Archives For The Church

In many American churches, consumerism is being used as a vehicle for the gospel. With lessons gleaned from the entertainment industry and the world of marketing, these churches present the gospel using forms of communication familiar to every American. Many people hear the gospel through this type of church. It’s effective. But should they being doing this? And what do we mean when we say it’s effective?

[For any theology/missiology nerds reading this, what I’m seeking to address here is an issue that involves contextualization and syncretism. If you care to explore that connection, view this footnote: [1]]

So let’s consider the consumerist model of doing church. Consumerism is all about creating products that will appeal to consumers. In the church, this can look like anything from performance-oriented bands to entertaining sermons to polished programs. I can sense many of you preparing to throw stones at other churches at this point, so before you do that, consider: all of our churches do this to some extent. I have yet to encounter a church in North America that avoids all elements of the consumerist model. I want to be clear that the enemy is not entertainment, programs, or “being relevant.”

It’s easy to be superficial in our dismissal of consumerism in churches: “Their worship is so showing…they’re so ‘seeker sensitive’…people are only going to that church because the children’s ministry is a huge production…” But the problem is actually far deeper than all that.

It’s not wrong for people to be entertained. It’s not wrong for pastors to carefully craft their sermons so their congregation will be entertained so they will stay engaged so they will take another step on their spiritual journey. Skill, professionalism, excellence—these are not the problem.

The problem with consumerist models of doing church is the way this approach shapes us. And it does shape us—deeply.

Visit the mall regularly and you will be shaped. You won’t notice the shaping, of course. You think you’re going to the mall to complete your errands, or perhaps just to enjoy the atmosphere. But you’re being trained to view life in a certain way. You’re imbibing an embodied vision of “the good life.” You are “listening” to powerful “sermons” about the way your life could be if you’d only shop here, if you’d only adopt this lifestyle, if you’d just give this product a try.

Why are so many people going to quickly purchase the new iPhone 6s when it releases? (Or the Android equivalent.) No one is actually eager to buy it for the two or three things it can do slightly better than the previous version. People are going to quickly adopt the newest iPhone because the advertisers are masters at training our desires. They know how to bypass the head and go for the gut. The malls, the commercials, the coffee shops, the auto dealers, the layout of our cities—all of it pushes us towards a specific version of the good life: have this, live this way, and you’ll be happy.

Now mentally walk into an American suburban church. The service is carefully tailored to appeal to you. Programs are designed to meet your needs. You choose which church activities you want to sign up for. The church staff is the production company and you are the consumer.

“It’s different,” you might say. “I’m not being offered a ‘product,’ I’m being offered Jesus. I’m being drawn into worship.” Yes and yes. And this is why I’m not accusing the consumerist mentality of being evil. People do come to know Jesus through this approach—often!

am arguing, however, that this approach subtly shapes our view of the gospel, its purpose, and our role in the mission of God. For the first Christians, church was anything but consumeristic. They didn’t need to advertise programs to meet one another’s needs. Their lives were intertwined enough that they just knew where the needs were and did what they could to meet them.

When church is set up in such a way that every aspect of our spiritual life is presented like a sales pitch, wrapped in entertainment value, and tailored to catch our fancy, we’re bound to misunderstand the purpose of it all. We’re bound to miss the reality that we don’t go to church or volunteer at church, we are the church. When we embrace the consumerist mentality, we get the impression that all God expects of us is to sit in on services and attend programs.

But there’s more to the Christian life than this. And the tragedy of the consumerist model is that we’ll never allow our people to experience how much more there is until we stop marketing to them. The gospel calls us to self-denial, not savvy shopping. We have to find a way to view the people in our churches as members of a body rather than costumers, attendees, or even volunteers.

So instead of assuming that attracting large groups and gathering loads of signups for our programs is a neutral way of communicating the gospel, what if we all stopped to consider how our approach to “doing church” shapes the people we’re reaching out to? What if we asked if there is a better way to do what we’re doing, a way that will communicate the gospel effectively without unintentionally validating the consumeristic mentality of the shopping mall? The reality is that many of our churches are doing pretty well in this respect, but we could all afford to do better.

 


[1] In my missiology classes, we talk about principles of missions: how to best present the gospel in a certain culture. One important concept we discuss is “contextualization.” How do we take the cultural forms we encounter in a given society and accurately express the gospel in terms that are familiar and compelling to that group of people? For example, when you enter a Middle Eastern society, you’ll want to start by presenting the gospel in the local language. That much is easy. Other questions are more difficult: Should we refer to “God” (a generic English term for the Divine Being) as “Allah” (a generic Arabic term for the Divine Being)? Or does that go beyond contextualization and enter the realm of “syncretism,” which is missions-talk for mixing two religions together? The goal is to find the cultural forms that can best express the gospel and to avoid those that might distort the gospel. It’s not easy to do, but it’s an important concept. Missionaries and missiologists are careful to think through these questions as they bring the gospel to new cultures. Yet few in America have ever considered how the cultural forms they utilize affect the gospel message they are trying to communicate. Specific to this post, how can we contextualize the gospel in North American cultural forms while avoiding syncretistically distorting the gospel? My argument is basically that utilizing the consumeristic methods of the shopping mall have led us past contextualization and into syncretism.

