Is this all there is?
Over the last 20 years, the gap widened between the Jesus who shaped my life and the delivery system where I met Him, until one day they were irreconcilable. This canyon gapes for many, causing some to leave Christianity entirely. While I understand that choice, I have had to go a different way. Jesus—liberated from the distortions which claimed Him—is what we need now more than ever. ThirtySixWords is my attempt to draw near to the ancient form of Jesus after the moral and theological implosion of evangelicalism.
I grew up as a true believer. Shared Jesus with my friends at recess, led Christian organizations, went on mission trips. My youth pastor prayed over me in my basement the week before I left for college that I would accept my true calling to be a pastor. The Jesus I knew was oxygen to me, and the only delivery system for that oxygen I knew of was evangelicalism: the megachurches, the worship conferences, the Christian living section of Barnes and Noble. As my Jesus-y activity accelerated, the vague sense that something was terribly wrong ached deeper and louder until it couldn't be ignored.
After failing to survive the mantel of pastor in my 20s, I went to work making money, which in evangelical culture is holy work. In the business world, I observed that the distance between Tony Robbins and Bill Hybels (my old boss) was often vocabulary, not substance. My non-church friends were finding their self-help the usual way: through business seminars, the latest New York Times bestseller, or their favorite TV personality. The few people I knew still going to church were getting it the way I once had, from the Sunday morning sermon. You could find formulas for a good American life anywhere--I observed--though in church this formula came at a higher sacramental cost.
What eventually sickened me was watching people walk away from both strands of self-improvement under the same weight. The Sunday sermons and the Monday morning motivational speeches all landed with the same thud: do better, try harder, live your best life, or at least convince the world that you are... for the sake of the company on Mondays. For the sake of their souls on Sundays. It was all religion.
As I became a better student of my own story and of the history of Christianity in America, none of this was accidental. The performance we were contorting for God and the performance we were enacting for our neighbors, our bosses were all wound around the same central strand, the American promise of up-and-to-the-right success was the birthright of all of those who chose to "be who they were made to be."
It is no small feat to pull your faith story out of the machine that created it. First, all you see is complexity, then there is ear-piercing fear, then a sea of inexplicable pain.
Underneath all of this is hope, the hope for a sacred life. One where the ephemeral beauty and goodness lurking around every corner was findable and knowable and yet ever a mystery. One where we could love our enemies. One where holiness could be found in the dark and the light. This hunt could not fit into the Roman Road, Seven-Day Creation, Saving Souls frame of the religion of my youth. But it also couldn't exist without Jesus. So began an adventure that may be the defining one of my life:
I walked away from the hope of being a great dad, a great businessman, or even a great Christian. I set out to find a spirit of the Jesus Way liberated from its performance-driven packaging. One not dependent on my own centrality, one not designed to fuel a narcissistic hegemony. As I have continued to cultivate this flickering hunger, I have come to realize it was burning in me all along. This deep want for a world filled with Jesus' character and presence enlivened me in all my years of evangelical alignment. It was also what sent me running away.
I am not here to debate whether evangelicalism is dead, reforming, or just fine the way it is. If you are among the true believers of this uniquely American faith system, this site likely won't interest you anyway. And if you are among the hundreds of thousands who find themselves unsettled by how each year this American institution feels less and less like Jesus like I am, then I hope you know you are not alone.
I am here to simply say that after evangelicalism is Jesus—if that's what you want. You can peel off all the faux certainty, the shame-laden performance, the disorienting grey between the religion of American exceptionalism and evangelical fervor. You don't have to make the world into your image anymore. In fact, you don't have to make the world into anything at all.
Evangelicalism taught us that by the rare virtue of being born to the right family or being invited to the right seeker service or praying the right prayer at the right time, we were so extraordinary as to know how the rest of the world should be run. As a result of being "saved," we now arrived redeemed. Next step? Live up to the hope of the gospel and prove it by getting our kids, coworkers, neighbors, and every lost soul of the 10-40 window on the same train. If we couldn't do that, Jesus Himself was at stake, and the end of the world guaranteed for the people we couldn't save.
Whether you've partaken the kinder-gentler version evangelicalism or the fire-and-brimstone version is immaterial. The distortion is a sedative, blurring our vision, keeping us aligned to a propaganda Jesus incapable of truly transforming human lives and cultures.
ThirtySixWords is my notes from the road, leaving evangelicalism for Jesus. It's the result of stitching together the best wisdom I can find from Christian thinkers (historical and current, theologically and ethnically diverse), merging it with a reawakening of the Biblical story, and over-and-over submitted to my own spiritual guides who have gone this way before me. In the weave of it is--I hope--a profound but ultimately accessible vision for a gospel worth living.
Starting with the six frames of human thriving I found in the Jewish Shema, Deuteronomy 6—also Jesus' central theology—recognizable in six keywords: Heart, Mind, Soul, Body, Loves, & Culture. Within each frame are six inflection points, six contexts to meet ourselves, to meet each other, to engage an unencumbered God. Six words per frame, six frames... thirty-six words. The world itself was created with a word and saved with a Word. I have come to see our words as spaces where we attempt to frame up our living and hope for the holy to enter in.
Thankfully, "This"—whatever you are experiencing—is not all there is. While the bulk of your teachers, pastors (unfortunately), and patriarchs have succumbed to self-help and religion, more exists beyond the edges. ThirtySixWords is an attempted answer to the whole-life invitation, one where we begin to see the worthiness of every story--ours and those of people we'd prefer to leave behind.
Here, we join an expanding conversation where the everyday lives of every life speak hope and wholeness. One where we can fearlessly face the whole of we are and find ourselves embraced by the renovation of unbounded love. These are the words that I believe every life speaks.