Monday, January 08, 2007

WWPD?--Part Ia

In order to consider the questions of evangelism apart from evangelical theology (we conflate the two so much that we often cannot imagine any other kind of evangelical effort except that which some of us despise, and some of us are at least unfomfortable with), we have to consider the issue of cultural Christianity, of what can properly be called Constantinian Christianity.

Cultural Christianity puts a "manger scene" (or a "nativity scene") in a Protestant church that might otherwise blanche at a crucifix or, in some cases, even a cross. That fact that the creche (too Catholic a word for some, oddly) is a representation of God, and is directly linked to the inspiration of St. Francis of Assissi, seems to bother even the most hard-core Protestant not at all, and indeed archly-conservative Christians will bellow first and loudest if such a scene is not permitted in their local public square. This is odd, of course, because in the Reformed tradition, any representation of God is forbidden (hence crosses are empty), because they are the "false idols" the Hebrew prophets warned against (and indeed there is ample warrant in Judaism against making a representation of any living creature). Why is the manger scene acceptable? Perhaps because cultural Christians don't really think the baby = God. Or perhaps they do, but babies are so adorable they don't take the Absolute Paradox too seriously. Or perhaps it just doesn't seem to be Christmas without one.

Many, too, will allow that most pagan of emblems, the Christmas tree (symbol of life in the season of death) to adorn their worship space. I have been in Protestant churches which excuse this by putting "Chrismons" on the tree instead of Christmas ornaments. Chrismons are overtly religious symbols; and I say it to the credit of my Episcopal church that the Christmas tree stands only in the narthex, not inside the church proper, and only a creche is allowed at the altar, and only that during Christmas (the liturgical season, that is).

There's another paradox, and it's associated with the manger. Cultural Christianity, today anyway, tends to be literalist in its reading of the Bible, and yet it is quite illiterate and illiteral about the nativity stories. Mark, of course, doesn't have one. He starts out with Jesus going to John to be baptized, and from there Jesus is commissioned by God to preach the Gospel. Matthew pushes the scene back a bit, but he doesn't exactly say Jesus is divine from birth. Joseph has the vision to explain that Jesus' birth is miraculous (which Matthew mentioned probably to get Jesus' birth related to Moses', and prove he came from God in a lineage going back at least that far. Matthew, remember, starts with the geneaology, but he only goes back to Abraham.) Jesus' specialness is recognized by the Magi, but they don't arrive on Christmas morning; they show up as much as two years later, a detail we know from Herod's massacre of the innocents. Now, there are several problems of "literalness" here, too, all related to the manger scene.

First, it is Luke who puts Jesus in a manger in Bethlehem because of the census. In Matthew's story, Joseph and Mary already live there. Second, Matthew doesn't set a number for the Magi; nor does he call them kings, nor does he call them 'wise men.' The number, even the nationality, and their status, are all matters of later tradition; Catholic tradition, actually, since it was the only tradition in town at the time. And, as I said, they don't arrive on the day of birth. Except, of course, in manger scenes, they do. With their star, and the angels, and the sheperds, and the beasts.

All of those details, except the magi and the star, are from Luke's version. And it's Luke, by the way, who pushes Jesus' divinity back to birth. That's the reason for the visitation first to Zechariah (who gets it all wrong), and then to Mary (who gets ir right, a pattern in Luke), and then the visit of the angels to announce the birth, to, not kings or magi, but shepherds. But if we are to take the Bible literally and believe the earth and all that it contains was created in 6 days, then why don't we take our manger scenes literally and leave out the wise men and the camels and the gifts?

And here's the other problem, the really interesting one that, admittedly, no one really thinks about, but then again, the burden of proof is on the literalists for this one, too. Mark, as I said, begins his gospel with the baptism of Jesus. It is clearly this event, this decision to be baptized and the follow-through of actually doing it, which makes Jesus of Nazareth the Messiah of God. Matthew pushes that back to Jesus' birth, but Jesus' status again goes unrecognized until an overt act (the coming of the Magi). Luke pushes it back a little further, and the recognition comes the night of the birth, not nearly two years later. John, of course, pushes it back to before the beginning of time, where Jesus the second person of the Trinity (an extra-biblical concept) exists before time itself. So here's the problem: if either Matthew or Luke is to be taken even seriously (much less literally), the babe in the manger is God. Why are good Protestants making images of God? And why do they do so in as cavalier a manner as some nativities, where Jesus is a hollow plastic figure with a 60 watt bulb inside? Is this any way to honor the Creator of the Universe? (Yes, it is, but for reasons seldom considered.)