Take a brief look at Church History and you’ll realize that the Church is kind of an icky place. Or at least, it often has been. I love my church, and you probably love yours too. But historically speaking, the church has a tendency to be really really messed up.

The Church has a lot of blood on its hands. Protestants have killed Catholics and vice versa over the practice of Communion. Reformers literally drowned Anabaptists who believed that baptism was for believing adults and not for infants (“You like to be baptized? Let me hold you under a little longer…”). Think of the Crusades. Or of corruption within the church throughout the Middle Ages. Simony (selling church leadership positions to those looking for a good political career) was a recurring problem in the church. Our modern sex scandals are nothing new in terms of Church History, except that many times in the past the promiscuous church leaders have been unrepentant, unapologetic, and unashamed.

Think of the times that the Church has advocated slavery, has fought against human rights (unbelievably, Martin Luther King, Jr. had to “fight” against Christian churches), or has stood by and done nothing while holocausts were afoot.

Think of the hypocrites sitting in the pews around you. People actively involved in affairs even as they pretend to be devout Christians. Think even of yourself: Who among us truly practices what Jesus preached?

We get pretty worked up when people accuse the Church of being hypocritical, but let’s admit: they have a point. The Church can be (and often has been) a dirty bunch. That’s the case with all human enterprises.

Imagine God hiring a PR representative: “Well, God, you’ve got a decent reputation, at least in some circles, but that Church you continue to hold on to is not doing you any favors. You have a growing constituency of people who love you but hate the Church. For centuries upon centuries a large demographic has stayed completely away from you because of the Church. It’s time to distance yourself. Be God, do the good things you want to do in the world, change lives, bring healing to impossible situations—all of that. But do it without the Church. The Church is only bringing you down.”

Simony, a practice common throughout the Middle Ages, means buying a church leadership position.

I’d fire any PR rep that said something different. The Church is a huge liability for God.

And yet God refuses to abandon the Church. He refuses to distance himself. It’s true that we cannot confine God’s activity within our church walls. God works all around us in ways we couldn’t possibly imagine. Yet he remains inextricably tied to his Church.

And he has tied himself to the Church by choice. This was his idea. God’s mission in this world has always been about redemption, about reversing what went wrong with the fall, about defeating evil and healing what has been broken. His mission moved through Abraham and Israel, through David and Isaiah, and finally reached its climax in Jesus. But then God did the unthinkable: he passed the mission on to the Church. The Church! This wandering, embarrassing, inept group has inherited God’s mission to fix the whole world. And God did this on purpose!

As David Platt says, the Church is God’s Plan A, and he has no Plan B.

Why has God stubbornly refused to distance himself from the Church? Because his plan of redemption will be brought to completion through the Church. Because God does great things through those who are weak. Because God chooses the foolish things of this world to shame the wise. Because God takes earthen pots and uses them to unleash his glory upon an unsuspecting world.

churchI am as broken as anyone in Church History, yet God uses me. My church is as full of sinners as any other church in history, yet God is bringing healing and purpose and life and hope to the world through this ragtag group of Christians I call my church body. We will continue to mess up. We will continue to be weak and cowardly. We will forget the mission and get worked up about things that don’t matter. We will continue to be a liability. But God will not abandon his Church.

And because God will not abandon His Church, we will continue to bring healing that far exceeds our abilities. We will continue to embody reconciliation and forgiveness and peace, though in ourselves we lack these resources. We will continue to show the world that Jesus is alive, that the Spirit of God has not for a single second neglected God’s mission, that the Spirit fulfills the mission through the apparent foolishness of God’s Plan A Church.

God has not dumped the Church, and he never will.

“On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18).

It’s easy to be grumpy about all of the denominations in the church. If we’re supposed to be united as the body of Christ, then why do we have Baptists and Presbyterians and Methodists and Lutherans and Episcopalians and Evangelical Free Churches and Assemblies of God a host of others? I recently saw a report estimating that we have over 33,000 Christian denominations in the world.[1]

I can think of a lot that is unhealthy with the reality of denominationalism. But when we look at church history, the introduction of denominations was actually very healthy, and we should all be thankful for this development.

