Session 1.  Why Become A Contagious Christian?


Pieter Pauwel Rubens, "Christ at Simon the Pharisee."

This and other artwork is linked to the The Web Gallery of Art, a virtual museum and
 searchable database of European painting and sculpture of the Gothic, Renaissance
 and Baroque periods (1150-1800), currently containing over 9,200 reproductions.  It's fantastic!

Okay, okay:  It's a little cute, the conceit of being a "contagious" Christian.  It's also a bit two-edged.  The intended image is of a Christian so on fire to share the Gospel that his enthusiasm is infectious.  But one can also visualize a Christian so pushy, so obnoxious, so overbearing that people flee from him as if he had the plague.

A secondary purpose of this course, in fact, is to save you from the latter fate.  But by far the main purpose is to equip you to carry out the Great Commission:

[G]o and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. [Matthew 28:19-20; NIV]

Aside from the fact that Christ directed this--they were his final words before ascending to heaven--why spend valuable time and effort learning to make disciples, much less going to the trouble of actually recruiting them?  Take a look around.  Are the Christians you know a particularly inspiring bunch?  Are you inspired yourself?  For myself, I know that on many days you can't detect much difference between my behavior and that of a drunken sailor on shore leave.

Well, YOU can--there's such a thing as hyperbole--but God can't.  To Him, sin is sin.  We draw our self-serving human distinctions, but God is not deceived.

Spend some time in church.  Get behind the scenes.  Listen to the petty complaints.  Do you really want to inflict that stuff on Joe Six Pack, whiling away his Sundays on the links, the ski slopes, or in front of his trusty VCR?

Final Destinations, Real and Imagined

Of course, that's thinking in the short run.  "In the long run," as a French statistician once reminded us, "we are all dead."  And by the time Joe Six Pack gets planted in the cold, cold ground, his soul will be . . . well, we know where his soul will be.

Or do we?  Here, according to the Barna Research Group, is what Americans really believe:

All people will experience the same outcome after death, regardless of their religious beliefs. (44 percent)

Satan is not a living being but is just a symbol of evil. (60 percent)

If a person is generally good or does enough good things for others during their life, they will earn a place in heaven. (55 percent)

These figures do not apply to non-Christians.  The pool of respondents included all Americans, the vast majority of whom described themselves as at least nominally Christian.

A 1996 Barna survey also found much disparity among Americans’ views of hell. "Three in ten adults (31%) see hell as an actual location: “a place of physical torment where people may be sent.” Slightly more adults, nearly four in ten (37%), say “hell is
not a place, but it represents a state of permanent separation from the presence of God.” Describing hell as merely a symbolic term, not referring to a physical place was true for two in ten Americans (19%). Ten percent of adults were undecided on their views of hell."

In some respects it's heartening that the statistics aren't worse--though the trend is decidedly in that direction.  And small wonder, considering how hell gets depicted in popular culture.  Tim LaHaye can pound out "Left Behind" novels till his fingers bleed, but I doubt they'll ever counter the influence of this formidable personage . . .


Could it be . . . the Church Lady??!!

To tell you the truth, I love Dana Carvey's brand of comedy.  His dead-on impression of a psychotic latter-day Pharisee--not wholly dissimilar from certain real live Christians-- was and remains refreshing.  But the operative point is that we've gotten a long, long way from Michelangelo's frightening depiction of a  lost soul being dragged into hell.

Bowling--And Living--Alone

But maybe we don't need it.  The best definition of hell is also the simplest:  separation from God.  And there are literally millions of people who feel separated, not just from God, but from family, friends, even their own humanity.  "Nausea," the existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre called it.  If that sounds obscure, try these lyrics from the Goo Goo Dolls's popular song, "Iris":

And you can’t fight the tears that ain’t coming
Or the moment of truth in your lies
When everything feels like the movies
And you bleed just to know you’re alive

You get the point.  As Henry David Thoreau put it, "Most men lead lives of quiet desperation."  If it was true in the 1840s, it's infinitely more so today.  Two years ago, sociologist Robert D. Putnam published Bowling Alone , an expansion of an article that created a sensation when it appeared in 1995.  (How many sociologists get invited to chill with the Prez at Camp David?)  Putnam's notoriety stemmed from the particularly lucid way he described a phenomenon that other social scientists--to say nothing of grumpy old men--had been noticing for years.  People weren't as friendly or as neighborly as they used to be.  They kept to themselves more.  They were much less willing to spend significant time in school-service groups, sports clubs, labor unions, professional societies, fraternal groups, veterans' groups, and service clubs.