Such things are as much a part of cultural Christianity (but not the culture of Christianity, a different thing altogether) as Easter Egg hunts after the Easter service, or visits by Santa Claus (I've seen this in churches, too, to the delight of the children; though not, I hasten to add, on Sunday mornings. My experience of Santa at the church are unconnected to the issues I'm raising here.). And even the idea that the baby in the manger represents God is not one we give much thought to, lest we either reject such things as idolatry, or throw away our lighted plastic baby Jesuses in our large outdoor mangers as blasphemy. Those who read the Bible literally do so when it suits them; and when it doesn't, they look the other way. Not, of course, unlike the rest of us, on matters of interpretation.

Looked at that way, how is it that "evangelism" has this death-grip on our minds (and perhaps our souls) such that we imagine the only truly evangelical act is asking strangers (or at least our friends): "Are you saved?" Because the first question, bang out of the box, is: what is the Biblical warrant for that question? Where, in the Bible, do we find anyone offering salvation as a "Get out of hell free" card?

The answer is: we don't. Any more than we find a lighted plastic baby Jesus, or a manger crowded with three men bearing one gift apiece, overtopped by a star which lights up the scene better than Hollywood can do for a movie.

Now, the idea that Christians have a duty to take Christianity out to the "heathen" is an old enough one that it drove Catholic missionaries to the Americas, and that's why I call it "Constantinian Christianity," because it is Christianity which imagines, like a secular leader, that it is responsible for the whole world: but responsible only for the souls of those in the world, and not for their well-being. This is an old fight, too. "What keeps mankind alive," asked Bertolt Brecht, and his answer was that millions are "daily tortured/Stifled, punished, silenced and oppressed/Mankind can keep alive thanks to its brilliance/In keeping its humanity repressed/And for once you must try not to shriek the facts/Mankind is kept alive by bestial acts," and there is certainly some warrant for that point of view, some warrant for accusing the Church of supporting that point of view in the last 2 millenia. And Brecht is certainly right: "Food is the first thing, morals follow on."

Immediately you might say, "But Jesus fed the 5000 after preaching to them." Which, of course, is true. But who remembers what he was telling them, and who remembers what he did? His words are lost even to us; his actions live on. Perhaps there's a lesson in evangelism there, too.

The example of Jesus brings up the fundamental problem we have with evangelism: we don't live in the world Jesus lived in, or even the one Paul lived in. Paul, really, is our first great evangelist. Jesus was no evangelist, not in the sense we mean it today. He seldom spoke to Gentiles, and there was a great controversy in the early church over whether the mission of the disciples was to the Jews or to the Gentiles. Part of the problem, of course, was that the Gentiles wouldn't understand what Jesus was talking about, as they had no knowledge, and indeed no need, of the Law of Moses. That law (which some today think we should put in our courtrooms) was the law of the covenant, not the law of the world. This represented a grave stumbling block to the early church which, when it became the church of Constantine and thus of the Empire, had to universalize its basis in order to justify its exclusive clai to salvation. It is in Christianity that "In Adam's fall, we sinned all," a statement neither Jesus nor Paul would likely understand.

Jesus was a teacher, a rabbi; he was not in any way remarkable or unique in his time, in his place. Many teachers were accompanied by stories of healing; many were said to have been resurrected, a sign of the favor of the gods for the life they had lived, the deeds they had done. Nothing about Jesus was precisely unique, looked at from outside a confessional perspective, a faith perspective. But to those who believed, who were convicted by him, by what he said, by his presence, there was clearly much more. But he didn't go to people and say "I am the Son of God, I am the Messiah; believe in me and you will be saved from hell." Even when he utters the famous words of John 3:16, he doesn't say them to a crowd of people, but to Nicodemus; who doesn't seem to understand anything Jesus says to him in that meeting. It's a rather thin reed upon which to rest a claim of rescue from damnation. And first, we have to establish the damnation.

That was not a concept known to Jesus, or to Paul or even Peter. There was punishment for violation of the Law of Moses; but that punishment was meted out to the nation of Israel, not individuals in the afterlife. The closest we get to that picture is the story of Lazarus and the rich man, in Luke; and there is nothing in that brief parable to indicate that Lazarus fulfilled all the requirements of the Law, or that the rich man ignored so many of them that he deserved to suffer for eternity. Indeed, the parable only illustrates a kind of rough justice, as Abraham says to the rich man: Lazarus had a miserable life, and now lives in comfort; you lived in comfort, and now live in misery. But is that the basis of the universe? Or is it any more reasonable than that those who do not believe in Jesus Christ as the Son of the God of Abraham will suffer for their lack of belief for all eternity? So we are back to the question, the one we must answer as seriously as the civil rights marchers under Dr. Martin Luther King had to answer: "Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?" "Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?" Not that evangelism, of course, is as consequential as civil disobedience; but it is not too much to say it is just as serious. Are we as committed to our beliefs as the civil rights marchers? Or are we only concerned about evangelism becuase we are concerned about church growth?