In the wake of the Reformation (roughly 500 years ago), each church saw itself as the one true church. Catholics, Lutherans, Anabaptists, Anglicans: each of these groups (and more) held different beliefs and followed different practices, and each was convinced that their church was right—to the point that they would banish and even kill those who saw things differently. These churches, which took root in specific areas, began to war against each other. The Huguenots (followers of John Calvin) were rounded up by Mary Queen of Scots, tried before Catholic judges, and then tortured and/or burned. The Thirty Years’ War started as actual warfare between Protestants and Catholics.

Eventually, everyone got tired of the fighting. It was clear that no one church would arise and dominate the religious landscape. Christianity seemed hopelessly divided, and war seemed an increasingly useless way to try to unite the church.[2]

Into this mess came the theory of denominationalism, introduced by the Dissenting Brethren of Westminster. Rather than each branch of the church considering itself the one true church, denominationalism sees each church as simply one expression of the whole of Christianity. Each church is referred to (or “denominated”) by a specific name, but it is still part of the larger whole.

The Dissenting Brethren built their theory of denominationalism on four points:

  1. Human beings do not understand God’s truth perfectly, so differences of opinion are inevitable.
  2. These differences of opinion are important, and each church must follow its convictions on what the Bible teaches. Nonetheless, many differences of opinion do not violate the heart of the Christian faith.
  3. No church has a full grasp of God’s truth, so no one church by itself can adequately represent the true, capital C Church. We are the true Church together, not in our individual expressions.
  4. Separation does not mean schism. In other words, we can disagree about many points of doctrine and practice, but still be united in Christ.

Thus denominationalism allowed the church to move forward. We no longer had to kill or banish one another over every doctrinal disagreement. (Can you imagine elder meetings if this were still the case? That would make a great reality show.) This mentality provides the basis for a Baptist church disagreeing with a Presbyterian church on many issues, but still viewing one another as Christians.

Denominations

So while the denominational landscape can be discouraging—if we are all one in Christ, then why have we splintered off into these innumerable groups?—we should actually be thankful for denominations. The diversity in the church is a reminder that Christians still differ from one another significantly. We’re not brothers and sisters in Christ because we happen to think exactly alike. Far from it! No, we are brothers and sisters in Christ despite our very real differences in interpretation and practice. But we are brothers and sisters nonetheless. The Baptist church sitting next to the Presbyterian church are reminders that though we have differing convictions, we still choose to stand side by side as representatives of the larger Body of Christ.

But of course, everything I’ve just said is meaningless if we choose to demonize other denominations. My guess is that as you read over the Dissenting Brethren’s four points, you had mixed feelings. Yes, this is a good perspective, but no, I tend to view my own church as the only right one. We believe the way we do because we’re right. My “Christian” neighbor attends that other church because she doesn’t understand the Bible. Etc.

With the Dissenting Brethren, I affirm that our differences are important. How we interpret the sovereignty of God, the way we practice baptism, and our views on divorce and remarriage are very important, and we need to continue seeking truth in all of these areas. But the authority is the Bible, not the leaders or doctrinal statement of my specific church. And as long as the church next door is committed to God and his word (not superficially, but really and truly), then we stand together as representatives of the full (and diverse) Body of Christ. May we all be variously denominated, but essentially united.

If you want more on this topic, consider Tim Keller’s perspective.


 

[1] The estimate of 33,000 denominations is almost impossible to believe, until you consider that (1) each major denominations is made up of subsets (e.g., not just Baptist, but American Baptist, Southern Baptist, etc.), (2) each denomination can look much different from country to country, and (3) nondenominational churches are very popular, and being nondenominational does not mean that they are united in doctrine and practice—it basically means that each individual church is almost a denomination unto itself.

[2] It should sound crazy to us that warfare amongst Christians was ever considered an option, but this was the result of hundreds of years of the church being tied to the state.

Josh GraumanI recently announced that I will be leading an internship program through my church, Cornerstone South LA. We call it The Apprenticeship, and it’s designed to train cross-cultural church planters. This is something that has been in my mind for quite a long time, and I’m excited to see it becoming a reality.

As anyone who knows me well can attest, I have always viewed myself first and foremost as a pastor. For the past ten years I have loved being a part of what Eternity Bible College is doing, investing in students, and even being able to help design the curriculum. I love Eternity’s heart and vision. And yet I have always felt a tension when teaching students that I have not been able to disciple outside of the classroom. As much as I can teach students in class, my passion is to invest in people through the local church.

It was this tension that led me to pursue teaching the Old Testament module at our Simi Valley campus. The last few years have been amazing as I’ve been able to teach the same group of students for nine hours every week, guiding them through the entire Old Testament. This has been a great experience for me and I know the process benefits the students. Yet my heart yearns for the kind of discipleship that can only take place outside of the classroom.

The Bible was written to deal with real life. So it is only in the context of life that we can really understand and apply what the Bible is trying to teach us. If we are only thinking about the Bible in a theoretical way, we are missing the point! As Jesus says, all true learning results in becoming like your teacher (Luke 6:40). That is why I always encourage students who are pursuing further education not to go study under “smart” people, but under people they want to emulate.

