We keep hearing about all of the people dropping out of organized religion.
Some days, I think I'd like to be one of those people.
Imagine how freeing it would be to live out your faith without being pelted by little ditties from your religion's sacred websites and ministries. Or sanctimonious sermons, tweets, and essays about theology and cultural nuance. Assuming, that is, that other religions have anything similar to the "evangelical industrial complex" we conservative Christians have built for ourselves since the Second World War. Catholics have Rome and their Pope, a remarkably successful humanitarian effort called Catholic Charities, the political advocacy of their Conferences of Bishops, and here in America, at least, a band of disgruntled nuns agitating for liberal feminist causes. But do Roman Catholics, or Muslims, or Buddhists have the plethora of para-church ministries, political action committees, consulting groups, ministerial alliances, denominational hierarchies, bloggers, TV networks, polling organizations, webzines, musical groups, non-profit niche organizations, megachurch empires, and publishing houses like we in our evangelical "ghetto" do?
I know this may sound counter-productive for a person who wants to write professionally about issues facing evangelicals, but good grief! At some point, shouldn't we be starting to see some sort of return on all of this investment in the North American evangelical community? Or might our Christian ghetto be starting to feed on itself; thinking it's finding some satisfaction, while that satisfaction is coming at its own peril?
I've thought about writing a book about this myopic busywork as I see it, but then I wonder whether doing so would only contribute to the problem? It brings to mind that oft-neglected passage from the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes about "the making of many books," which to my mind stands as irrefutable proof that cynicism has a valid place in the Body of Christ. In this section from Chapter 12, King Solomon, apparently already bemused - or frustrated - by all of the wisdom mankind thought they could write down, reminds his audience that there is really only one thing that's important in life:
was the Teacher wise, but also he imparted knowledge to the people. He
pondered and searched out and set in order many proverbs. The Teacher searched to find just the right words, and what he wrote was upright and true. The words of the wise are like goads, their collected sayings like firmly embedded nails - given by one Shepherd. Be warned, my son, of anything in addition to them. Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body. Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil."
Much study certainly wearies the body, doesn't it? We even have the Holy Spirit with us today, a benefit not bestowed during Solomon's day, to help us "fear God and keep His commandments," and still, how many mortal experts on the subject do we think we need?
The Apostle Paul warned believers about picking favorite teachers and subscribing to their ideas. In 1 Corinthians 12, he chides the early church:
"My brothers, some from Chloe's household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, 'I follow Paul;' another, 'I follow Apollos;' another, 'I follow Cephas;' still another, 'I follow Christ.' Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul? I am thankful that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, so no one can say that you were baptized into my name... For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel--not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power."
And again, in Chapter 3:
"You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere men? For when one says, 'I follow Paul,' and another, 'I follow Apollos,' are you not mere men? What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe -as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow."
What King Solomon and the Apostle Paul clearly knew all those centuries ago - millennia, even - seems foreign to us today.
"Have you read Dobson's latest?"
"Keller has a new book out on Kindle."
"I think Driscoll is super-relevant to the Northwest culture."
"I love Francis Chan."
It's one thing to read about a Christian's autobiography and how God has worked in their life, as long as they're not trying to make a name for themself. And some people have a legitimate gift for explaining controversial theological concepts. There's also a valid need for us people of faith to be aware of what's happening around us and how we're to model Christ in, through, and despite it all. But do we really need everybody who wants to be a prominent religious figure in America to write a book parsing a section of theology other people have been parsing for centuries? Are there really any new revelations out there today? Did God really forget some stuff back in His Bible 1.0?
You think you can help explain a wrinkle in our ever-evolving society, or a new development in our cycle of cultural fads, and make it pertinent to faith and how we model Christ within our spheres of influence? I suppose it could be helpful, as long as the Gospel is celebrated instead of the current trend.
Otherwise, don't we risk losing focus?
This is not an abstract question. For example, one prominent Christian parachurch organization recently featured an article on their website in which several of their prominent members defended another of their member pastors and the parachurch organization he had founded against charges of sexually abusing children.
