Samuel Lee, the Dutch Theologian of the Year, wants to get rid of Hollywood Christianity: "Time
Samuel Lee used to believe: "The bigger the numbers, the more successful the church is." Now in his book Longing for A New Christianity, there is no place for "Hollywood Christianity." In his book, Lee publishes, among other things, a list of 20 characteristics that the Christianity he longs for should meet. "It is time for a new story."
This is the English translation of an interview taken by Jeffrey Schipper, the editor of CIP (Christian Information Platform, Netherlands) on 20 July 2020. The Dutch version can be read here
In your "old Christianity," you met many people who have been hurt and confused. What do you mean?
"I remember a woman who sold her house to spend a large portion of her profits on the church to make a new church building: we are talking about tens of thousands of euros. After a divorce, this woman lost her home and knocked on the food bank for help. Not a single person from her church came up with the idea to visit her and ask how she was doing. Sadly to say, stories like this often happen in the charismatic world. This woman has lost much of her confidence in the church and in Christians."
Are these kinds of stories also related to the Pentecostal leadership model?
"It usually has to do with it," Lee replies. "The leadership model is based on a pyramid scheme. It is not without reason that pyramids are called tombstones of the pharaohs. I speak from experience. I was also a "pyramid leader.""
Now you don't want to be a "pyramid leader" anymore. What preceded it?
"When I started my ministry, I used to dream of a church with at least 20,000 members. I was influenced by Pentecostal TV evangelists in the United States."
Samuel steps away from his place to grab a 2004 edition of the charismatic leadership magazine Ministries Today published in the U.S.A. Samuel was featured large on the cover of the magazine. "This was the first time I was featured on the cover of a magazine. I also really looked up to charismatic church leaders. "However, after that, I start asking myself questions like, "Is this what I want now? Going through life as a Christian celebrity and proclaim as much as possible how God wants to use my Church and me?"" That question was increasingly popping up in my head. In retrospect, I see the guidance of the Holy Spirit in that process. "
In your book, Desire for a New Christianity you write about craving for mass gatherings and conventions among some Pentecostals and charismatics. How is it that this beautiful desire does not always come from the right source?
"If you delve into the history of Christianity, you will generally find that the Greeks have made Christianity a philosophy. The Romans then politicized the faith. Centuries later Christianity ends up in America. There, Christianity mixes with capitalism: very success-oriented with Hollywood tendencies. In short, American culture has invaded Christianity. This is especially true of the charismatic and evangelical movements, which are very successful in America. The bigger the number of church members, the more successful a church is. Do you sell a bestseller? Then you made it! "
What do you not want to take from your "old Christianity" to a "new Christianity"? "Dogmas like tithing. Don't get me wrong; I'm not against tithing. The church congregation I visit also needs money. But in the Pentecostal movement, it is often said that you rob God when you do not give 10 percent of your income to the Church. That does not go with me. God's guidelines are not meant for manipulating others. If we use one part of the Old Testament to make people feel guilty and not follow other parts of the same Old Testament, we then become selective. We either must follow the entire law or live by God's grace through faith in Jesus Christ. "
Is Christianity without dogmas realistic and intended at all? Besides, does every new movement involve new rules?
"We humans need borders. That's how God made us. That is why I set out my dream in 20 points at the end of my book. But it cannot be that the way we stand in faith hurts or excludes the other. The moment we put our rules above God's love--mercy disappears."
Do you notice that we also exclude each other as Christians?
"Yes! Imagine you or I struggle with questions of faith about heaven and hell. If you open yourself and share your doubts and thoughts with other Christians, it usually has negative consequences. Your questions are not taken seriously, and you may even be excluded. "You just have to believe," is often the answer to a sincere question of faith from a doubting Christian. Then our Christian friendships are based on doctrines and not on love. "
How do we deal with the "new Christianity" you have in mind with questions of faith from doubting Christians?
"By putting yourself in someone else's shoes. Every question is important, and every doubt must be taken seriously. Before the corona crisis arrived, I regularly met young people from other churches here. They struggle with all kinds of faith questions and are about to say goodbye to faith. I take over an hour to listen to them. At the very end of the conversation, I give my opinion. Most go out the door with a smile, because they feel heard. We should do that more as Christians! We should share our struggles without being judged by a brother or sister. "
There is a group of Christians who place great value on dogmas. Other Christians only really see the Gospel breaking through when dogmas are released. How do we hold each other?
"I choose not to call myself a liberal or a conservative Christian. I am "just" Samuel Lee and try to follow Jesus. This includes naming and appreciating the strengths of each other. I have great respect for traditional/conservative churches because they continue to hold on to their values in a secular world. I appreciate that! At the same time, I challenge them to keep thinking about "women in ministerial office" and the way we treat LGBT people among us. Appreciation goes hand in hand with honest criticism." This also applies to my liberal brothers and sisters. Liberal Christians have a tremendous heart for justice, compassion, and inclusion. But sometimes they are so obsessed about social justice that they become unnoticed bitter towards conservative Christians. "
You quote a well-known saying of Jesus in your book, "There is no greater love than giving your life to your friends." How is this reflected in new Christianity?
"A simple example is welcoming a divorced woman to the sacrament table. We exclude people too quickly. Why would we refuse a Christian with different sexual orientations than ours? Are all heterosexual Christians so holy? "
A few years ago, Enis Odaci, chairman of the Humanislam Foundation, was introduced to Lee. "I was told that he is genuinely interested in Christians. He intended to visit churches and write an article about his experiences. No evangelical and charismatic churches wanted him because of his Islamic background. "Would you like to receive him?" I was asked by a friend. Then Enis and I spoke on the phone, and he attended our Sunday service. Later we went into a Turkish restaurant. There he apologized and said: "I had a misunderstanding of charismatic Christians. Now I have seen something completely different." I also told him: "And I want to ask forgiveness on behalf of all the churches that you have approached and where you have not been welcome." We have been close friends ever since! "
Imagine: we will speak again in thirty years. What, then, should Christianity look like?
"We are currently in a silent reformation, a completely different reformation than 500 years ago. And I think corona accelerated this reformation. I see that churches with different traditions and denominations desire to work together much more than before. We are forced to do so. That sensitive issues such as racism can also be discussed in the Church. This is also part of this new reformation. I couldn't have imagined that five years ago. I hope these developments continue.
I will see what Christianity will look like in 30 years. Only God knows, but I no longer have any big ambitions, nor do I want to be a prominent leader of a fast-growing church. I just wish that Christ Jesus will be glorified by loving people and caring for fellow humans throughout my life. "