Tuesday, August 30, 2005

One wrong turn leads to another (and another)

An old pet peeve came up today as I was reading yet another blog about yet another megachurch pastor who is yet again leading the Church at large astray. It gets old. It's like turning on Rush Limbaugh and expecting moderation and reason (or at the very least the appearance of charity) -- the listener is always ripe for disappointment.

No such luck again, as megachurches (at least the ones deemed to be light on the gospel) have become the 21st Century evangelicalism's rallying point. Tear them down and build 5,000 little churches, the crowd cries.

It's not a bad idea, and I'm on board with some of the criticism, I'm just not always comfortable with the delivery. If you have a church that exceeds 10,000 people, you have to question why, exactly, the growth is there. Population and popularity is not the first indicator of God blessing a ministry. If your salvation or the salvation of your church members was based on the promise of a more comfortable life here on Earth, you may have been sold an empty promise. Fulfilling, yes, but the world's view of fulfilling and God's view of fulfilling are nearly diametrically opposed. It's really a matter of perspective, and one that leads to all kinds of instinctive questions about megachurches. The true Gospel is offensive to the flesh when the Spirit is not stirring in a person.

However, it is neither a sign of the absence of God's ministry, although some people are pretty confident church should never be so easy to attract so many people. This kind of bias probably reaches beyond healthy skeptimism, in my own opinion, and probably reaches well beyond the correctional authority Christians were given. I'm not a church historian, but I imagineearly church bodies swelling to very large numbers. Jesus seemed to attract large crowds without much advance notice.

I was reading this blog entry when I was reminded of something that used to really bother me, but it's something that is overlooked today. I remember when I was a kid in the 70s. Watergate had just shattered any remaining notion of traditional America, so it opened the door to shun all things not explicitly secular. I don't think it was contempt as much as it was wanting a consistent policy. It became the era the media decided the only way to deal with religious entities was to think of them as social agents, not spiritual agents. "Good" outfits and "bad" outfits were measured by their ability to positively affect their local community. A pastor was deemed worthwhile if his church was especially charitable. It was a corporate deemphasis of a church's message. Nobody wanted to play in the fields of ideas anymore, particularly ones that generally separate large populations of people.

Now, there's nothing wrong with this, and Scripture supports this point of view. We will be known by our love, correct? However, in this process, "good" pastors became people like Jim Wallis, well-meaning, bright thinkers who put too much emphasis on social justice and not enough emphasis on the main and plain of the Gospel. As much as I appreciate the intent of Wallis' Sojourners, it is mostly powerless, because they are deprived of the most important part of the ministry. For Wallis, social justice is the Gospel, a sad representation of the power of God. Social justice is the outcome of the Gospel properly delivered, but it is not the Good News, which is a promise for beyond this life, this Earth, this reality.

I am one of the Church's biggest critics when it comes to abandoning our social responsibilities. I've long held that if the Church was doing its job, we wouldn't be looking down the double-barrel of a welfare state. I find political answers to this problem disheartening, particularly when they come from well-to-do Christians whose only answer is for those "bums" to "get a job." I also believe in the boot-strap mentality, but I do not see any place where Jesus is recorded as telling anyone to get a job. He was quite handy at giving people things to do, though, while he fed them, clothed them, healed them, and delivered them.

Getting back to the point, this long-held media standard about newsworthy pastors and non-newsworthy pastors is probably one of the greatest influences on America's decline into relativism. They wanted active leaders, not people who seemed angry and content to call out damnation on unbelievers. As this standardization of coverage spread into all reaches of journalism, every person who believed in the narrow path of evangelical Christianity had been defined as a fundamentalist; if you believed the Bible was the inerrant Word of God, if you believed Jesus was the only way to heaven, if you believed good people who didn't believe in Jesus were going to spend an eternity in hell, then you were in the minority. Why? Well, because the only positive religious news stories we ever witnessed involved pastors at churches that did stuff, pastors who wrote books about business, pastors who wrote books about how to be a better consumer and happier person. Pastors who preached heaven and hell from the Book of Luke, rather than offering wordly homilies, were considered passe' at best, crackpots at worst.

I even wonder how much news a real reformation might garner today. It would probably be viewed negatively, or at the very least, very detached. After all, the real Gospel is exclusive by design: There is only one way to heaven, and that is through Jesus, and that message is unacceptable to the media. If a reformation did come, and real revival broke out, it would have to be explained to the media in ways they could understand it: lowered recitivism, lowered crime rates, rehab centers emptied, homeless sheltered, families renewed and rebuilt.

Now, all of these things would be part of a traditional large-scale revival, but that is not the intent or message of the Gospel. It would be a disappointing portrayal, because the whole point would be to let the world know that God is moving, so hop on the bus while there's time.

One thing I will always agree on with megachurch critics is this: the Gospel is not your typical positive message. If we are honest, it is a call to struggle, to denial, to embrace burden. Yes, Jesus renews us through the Spirit, but any attempt to explain this to a non-believer that does not force them to weigh the cost -- to understand the reality of their decision -- is a perversion of the Gospel. If we are selling them a better life through less struggle, less heartache, less pain, we aren't preaching the real Gospel.

We allowed ourselves to become irrelevant once by playing to the watered-down rules of the media. Now we can no longer rely on our media savvy to rebuild the Church. Boy, is that a good thing. Now we must rely on God, not the kingmakers, to deliver His believers and grow our numbers the old-fashioned way.

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