OK - are you keeping score? So far, we have two parachurch ministries ("non-church theological charities," for my unchurched readers) and several prominent Christian leaders. The one guy the others were defending used to run a parachurch organization (that was actually comprised of churches - confused yet?) that employed some men who've been accused of child abuse. And the accusers have been stonewalled for years by attempts at covering up the whole story. Allegations have now been formalized in court, and these prominent leaders waited a while before coming out and proudly defending their friend, the other leader, with whom they've shared their platform within our evangelical industrial complex for years.
In other words, a bunch of pastors got together and unilaterally defended a fellow pastor against some serious legal charges made by people they insinuate aren't credible.
Unfortunately for all of these leaders, their endorsement was worded so ineffectually that it has simply added fuel to the fire. They danced around the allegations and based their support more on their friendship than the claims in the alleged cases, virtually ignoring the sensitivity even our hedonistic, secular culture affords people who say they are victims of child abuse. Basically, these leaders argued that their friendship with their fellow leader held more weight than allegations made by people they don't know personally. Which, frankly, reeks of nothing else but sordid cronyism and good-old-boy protectionism, two of the main reasons why sex abuse victims usually hesitate to seek justice in our society.
Not to be outdone, some other leaders from yet another parachurch organization came out a few days ago with a similar blanket endorsement for their fellow leader, basically throwing the alleged victims under the bus without so much as stopping to see what the bus hit. It's as if all the theologically-trained men riding the bus trump anything a bunch of upset laypeople have to say.
Today, there's an
article on the website for one of these parachurch organizations
entitled "Caring for Victims of Sexual Abuse."
Yeah, right. Lots of credibility they've got on that issue right now.
If you're keeping score, the religious leaders are currently losing, along with the purported victims. Victims who are supposed to be shepherded by Godly leaders. Men we call "pastors."
Time is money in our culture. So, with all the time it takes to create all of this website content for our evangelical industrial complex,
write all of the books, lead all of the seminars, speak at all of the conferences, and do all of this other heavy-lifting in our Christian
ghetto, I'm wondering where these
guys who claim to be pastors find the time to be, well... pastors.
They probably get to pick the plumb wedding assignments, and maybe the
most prominent people in their congregations get to be buried by them,
but what about the mundane responsibilities like hospital visits? The visits to congregants and their
relatives who are under hospice care? I realize "every believer is a
minister," and all of us evangelicals should be participating in
compassion care, but who in Christ wouldn't appreciate a gracious,
unfettered visit from their senior pastor as they recover from surgery,
or stare death in the face?
One pastor I knew who was gliding up the Christian ghetto's career escalator himself joked that "if you see me at your hospital bedside, you know it's really bad."
Then there's all that awful
marriage counseling, sitting down with two disgruntled spouses and
trying to convince them God doesn't want them to divorce. I suspect
it's much easier to hold a conference or seminar so you can stand behind
a lectern or a video camera and teach other people how to teach about
the sanctity of marriage instead.
There's likely no connection, but considering how increasingly jaded many Americans seem to be getting about faith, perhaps it's no surprise that also today, the number-one top-read article on Crosswalk.com is "How Do I Know When It's Time To Leave a Church?" written by Dr. Roger Barrier.
And just this afternoon, I received an e-mail from a prominent magazine to which I used to subscribe, whose title blared, "Things Christians Must Never Do." I immediately deleted it, without even opening it. I've got that list already, and so does everybody else: it's called the Ten Commandments, right?
Adding to the myopic and oddly disconnected march of incessant Christian colloquialism is the website of a popular male Christian blogger who today provides a glowing review of yet another book extolling the virtues of mothers who work at home.
Even as economic studies continue to show how unaffordable having a stay-at-home-mom is becoming, particularly in America's Northeast.
Meanwhile, the Voice of the Martyrs is providing reports on current examples of religious oppression in Iran, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Uzbekistan. Right now. As I'm typing this out. And Crosswalk.com has an update on increased persecution in Sri Lanka. Are we as burdened for these brothers and sisters in Christ as we are celebratory of our favorite preachers here in our ghetto?
Ahh, yes, here in Christianity's ghetto, where the lead article on another of our prominent parachurch websites currently asserts that the Gospel of Christ is "underestimated."