A moment, though, about the emphasis on salvation that the word "evangelism" inevitably provokes. That is neither accidental nor anecdotal. Googling other issues related to this post, I came across this interview with Rick Warren, and here is his definition of an "evangelical:"

An evangelical believes the Bible is God's Word, Jesus is who he claimed to be, salvation is only by grace – in other words, you can't earn your way to heaven – and everybody needs to hear the good news; information, not coercion.
And why does everyone need to hear the good news? Salvation, of course. And what does salvation mean? Salvation from what? In Jesus' time, it meant salvation from barbarism, chaos, disorder: it meant, in short, civilization, Pax Romana, the order offered by Rome and secured by Caesar (who was, by Jesus' time, divine, let us not forget). So salvation has always been tied to divinity. It's just a matter of who is saving you, and from what. And again, there is the presumption that a condition exists from which you must be saved, a condition you in your blissful heathen ignorance weren't even aware of (in extreme cases, even other Christians can be ignorant heathens; my own experience with zealous evangelicals attests to this).

But there are other issues of cultural Christianity, as well. "Chike" at Fr. Jake's place raised some not insignificant questions about "mega-churches" that can be considered for a moment just here.

MYTH #1: All megachurches are alike.
REALITY: They differ in growth rates, size and emphasis.

MYTH #2: All megachurches are equally good at being big.
REALITY: Some clearly understand how to function as a large institution, but others flounder.

MYTH #3: There is an over-emphasis on money in the megachurches.
REALITY: The data disputes this.

MYTH #4: Megachurches exist for spectator worship and are not serious
about Christianity.
REALITY: Megachurches generally have high spiritual expectations and serious orthodox beliefs.

MYTH #5: Megachurches are not deeply involved in social ministry.
REALITY: Considerable ministry is taking place at and through these churches.

MYTH #6: All megachurches are pawns of or powerbrokers to George Bush and the Republican Party.
REALITY: The vast majority of megachurches are not politically active.

MYTH #7: All megachurches have huge sanctuaries and enormous campuses.
REALITY: Megachurches make widespread use of multiple worship services over several days, multiple venues and even multiple campuses.

MYTH #8: All megachurches are nondenominational.
REALITY: The vast majority belong to some denomination.

MYTH #9: All megachurches are homogeneous congregations with little
REALITY: A large and growing number are multi-ethnic and intentionally so.

MYTH #10: Megachurches grow primarily because of great programming.
REALITY: Megachurches grow because excited attendees tell their friends.

MYTH #11: The megachurch phenomenon is on the decline.
REALITY: The data suggests that many more.
Chike added, in a comment to me:


In our "microwave" culture everyone has problems making committed disciples.

In England, what passes for "Megachurches" have way more committed membership than the Church of England.
Which is probably true, but still the question remains: committed to what? The gospel of prosperity and easy living through sanctimony? The church that doesn't demand a confession, of any kind, except a confession of how lovely it is to be living in the First World in exotic wealth and privilege?

Anyway, in more or less descending order: (1) No, I'm sure some mega-churches are richer than others.

The documents show revenue for the 2004 fiscal year of $54 million, including $3.4 million from the church bookstore, which sells religious videos, CDs and books.

Records also show:

•It owns and operates KTBU Channel 55, "The Tube," a local television station that features religious shows and retro programming like Gunsmoke and I Love Lucy.
•Employees have access to retirement plans.
•It has had a multimillion-dollar line of credit at Northern Trust Bank and has seven-figure investments in securities..
•Lakewood structured a sophisticated $60 million construction loan with Bank of America to revamp its new home at the former Compaq Center using collateral pledges from its members, a deed of trust on its northeast Houston campus and a life insurance policy for Joel Osteen.
•The church has successfully sued to protect Joel Osteen's name as a valuable trademark.
•Osteen, who lives in a home appraised at $2.3 million in the ritzy Tanglewood neighborhood, is listed as president of Lakewood Church, a nonprofit organization. (A spokesman for the church noted that Osteen paid $380,000 for the home when he bought it, though it has since been remodeled.)
(2-3) Myth #2 is rather hard to quantify either way. Not sure what "data" is involved here, but most mega-churches I know thrive on the gospel of prosperity, not the gospel of austerity. I've yet to see anyone build a church up enough it can afford to advertise on TV by preaching a gospel of selling all you have and giving it to the poor, or even saying that their church exists for the benefit of non-members. TV cameras in the sanctuary don't pay for themselves.