And although the United States had (and has) more houses of worship per capita than any other nation on Earth, "religious sentiment in America seems to be becoming somewhat less tied to institutions and more self-defined."[1]  Weekly churchgoing dropped from roughly 48 percent in the late 1950s to roughly 41 percent in the early 1970s. Since then, it has stagnated or (according to some surveys) declined still further.

Mainline civic organizations took a huge hit.  Between 1970 and 1995, volunteers for the Boy Scouts of America declined by 26 percent.  Over the same period, volunteers for the Red Cross bled away at more than twice that rate.  Fraternal organizations also witnessed a substantial drop in membership during the 1980s and 1990s. Membership dwindled significantly in such groups as the Lions (off 12 percent since 1983), the Elks (off 18 percent since 1979), the Shriners (off 27 percent since 1979), the Jaycees (off 44 percent since 1979), and the Masons (down 39 percent since 1959). "In sum," Putnam wrote, "after expanding steadily throughout most of this century, many major civic organizations have experienced a sudden, substantial, and nearly simultaneous decline in membership over the last decade or two."[2]

The most whimsical yet disquieting evidence of social disengagement was the one that inspired the titles of Putnam's article and eventual book:  "More Americans are bowling today than ever before, but bowling in organized leagues has plummeted in the last decade or so. Between 1980 and 1993 the total number of bowlers in America increased by 10 percent, while league bowling decreased by 40 percent. . . .The rise of solo bowling threatens the livelihood of bowling-lane proprietors because those who bowl as members of leagues consume three times as much beer and pizza as solo bowlers, and the money in bowling is in the beer and pizza, not the balls and shoes. The broader social significance, however, lies in the social interaction and even occasionally civic conversations over beer and pizza that solo bowlers forgo. [The demise of] bowling teams illustrates yet another vanishing form of social capital."[3]

Social capital.  What's that?  In Putnam's usage, it meant "features of social organization such as networks, norms, and social trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit. . . . For a variety of reasons, life is easier in a community blessed with a substantial stock of social capital. In the first place, networks of civic engagement foster sturdy norms of generalized reciprocity and encourage the emergence of social trust. . . .  And they probably broaden the participants' sense of self, developing the 'I' into the 'we,'"[4]--thereby reducing isolation and the desperate need to "bleed just to know you're alive."

"Putnam's groundbreaking work," noted one reviewer of Bowling Alone, "shows how social bonds are the most powerful predictor of life satisfaction. For example, he reports that getting married is the equivalent of quadrupling your income and attending a club meeting regularly is the equivalent of doubling your income. The loss of social capital is felt in critical ways: Communities with less social capital have lower educational performance and more teen pregnancy, child suicide, low birth weight, and prenatal mortality. Social capital is also a strong predictor of crime rates and other measures of neighborhood quality of life, as it is of our health: In quantitative terms, if you both smoke and belong to no groups, it's a close call as to which is the riskier behavior."[5]

That's no joke.  I spent two years working on a suicide prevention hot line.  People called for all sorts of reasons and hailed from all walks of life, but they had one thing in common:  no social network.  No one to comfort them, no one to care.

A passage from Matthew is relevant here.  It's two days before the last Passover and Jesus is speaking to his disciples: 

 MT 25:31 "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

MT 25:34 "Then the King will say to those on his right, `Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'

MT 25:37 "Then the righteous will answer him, `Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'

MT 25:40 "The King will reply, `I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'

That's the upside.  Here's the downside:

MT 25:41 "Then he will say to those on his left, `Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.'

MT 25:44 "They also will answer, `Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?'

MT 25:45 "He will reply, `I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.'

MT 25:46 "Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life."

Why become a contagious Christian?  There's your answer, one way or the other.


 1.  Robert D. Putnam, "Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital," Journal of Democracy 6:1 (January 1995), p. 69.

2.  Putnam, "Bowling Alone," p. 70.

3.  Putnam, "Bowling Alone," p. 70.

4.  Putnam, "Bowling Alone," p. 67.

5.  Anonymous reviewer for Amazon.com, Accessed January 5, 2002.


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RadicalCivility.org 2005