The Apprenticeship

This tension between academic learning and practical application is at the heart of everything Eternity Bible College does. I have observed that it is only when I am walking with students in the context of real life that I can bring up things that we learned in class that apply to specific situations. It is only when we see weaknesses or blind spots in real life that we can remind each other about what we have learned.

So I want to spend whatever time I have left on this earth investing in life-on-life discipleship. We are all here on this earth to fulfill our God-given mission to make disciples.

As I teach in a classroom setting, I know that my students are walking with their pastors and church families to apply the truths they are learning in the classroom. This is something Eternity requires and takes very seriously. As I evaluate my own heart, I want to take personal responsibility for those whom I am teaching, as Paul commands Timothy to do (2 Tim. 2:2). I want to walk with younger men in the trenches of local church ministry as we flesh out the deep truths of Scripture that we are learning in class. I believe this is something that God has gifted me to do, and I am excited to invest more deeply into a smaller group in the context of inner city ministry.

In a future post I will talk a little bit about what the program will look like, but in the meantime, feel free to look at the program website.

How do you reach an impoverished neighborhood with the gospel?

A typical approach is to send in money occasionally. But poverty is actually far more complex than most people imagine. It takes on a variety of forms, and it stems from impossibly deep-seated assumptions, systems, and processes. It’s actually a huge misunderstanding of the problem to assume that poverty is primarily financial. Financial poverty is deeply connected to and very often caused by other forms of poverty, such as relational poverty and spiritual poverty.

La Luz 1So if you truly want to reach an impoverished neighborhood with the gospel, you have to first take stock of what kind of poverty has taken hold. And you need to be ready to respond—not just financially, but holistically. If you find relational poverty, are you prepared to offer yourself so that their relationships can be enriched? So that these human beings can see their value as human beings? So that you can learn to appreciate everything they have to offer each other and the surrounding society that views them as lazy and disgraced? Are you prepared to enter into their spiritual poverty and show them (not just tell them) the depths of the riches available to them in Christ?

It’s the depth and complexity of the problem and the high non-financial cost of truly addressing these needs that ensures poverty will remain around the world.

My geographical area is affluent. Everyone around me has more than they need. Way more. And yet there are pockets where poverty has an iron grip. In one of these pockets, in one particular neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley, the people are what you’d call “working poor.” They have jobs, and they work hard. Yet their wages do nothing to bring them above the poverty line. This kind of poverty can’t be eradicated by telling the people to work harder, or even by sending in money. It requires incarnation.

When Jesus wanted to help human beings who were trapped in their cycle of need and deep-seated spiritual poverty, he did more than send us a message of hope. He did more than sending us laws or even forgiveness. He sent himself. He entered into our mess so that he could lead us out of it. Personally. Profoundly. We call this the “incarnation”—God took on flesh.

La Luz 2One of the churches that Eternity Bible College partners with is incarnating the gospel in this particular impoverished neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley. They’re not inviting these people to join them for their suburban church services. They’re not sending in money or work crews. The leaders of this church moved into the neighborhood. Incarnation. The life of the working poor has become the life of these church planters. Church is in the neighborhood. The gospel is in the neighborhood. The gospel is not foreign, coming in from the outside. With this team of church planters, the gospel took on flesh and dwelt among the working poor.

This church will soon be hosting an event that is a great example of this approach. The church is called Living Stones/Piedras Vivas (the church is bilingual because the neighborhood is bilingual—incarnation), and the event is called La Luz. And there’s a way you can help them with it. One way that the church wants to help the poverty in the neighborhood is by providing the children of these working poor parents with the opportunity to play soccer. The local parks and rec department has had to raise its fees for soccer. This instantly excludes many of the neighborhood children from organized soccer, which means instantly increased relational poverty.

So Living Stones is doing two things to address this need. First, they are putting on a week-long soccer clinic for the neighborhood kids, taught by Division I collegiate coaches and players. This clinic will also give them opportunities for displaying and sharing the gospel, thus addressing the spiritual poverty. Second, they are raising money to give 100 scholarships to neighborhood kids so they can play in the soccer league. Members of Living Stones and their kids have been investing in this soccer league by playing and coaching, so allowing more neighborhood kids to participate is a means of addressing their needs on a number of levels.

To learn more about this event or to invest financially, click here. For more fundraising opportunities, click here.

Those of us who are living and serving in more affluent suburban contexts have a lot to learn about incarnation from churches like Living Stones. It may not mean hosting soccer clinics or offering scholarships (though it may). The important thing is that we deeply consider how to present the gospel in a clear way to the people God has placed around us. How do we portray the gospel with our lives, and not merely with our words?