"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"...doesn't philosophy amount to the sum of all thinkable and unthinkable errors, ceaselessly repeated?"--Jean-Luc Marion

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Here is the church, here is the steeple...

Open the doors, and where are all the people?

Pastor Dan faces the hard question: what is church for?

I'm honestly not sure that you could make a firm correlation between church size and fidelity to the gospel. My experience has been generally that small churches are more true to the good news as I understand it, but I'm biased. There's nothing necessary about big churches being faithless or vice versa.

What does seem to hold water is that Evangelical churches have largely succeeded in the past few decades because they've been more willing to engage the popular culture as a form of marketing. That's made them grow, but at what cost? (I say that without judgment.)

Galli doesn't take up the problem of someone like Joel Osteen, but it's worth mentioning. Osteen - and others like him - are theologically heterodox, often sounding more like New Age psychological gurus than traditional Christian preachers. They are also often of dubious moral character, as anyone who's read Sarah Posner's God's Profits will readily agree.

The trouble is, they're growing like wildfire, and to many uninformed people inside or outside the church, they appear to be just like any other preacher. It's one thing to give up church members because of something you did. It's quite another to lose them because some charlatan either lured them away or convinced them that all religion really is corrupt.

Purely as a matter of faith, I have no doubt that the Christian church will muddle through. God will keep a faithful and authentic remnant going, despite the best intentions of most of us. That doesn't bother me.

But as a matter of the intersection of faith and politics, I do not know how we can solve this problem. I suppose it begins with denouncing borderline frauds like Joel and Victoria Osteen. What can be done beyond that, I do not know. The fact is that we live in a diverse society, and not everyone cares about definitions of Christianity. That limits what we can say in the public square, and that in turn means we might have more than a little difficulty distinguishing between Evangelicals, Mainliners, and shallower waters.
Terminology in this kind of discussion gets tricky already. Is "success" equal to "church growth"? It's been assumed so since the book of Acts, but is there a necessary correlation? Are we proven true in our kerygma because many people agree with us? Conversely, are we proven true because no one wants to listen to us? Isn't there somewhere in between these two?

Funny thing, I was reading this passage in Proust just last night:

He worried me dreadfully by talking about the Verdurins; I was afraid he might ask me to have him received there, which would have been enough, because of the jealousy I would not have ceased to feel, to mar all the pleasure that I enjoyed there with Albertine. But happily, Robert admitted that, quite to the contrary, he wished above all not to meet them. "No," he said, "I find that type of clerical circle exasperating." I did not at first understand the adjective "clerical" as applied to the Verdurins, but [Robert] Saint-Loup's concluding words enlightened me as to his thought, and to the concessions to linguistic fashion that one is often surprised to find adopted by intelligent men. "They're circles," he said, "where they play at being tribes, where they play be being congregations and chapels. You're not going to tell me it isn't a small sect; they're all sweetness and light to the people who belong, and couldn't be more contemptuous of the ones who don't. The question isn't, as for Hamlet, to be or not to be, but to be one of them or not to be one of them."
Marcel Proust, Sodom and Gomorrah, tr. John Sturrock (New York: Penguin, 2005). p. 409-410.

A fair summation of churches, on one side. And certainly "mega-churches" have "succeeded" through marketing such imagery, such ideas. Lakewood Church used to advertise "We Believe In You!", and the largest Baptist church in town used to run TV ads exhorting viewers to "Come Home"; meaning, of course, to come to their church. Joel Osteen especially is a marketing machine, and preaches a gospel of wealth Matt Taibbi pretty well summed up:

Of all the vile, fake, lying-ass, money-grubbing shyster scumbags on the face of this planet, there is perhaps none more loathsome than Osteen, a human haircut with plastic baseball-size teeth who has made a fortune selling the appalling only-in-America idea that terrestrial greed is actually a form of Christian devotion. "God wants us to prosper financially, to have plenty of money, to fulfill the destiny He has laid out for us," Osteen once wrote. This is the revolting, snake-oil-selling dickhead that John McCain actually chose to pimp as number one on his list of inspirational authors. So much for "go, sell everything you have and give to the poor," and all that other hippie crap from the New Testament.
Rick Warren has made himself into an industry selling the "Purpose Driven" life and church, but at one point made it clear no gaiis need apply to his church. He's since back-pedalled on all of that because he doesn't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. But if that really is a moral issue for him, is his morality best described by a weathervane? Is anybody's?

I do have to say, in response to this legitimate concern by Pastor Dan:

The trouble is, they're growing like wildfire, and to many uninformed people inside or outside the church, they appear to be just like any other preacher. It's one thing to give up church members because of something you did. It's quite another to lose them because some charlatan either lured them away or convinced them that all religion really is corrupt.
Welcome to my world. I grew up in Southern Baptist dominated East Texas, where I was made to feel heterodox because I wasn't a bible-thumpin', evangelical, God-fearin' Christian who knew he was saved. (It was the favorite question of my high-school Christian peers: "Are you saved?" I always answered, in good Lutheran fashion, thanks to my Calvinism through the Presbyterian church, and my Lutheranism through Kierkegaard: "I hope so." I'd still answer that way.) Charlatans have always been with us, going back to the battles between Peter and Paul and coming up through the orthodox Catholics who regarded Luther and his ilk as such, and ending...? Well, it hasn't ended. And it never will.

Which puts us back on a darkling plain, where ignorant armies clash by night. Or among little cliques, all congratulating themselves on how special their group is. Or it merely places us in the world, faithfully seeking God and faithfully holding to our confession among others who share our confession. And the all-too human question is always: how many more such people is enough?


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