Note from CM: For the past couple of days I’ve been trying to write a post summarizing our discussions on the kind of discipleship being promoted by teachers like Francis Chan. I’ve made fits and starts and have not been satisfied with how the words were coming out. Then, in looking through the archives, I found this post from May, 2011 that said what I’ve been trying to get across. This is not the final word on this subject, we will be returning to it in the days to come, including some input from guests authors, but for this week, I hope this will sum up my perspective on the issues raised a few days ago.
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From the start of my ministry three decades ago, there were aspects of being an evangelical pastor that I simply did not “get.”
I would hear other ministers speak and tell about what God was doing at their churches, learn about their approaches and their programs, listen to testimonies from folks in their congregations, and I would leave scratching my head. It seemed to me that many of them, certainly the ones with forceful personalities, had a way of convincing others that their agenda as pastors was the same thing as God’s agenda for Christians.
In my circles, very rarely did I hear the full-blown “God told me to do this” account that was more prevalent in charismatic or pentecostal churches. Still, that was the impression, even in our more theologically conservative groups. Whether it was defining a preaching series, implementing an element of worship that the pastor thought the church should practice, organizing an outreach program, expanding staff, building new facilities, using a certain method of teaching or training in the educational program or youth group, or designing the way the church should be overseen by its leaders, these ministers had a way of making it sound like these were directives from God himself. And the corollary to that, of course, was – if you are a truly dedicated, committed Christian, you will participate.
Over and over again, I watched as the pastor’s agenda became the church’s agenda, because the pastor was able to persuade people that it was God’s agenda.
I never felt comfortable with this. It always felt like a shell game to me. I came to believe that it is one of the key dynamics that has contributed to the “churchianity” which Michael Spencer lamented. Identifying a particular church program of the moment with the path of the Christian life, leads to “church-shaped” people; not necessarily “Jesus-shaped” people.
I guess that’s one reason I’ve been in the wilderness, and am not a pastor in a local church today.
This agenda identification is mostly an evangelical/fundamentalist/charismatic/pentecostal phenomenon, as far as I can tell. In my experience, the churches without longstanding traditions and practices have been most subject to this problem. I’m sure it shows up in one form or another in all religious traditions, for at root, it is simply a manifestation of our fallen human tendency toward pride and idolatry. We all like to think that we are doing God’s will, and it is deceptively easy to mistake what I want for what God wants, and then to foist that on you.
For example, back in the dark ages when I became a pastor, there was wide acceptance of a viewpoint on the evangelical side that divided the Protestant part of Christendom into two main camps, based on the church’s service schedule and emphasis. God forbid that a pastor should go against these expectations!
- “Liberal” churches met on Sunday morning only, listened to “sermonettes,” and didn’t seriously study the Bible. The people who attended those churches were not “separated” from the world and didn’t care about other people’s “souls.” Instead, they practiced a mushy “social gospel” that taught you to love your neighbor. They cared more about “tradition” than Scripture, and their practices represented the “vain repetitions” of religion.
- “Bible-believing” churches met on Sunday morning for worship, Sunday evening for Bible teaching or evangelistic services, and Wednesday evening for prayer. The people in these churches separated themselves from the world and were expected to engage outsiders primarily through personal evangelism in which they attempted to “win souls.” As Bible-believing people, they eschewed tradition and sought to be led by the Holy Spirit through the Word in what they did.
It is that last point that made the practical difference pertinent to my point today. I was solidly in the “Bible-believing” camp, and it was in our DNA to be looking always for God to be doing new things. It was new wine all the time, and therefore we were in the business of continually manufacturing new wineskins. The Book of Acts was our template. God was always on the move. And so we’d better never be caught standing still. If you were a committed Christian, you would be ready to act when the Spirit said, “Go!”
This led us, over succeeding years, to accept or at least consider, often without a great deal of discernment, every movement and fad that came along. From new forms of church music to new forms of meeting together to new ways of preaching, to new models of evangelism and church growth, we tried to identify and catch every new wave that came to shore. In the process we eagerly cast off the “old” — hymns and hymnals, Sunday School, pews, pulpits, organs, “churchy” architecture, implicit dress codes, anything that smacked of “legalism” or “religion.” Sunday worship was replaced by seeker services at one point. Solid pastoral theology was swallowed up by church growth methods. Separation from the world system was transformed into political advocacy. Culture war issues such as the “traditional family,” abortion, and gay rights crept into sermons that once focused solely on Biblical exposition. In recent days, a more splintered evangelicalism has factions promoting reformed theology, emerging forms of church practice, “missional” church approaches, activism in areas such as social justice and environmental concern, and so on, as the “next big thing” the Holy Spirit is doing in the church.
