Many young Americans don’t find relevance in the church, says Chuck Smith Jr., because they can’t accept the answers “that the church has been trained to give.”
Mr. Smith is pastor of Capo Beach Calvary in Capistrano Beach, Calif., a church catering o young Christians. The 54-year-old pastor has co-written a book with Matt Whitlock, 27, called Frequently Avoided Questions: An Uncensored Dialogue on Faith (Baker Books, $14.99.) The book is aimed at people who are “asking new questions that test the boundaries of faith,” such as, “Do I have to go to church?” and “Do good people go to hell?” He spoke with Special Contributor Mary A. Jacobs. Here are excerpts.
Why do Christians avoid some questions?
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We assume that everybody knows the “right” answer, so why raise the question? Like, “Should I go to church?” Why even ask?
Asking is important, because it gets us to think about what we’re doing rather than just walk in lockstep.
How did you decide which frequently avoided questions to include in the book?
These are questions that have been put to Matt and me. Because we answered them differently than other Christians, the people who asked were interested in continuing a dialogue with us.
For instance, I have a friend who is an attorney very bright, loves God, and she is a lesbian. If I had given a typical, fundamentalist speech to her about what it says in Leviticus, that would have been the end of the conversation. There’d be no dialogue beyond that.
These are questions that young people have asked us because they did not feel comfortable with the answers they were being given by older Christians who said, “Just tell them they’re going to hell and they’ve got to get right with God.”
I think of a faith community as a place to ask questions, but your title suggests otherwise.
Unfortunately, as religions age, they tend to ossify, to develop “hardening of the categories.” People come to believe that the doctrine is the most important thing. Therefore, it is not to be questioned.
The person who is searching is given stock answers, and if they question those answers, they’re told, “God said it, that’s all there is to it.”
We’d like to see Christian believers think about the questions and come up with an authentic response.
You describe the book as a “catalyst for conversation,” but is it a conversation that veers from accepted Christian beliefs?
If it’s an authentic conversation, not a sales pitch, then what we’re talking about is building relationships. In building a relationship, you have to allow the other person to be who they are, to make their own choices.
Believers should have enough confidence in God to let the conversation go where it will. We don’t have to say, “Well, that’s not going to get you to heaven.” Because that’s really not our responsibility. In fact, it’s wonderful that God has not asked us to judge anybody. We’re free to love them.
We’re not saying, “Forget the Bible.” We’re saying, “Go back to the Bible.” Let’s take another look at it. We have tools to study the Bible that we didn’t have 50 years ago. As a result, we can find interpretations that better fit our times. The Scripture is inspired, but our interpretations are not.
Let’s look at a few of the Frequently Avoided Questions. Do good people really go to hell?
The New Testament has a lot to say about good deeds. Both Paul and Jesus talk about good deeds. Jesus says those who help the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless, the sick, are the ones who enter into the kingdom of God. Paul says we’ll all be judged according to our deeds.
So, to say that good deeds are irrelevant, that it’s all about and only about God’s grace, misses a big piece of what the New Testament is all about.
Good deeds flow from good people, and I don’t think you can be a good person apart from God. So, no, a good person would not go to hell.
Are there gay Christians?
The easy answer is, “Yes, and there are Christians who have committed adultery, there are Christians who have stolen.” But that’s the easy answer, because that implies that homosexuality is morally wrong.
My answer is, I’m still looking at it. On the one hand, I’m up against biblical passages [condemning homosexuality] that I need to investigate more thoroughly. On the other hand, I know many practicing homosexuals. I know two young men who’ve been monogamous partners for seven years. They’ve adopted a son who is thriving. They’re good dads, they’re good people, they have asked Jesus into their hearts and seek to live Christian lives.
When they pray, I don’t question that. I don’t say, “You’re gay, so none of that has any meaning.”
The book describes your young co-author as someone who is “spiritually intrigued but resistant to organized religion.” Many people fit that description these days.
Part of that is about dogmatism. Someone is looking for an open mind spiritually and they run into a dogmatic believer who parrots the lines of the church without being open to discussion.
Another part of it, sadly, is the fact of spiritual abuse. Some churches are very rigid about, say, marriage and divorce. If a woman who is physically abused divorces her husband, she might be excommunicated. So organized religion represents somebody saying, “This is how you do it – if you don’t you go to hell.” That kind of rigidity and lack of compassion is simply not appreciated.
In the [Christian] college classes where I lecture, I give the students a list of names, and I ask, “You tell me which people you think are considered spiritual or holy people by popular culture.” I’ll say, the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, Thich Nhat Hanh, James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson.
No one picks Dobson, Falwell or Robertson. Think of the millions of people these men influence, and yet not one of them is someone our culture considers spiritual whereas the Dalai Lama is. That speaks volumes about the evangelical subculture.
Some of the hysteria they seek to provoke to raise revenue well, that’s why they’re not considered spiritual.