Wednesday, September 17, 2014
Disconnecting from Our Christian Ghetto
The longer I stay engaged with evangelicalism's conventional model of religion, the more I'm learning how weird it must appear to the unchurched.
I know that's not the way it's supposed to work. The longer anybody acculturates to their conventional model of religion, whether it's Christianity, Islam, or atheism, its normalcy in our lives ordinarily makes us immune to seeing its peculiarities from an outsider's perspective.
But perhaps it's because I'm somewhat of an outsider to our North American evangelical ghetto, I have something of a vantage point to see what's happening inside, understand the lingo that helps explain what's happening inside, and yet still experience a level of detachment that many actors involved on the inside of evangelicalism don't.
When I started this blog, I called it "Outside, Looking In," which is where the "O-L-I" part of its URL comes from. But then I suspected that it could make me sound like a socially perverted peeping Tom, or somebody who lives vicariously through the experiences of other people.
Now, however, I realize that my position is more than just social astigmatism or vicarious reality.
I'm not talking about whether corporate worship services should be contemporary or traditional, or whether the preacher should wear a robe or denim jeans. I'm talking about our basic understanding of what church is, why we have senior pastors, why we construct huge buildings for ourselves, and why we then go out into politics and everybody else's business and try to tell them how to behave.
Now, hang on a minute: Neither am I saying we shouldn't have corporate worship services, or preachers, or nice church buildings, or be involved in the surrounding culture and society.
No, what I'm saying is that it seems like we base our faith upon all of these things, instead of the Gospel. Instead of Jesus Christ. Instead of the Fruit of the Spirit.
Whenever evangelicalism has a scandal, we look at the people involved and compare their behavior against our own. Sometimes we compare their behavior against Christ's, which is obviously the only Measuring Stick we should be using, but we still rate the impact of the scandal based on what we can see. Will church membership drop? Will we go into debt? How do we look to the outside world?
Consider the scandal festering at Seattle's embattled Mars Hill Church, where the pugnacious Mark Driscoll has preached for years, or the scandals within any number of our "parachurch" ministries - like the ultra-conservative Bill Gothard and his Institute of Basic Life Principles. Evangelicals try to assign blame, parse out punishment, and sop up the public relations mess like it's only the people involved who were at fault, and not the very way we evangelicals do business.
And yes, we're doing business these days. Lots of business. We're building huge not-for-profit empires we call "ministries," for pious-sounding religious reasons. We're paying large salaries, developing a lot of products, marketing those products, and hiring swarms of people to deploy those products. Many of us believe those products are what actually "save" the "lost." That's why we create so many diverse products to sell: everything from sermons and music and worship formats to clothing, books, political action committees, seminars, universities, and short term mission trips. We compete against each other, since every church has a preacher, and most preachers like to believe their sermons are worth disseminating to as broad an audience as possible. We all like short term mission trips because they're a convenient way to get an exotic vacation tax-free. We build universities because nobody else could possibly teach our young adults the way we think they should be taught. And on and on.
Meanwhile, there's still poverty in America. But we say that's OK, because Christ said poverty would always be with us. There's still racism, too, but we rationalize away racism as being a two-way street. There's still greed, but we justify ours by saying the Bible says lazy people shouldn't eat. Now we've also got gay marriage, and a mainstream media with plenty of fodder with which to mock our sanctimony and - paradoxically - our hubris. We claim that we're entitled to flaunt our faith because this is America, and this is a Christian nation... whatever that means.
At some point, somebody in our Christian ghetto is going to realize that for a Christian nation, our Christians sure have an awful lot of problems they wouldn't have if they cared about their faith as much as they cared about what everybody else is doing wrong.
Even as one of things that's wrong is our own warped perspective of Christianity.
I heard somebody on our local news last night praising God and saying it was a miracle that their loved ones were able to catch the first flight out of Mexico after Hurricane Odile ravaged their vacation spot in Cabo San Lucas.
Really? God orchestrated a miracle to get your healthy middle-class relatives out of their luxury resort and onto a plane, leaving behind hundreds of thousands of storm-stricken Mexicans to pick through the mess that is now their world? You think that's the kind of religion that honors Jesus Christ? Be thankful that your relatives are safe, and coming home, but don't credit God with extraordinarily blessing your relatives while forcing plenty of other people to live in misery.
Over in the Pacific Northwest, some die-hard members of Driscoll's congregation continue to defend their preacher, rationalizing that sure, he may be a bit gregarious, but he speaks truth from the pulpit. Well, sure; he could be preaching that grass is green and Seattle's weather is rainy, and it would all be true, but is that the Gospel of Jesus Christ?
As the United States continues its transition into being a post-Christian nation, fewer and fewer of us will even bother to make an attempt at putting up with all of the evangelical fuss. And some church folk will sputter that we're being persecuted, without realizing that we were never entitled to the social respect we've come to expect for the past several hundred years anyway.
Meanwhile, the Gospel of Jesus Christ never crashes and burns. The Gospel of Jesus Christ never loses members, or money. Neither is the Gospel of Jesus Christ ever genuinely popular, or trendy, or acceptable. But a lot of Christians expect their religion, their preachers, their churches, and the marketing universe that has become their evangelical ghetto to be the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
So that's what the unsaved world around us presumes to be the Gospel of Jesus Christ, too. And then they look at the mess we make of what we substitute for Christ's Gospel, and see a huge disconnect.
It's a disconnect we need to see, too.