Time does not allow me to list all the various permutations that have come to pass in recent decades. My point is not so much to examine or analyze them, but rather to point out that each and every change has been promoted by pastors and evangelical leaders in such ways that Christians under their tutelage have been expected to sign on, “follow the Spirit,” and support the program. A ongoing culture of religious expectation has been created and recreated. Faithfulness, passion, commitment, dedication — whatever you want to call it — is measured by one’s loyal participation in whatever new thing is happening in evangelicalism. We’ve noted the recent repeated calls to “radical” Christianity as an example of this.
It is in this context and out of these experiences that I have written posts like yesterday’s “It’s OK…to Just Be a Christian.” A mature Christian learns to distinguish between what the Lord expects, what the church expects, what others expect, and what one expects of oneself. I have come to believe that many of the expectations I and others try to live up to are not God’s expectations, but come from other sources.
“What does the Lord require of you?” God asked the people through the prophet Micah. The answer is refreshingly simple, an “easy yoke” borne up by grace and practiced in faith: “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8, NIV) Or, as Eugene Peterson paraphrases it in The Message: “Do what is fair and just to your neighbor, be compassionate and loyal in your love, And don’t take yourself too seriously — take God seriously.”
The evangelical culture of religious expectation does not see this as sufficient, despite their protestations that they are “Bible-believing” people. I certainly did not, when I was an evangelical pastor. The list of requirements may vary from church to church and from stream to stream within the broad confines of evangelical faith, but I’ll wager that each one would be much longer and demanding than Micah’s.
I have come to see that the requirements and expectations church culture puts on Christians:
- Grow out of a misunderstanding of Scripture. Don’t use most of the Book of Acts as a template, for example, unless you are an apostle or sent on a mission. Acts generally describes the exciting first days of gospel reception and church starts. The epistles on the other hand, many of which speak to those same churches, don’t paint a picture of a church frantically trying to keep up with the Spirit, catching new waves of possibility, and constantly changing patterns of ministry and practice. Instead, you see the Apostles encouraging the first Christians to hold to the traditions and to live exemplary lives among their neighbors, loving them and one another, while faithfully believing and sharing the Good News of grace and salvation in Christ.
Grow out of a lack of theology of “real life.” Many have noted how evangelical church culture has morphed into a ghetto in which its adherents can become trapped. As Skye Jethani has written, it has become an “Epcot” world that allows us to mimic life in the real world without ever having to experience the real world. For many church folks, life revolves around the “temple” — the full service Christian activity center (church) and its supporting Christian institutions. This is where the Christian life is to be lived. Unfortunately (in the minds of some), people also have to work and do other things, but it is always a relief to come back “home” where the same language is spoken and one can live according to common expectations. While I believe “community” is important, I also think the faith of Christ is a vibrant faith, designed to be lived in the streets, shops, schools, workplaces, ball fields, and neighborhoods of our world, among neighbors who don’t believe or live like we do. Our “suburbanized” media-focused world has practically destroyed the life of real-world community our parents and grandparents knew. Christians should not contribute to this but show that we know how to live as true humans in neighborly relations with those around us in daily life.
- Grow out of lack of a mature theology of vocation.I’m going to say this as bluntly as I know how. Pastors and churches create mountains of pure “busy work” for people. A large percentage of the activity that takes place in church culture produces nothing, helps nothing, makes nothing better, teaches nothing, accomplishes nothing. It simply keeps people busy doing “Christian” things. This is not how God blesses the world through his people. We ought to be ashamed and repent in dust and ashes about all the time, energy, and resources we waste in Jesus’ name. The world will become a better place when Christians learn to take their places in all realms of vocational life, devote their time and energy to doing good, productive work in the world, and helping their neighbors by actually achieving something. And churches will contribute much more the more we encourage this. This will mean that pastors and evangelical leaders will have to step down from their thrones, forfeit their kingdoms, and lay down their lives so that they may serve their brethren rather than vice versa. Instead of expecting people to participate in our programs, we must learn how to contribute pastorally in their lives as individuals, family people, working people, playing people, and people who live among their neighbors and are members of communities.
With this in mind, I’ll say it again…
It’s OK to just be a Christian.
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