(4) I beg to differ. Community Church of Joy is a Lutheran church (almost in name only, however; Luther would not recognize anything even Christian about their "seeker services"), but even their attempt at creating disciples has largely failed. They admit that their efforts to draw people in with "user-friendly" worship and then develop them into mature Christians, has never really worked. G.A. Pritchard actually did a Ph.D. study outlining how badly they failed. Yet they are considered a "successful" church. And then there's the question, related to where I started, of just how spiritual they really are.

(5-6) Myth #5 is, again, hard to quantify. As for #6, there's quite a gap between "supporting George Bush" and "being politically active," and, as some churches have learned, the distinctions aren't always that clear.

(7) A mega-church, by definition, has 2000 or more worshippers. I've never seen a church sanctuary in America that would comfortably hold that many people. By definition, too, if they have multiple campuses or access to multiple buildings, they have money and, in America especially, money equals power.

(8, 9, 10, 11) Mega-churches advertise, especially on billboards and television. Such advertising is fantastically expensive, and dwarves the budgets of some denominations, much less churches. Such advertising has to be paid for by someone, and that means "butts in the pews." (a felicitious phrase from left rev.; if you don't follow any other link in this post, follow that one). Most mega-churches routinely lose almost as many people out the back door as they draw in the front door, and so have to keep churning for more new members to replace the disheartened ones who find themselves standing outside the center of attention they just occupied for a moment. It also occurs to me that I don't know of too many missionaries from mega-churches. You know, people so committed to the gospel that they are willing to go live in "poor countries" in much the way the natives there do, and work with them, and run a church on a shoestring and whatever they can wheedle from Americans and Europeans, the people with money in this world? I don't see mega-churches preaching the gospel of acompanamiento, which, of course, is precisely what Jesus did simply by being born in that manger, and living the life he lived.

But, again, I digress....

None of this is meant to pick on Chike, or to suggest that mega-churches are the root of all ecclesiastical evil in the world, nor its solution. I have a friend who pastors a church which is well over 100 years old, is small now, will be small in the future, and has always been small. But, as he tells them, they've also always been there. He's seen mega-churches in his community come and go in his years of ministry, and his church is still there. There is not a mega-church that is over 50 years old (I am bold to say) in no small part because there is one undeniable component of their make-up: they are all the product of a cult of personality. The largest church in Houston presses its pastor on the world relentlessly. The largest Baptist church in Houston features its pastor on every billboard and TV advertisement it puts up. Sometimes they don't even mention the name of the church, but his smiling face is there. Mega-churches are all about the man in the pulpit (never, oddly, a woman). And when that man dies, or loses favor, the church comes to an end. Maybe not immediately, but soon enough.

And how is that a model of the gospel, of a church which is built on a man who never founded any institution, and died leaving only a handful of dispirited and desperately afraid followers? Lakewood (my example only because it is large, and so independent) now urges visitors to "Discover the Champion in You!" How is any that in any way similar to a church which understands it exists for others, "others" always being those outside the church?

What does this have to do with evangelism? Ultimately, mega-churches preach by example, too. Their example, however, is that prosperity is a gift from God, and their churches exemplify that prosperity. From where I sit, I am not 15 minutes away from a church with a school, gymnasium, weight room, bookstore, even restaurant. It is practically a city in itself. It owns a shopping center, a retirement home, keeps the grounds meticulously landscaped, hires police officers every Sunday to direct the flow of traffic into and out of its campus. And that is only one of 4 campuses it maintains. Not that any Protestant church I've ever attended or preached in didn't try to make the best presentation possible, but the message of the mega-churches is clear, and their worship spaces can be exegeted as surely as scripture. So we come back to where we started: if we are going to preach the gospel to all the world, if we are "to tell our story in language that a person who doesn’t know anything about Christianity can begin to understand," we'll have to do a bit more than listen (although that's an excellent start): we'll have to figure out just what our story is. We'll have to think about what we know about Christianity, and whether it means acompanamiento, or whether it means "we believe in you, and all the world says about what Christian practice is."

Jesus preached to people who already knew the stories of the God of Abraham. Paul preached to Gentiles, as well as to Jewish Christians. Paul, more than Jesus, is our model here. There is a rich body of material, in fact, within and without the New Testament, for us to draw on. Listening is a good start, but when its our turn to talk, what do we say? Maybe we should consider first not how we say it, but what we are saying; and why.

I think we could do worse than start with the issue of responsibility. But that, of course, is not a church-growth strategy. That's offering the Church of Sacrifice for Meaning and Belonging, not the Church of Meaning and Belonging.

One thing just leads to another....

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