Peter states, “I urge you as aliens and temporary residents to abstain from fleshly desires that war against you” (1 Pet. 2:11). We meet with temptation at every turn. The Monarch always stays focused and allows nothing to distract it from its course. Sadly, the same cannot be said about us.
One of the main purposes in our pilgrimage is to invite others to join us. Our heavenly focus will impact how we live our lives and what kind of testimony we will have for impacting those we come in contact with. This is no small matter. Will others glorify God on the “day of visitation” (1 Pet. 2:12) because of our testimony? Will others see our good works and glorify our Father in heaven (see Matt. 5:16)? Will others be prompted to ask us about the hope that is in us (1 Pet. 3:15)? Will our lives be consistent with the gospel (Phil. 1:27)? These are serious issues with eternal consequences.
Much of our journey in this book will carry us over rugged terrain, and there may be a sense of conviction along the way. Now understand, there is a difference between conviction and guilt. Good biblical preaching will convict. Conviction is designed by God to reveal to us things about ourselves that need correction. It exposes “the sin that so easily ensnares us” (Heb. 12:1). Guilt is the result of not properly responding to the conviction. In our pursuit of the heavenly city, remember the Monarch.