Monday, April 25, 2011

Faith, Smoke, and Mirrors

Giddy with self-adulation, two stylish white guys close up shop for the day. They've recently launched their latest venture, and it's exceeding their expectations. To celebrate their success, they visit their principle backer's favorite cigar bar.

A couple of Wall Street tycoons, you wonder? A pair of used car salesmen, perhaps? Or a novice politician's first campaign?

How about a duo of hipster preachers in New York City?

Yup, according to a recent article in the New York Times about evangelicals scrambling to ride Tim Keller's church-planting wave in the Big Apple, Pennsylvanian Guy Wasko and Australian Jon Tyson wrapped up their latest church start-up in the Lower East Side by celebrating "at Mr. Tyson's favorite cigar bar."

Excuse me while I sneeze.

The New, Hip Place to Evangelize

Seems as though lots of trendy churchlettes are popping up all over New York City.  But like the boom of mostly white, suburban, Gen X'ers seeking the big city's chic grunge vibe, they're not in the silk stocking districts of Gramercy Park, Sutton Place, or even the Upper West Side.  Nor are they in the relatively stable middle-class enclaves of Bay Ridge, Riverside, or Rego Park.

No, to qualify as a prime new church site these days, the 'hood has to be grim, with the requisite level of gritty urban angst.  These formulaic fellowships apparently breed via a brand of Jesus that they think cares less about doctrine and sanctification and more about social awareness.  Awareness of setting just the right air of urban credibility, as well as being aware of people perceived as disenfranchised.

Which, minus the glorification of urbanity's inner-city rawness, is one of the same ways people have been planting churches and starting ministries for centuries.  Except nowadays, these new outreaches in my hometown seem to strive less for modeling the broader mandate of honoring God than they do loving neighbors as themselves. 

Not that I'm anti-church-planting. I understand that seminaries teach preachers to spread the Gospel by emulating culture. So, since New York has more vacuous narcissists than most other places, catering to its culture won't exactly look pretty.  Yes, Christ ministered to the down-and-out, He socialized with reprobates, and He empathized with the hurting.  But in all these things, He remained pure and undefiled.  And He wasn't "legalistic" about any of it.

From What Have We Been Freed?

Interestingly enough, most evangelicals have developed a twisted perception of what "legalism" means these days. So imagine my surprise when we happened to recite this short prayer of confession in church a few weeks ago:

"Our God, we praise You for the riches of Your kindness and patience toward us.  Your Word teaches us that this should lead us to repentance, but too often we try to press the boundaries of your forbearance.  We frequently reason our way around our sin, justifying our actions by arguing that Your Word does not explicitly forbid a particular behavior.  We are much more interested in finding out if you make exceptions, rather than walking in the path You have clearly shown.  Forgive our desire to live independently from You, to exercise our "freedom."  Teach us again that true freedom is to be released from sin's power and dominion, that true freedom allows us to choose You rather than any substitute.  Impress us again with Your long-suffering, that we might in turn be patient and kind toward others."

Now, yes, I know I need to work on being "patient and kind toward others" myself.  But enough about me.  There is a reciprocity to this effort of patience that also obligates people who try to exercise "freedoms" in Christ, isn't there?  Assuming that behaviors like smoking is one of those gray areas where "freedom" is necessary in order to participate, shouldn't believers who may have no moral strictures against smoking still respect the pejoratively-termed mandate "tyranny of the weaker brother?"

What Part of "Smoking Can Cause Cancer" Don't You Believe?

Not that smoking - even cigar smoking - can really be considered a gray area anymore.  Plenty of scientific evidence has been complied in the past several decades proving the physical dangers of smoking cigars.  According to New York's prestigious Memorial Sloan-Kettering hospital and cancer center, as well as Lance Armstrong's Live Strong foundation, we now have clinical proof that cigars can cause cancer in the lip, tongue, mouth, throat, and lung.

Granted, your chances of developing cancer depend on how much you smoke, but one good cigar can be as dangerous as an entire pack of cigarettes. And the better the cigar, the more nicotine and other dangerous chemicals in the tobacco and its byproducts. And, by the way, cigar smoke contains 200 poisons and carcinogens.  Does that sound harmless to you?

So what if your sainted great grandfather smoked cigars?  A lot of Godly people smoked all sorts of stuff back in the day, but that was before science proved how dangerous it is. Let's face it - you probably won't contract cancer just by smoking a cigar once a week.  But how wise is the risk?  Or, let me put it another way: what level of unnecessary behavior did Christ tolerate?

Perhaps bragging to the New York Times that you celebrate successful church launches by burning dollar bills at a tobacco lounge is a hip way of saying you're relevant.  That even though you're new to New York yourself, you can relate to the culture in a meaningful way.  Or that you simply choose to hope that not inhaling is safer than breathing second-hand smoke.

Do Real New Yorkers Need Smoking Saints?

Either way, I'm not convinced the street-savvy, battle-hardened, native New York welfare cases, prostitutes, and crack kids these pastors want to evangelize will take long to see through the smoke and mirrors of ministries contrived more on late-night showings of Friends than Barney Miller. Although the myopic middle-class suburban kids who regularly rotate through the City will, for a while, rotate through these transient churches as well, how dependable is their demographic? And what about those poor, generally minority New Yorkers who've been brought up in institutionalized poverty? Won't they stick around only as long as they can ride the newest wave of freebies and naiive affection from the transplanted church planters?  The rest of the city's disenfranchised will likely continue to regard such middle-class white-skinned interlopers with suspicion and disdain.

Aside from God's blessings upon some of the City's most well-known evangelical leaders, Keller's Redeemer Presbyterian works because it's a fully-functioning church, with a relatively affluent congregation, and a viable denomination lending credibility and initial funding.  Designing a church for disenfranchised people in a vacuum of urban blight worked for Jim Cymbala at Brooklyn Tabernacle and David Wilkerson at Times Square Church, but they ministered during a time when ministry in New York couldn't afford to be cozy with the culture.  Today, the Waskos and Tysons of culture-pandering evangelicalism walk a pretentious fine line between compassion and confection.  Celebrating first Sundays by burning money for smoke doesn't strike me as a compassionate understanding of their new congregation's economic plight.

Besides, as Manhattan continues to gentrify and evolve into a gilded island of million-dollar condominiums, the real inner-city work is moving to the corners of the outer boroughs, where the urbane trappings of cigar bars remain few and far between.

Meanwhile, whether you're a wannabie New York Bowery preacher or any other person of faith, you'll have a hard time convincing me those $6 cigars are anything more than a subversive oral fixation.

And I say that as a person who's always sticking his foot in his mouth.

So, if you feel the Lord calling you to move to New York City for ministry, then by all means, go!  But should you expect New Yorkers to put up with smoke and mirrors for long when it comes to communities of faith?

After all, does God?

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