Sometime in the past, I read an interview with Michael Card and he was asked a question about contemporary praise and worship music. Somewhere in his answer, there emerged the comparison of the current contemporary music scene to an industry, and the music emerging from it was the product.
Art. Creation. Industry. Product. Useful categories for thinking about evangelicalism these days.
Sometime in the late 1800â€™s, the printing and publishing business began to mass produce certain products of evangelicalism, most notably sermons and devotional literature. Evangelical churches, freed from the restraints of state church parochialism, began to come into their own in the United States as â€œchurch growthâ€ churches, with largeness the primary evidence of health. By the postwar era, the apparatus of a denomination like the Southern Baptist convention became industrial in scope, turning out literature, pastors, resources, programs, training and denominational â€œproductsâ€ of every kind in the cause of denominational triumph.
As we approach the end of the first decade of a new millennium, evangelicalism itself is morphing increasingly into a marketing and growth enterprise. The open emulation of business and marketing methods is now old hat. Churches mass produce themselves like Mcdonaldâ€™s franchises. The â€œworship productâ€ that Card referred to is undeniably real. Exhaustingly so.
Technology is the new currency of evangelicalism. Churches define themselves with websites, billboards and logos. Pastoral image is imported directly from MTV and the Comedy Channel. The formation of spirituality is a matter of mass consumption. Spending money on image is doing missions in evangelicalism.
Evangelicalism is a market share, a brand, a consumer movement. Churches are the outposts of choice and a measure of how successful leadership can be in using the tools of a technological age to create a phony version of awe and wonder.
The church is cool. The hip people are there. The programming is hot. The sermon series is on sex. The disdain of the past is open. The connection to the church historic and catholic is minute and sometimes non-existent.
The new pastor is a brash creature of attitude. He stalks the stage. He hits the audience with words, jokes, wit and brash cultural analysis. He has contempt for other points of view. He has swagger, jokes, sex appeal. He is more Jon Stewart or Chris Rock than Lloyd-Jones or James Boice. (Thank God for Tim Keller several times a day.)
Evangelicalism is industrial. Technological. A culture of consumption, getting more, winning the game, having the best. One need not buy into the â€œprosperity gospelâ€ to be part of a movement that advertises itself as young, hip, relevant, edgy, successful, hot and trend-setting.
Christian spirituality, however, is art. Creation. It is poetry, not the work of an assembly line. It is spiritual, not industrial. It is not produced by methodology purchased in a kit or acquired by subscription service. It is not the result of surveys or research. It is God’s Kingdom work, now as always.
Evangelicalism is desperately telling itself that putting a person in a large room with the right band, visuals, technology, Bible verses and person talking will create a disciple. Christian community has become a code word for audience participation. The counter-culture of small groups holds out some hope against this assembly-line approach to discipleship, but it cannot overcome the industrial mentality of the promoters of megachurch evangelicalism.
Exactly what is the persuasive reason a disciple with a good seat near the band, all the sermons on podcast and K-Love on the radio needs a small group? I know there is an answer to that question, and a true one. But does evangelicalism really want to be a movement of small groups, taught by lay leaders, meeting in homes? even if its leaders know it should become that movement for its own life and healthâ€™s sake, will evangelical ever choose that road?
An evangelicalism that looks more like art and less like industry. An evangelical spirituality that is more creative and less blueprint. An evangelicalism that behaves less like a culture of consumption and more like the worshiping, serving people of God. A movement that doesnâ€™t play Orwellian games with language. An evangelicalism of diversity, poetry, beauty, composition, freedom, experimentation and relationships.
An evangelicalism that resists the industrialization of the church and insists that the divine artist, the cosmic poet, the spontaneous creator be allowed to have His way among the movement that flows out of His sonâ€™s constant presence and power.
Resisting the religious-industrial complex and its various interests is not going to be easy, but it is happening. The same industrial version of spirituality that markets Blue Like Jazz in Wal-Mart canâ€™t deaden its subversive message. The same people who wonâ€™t market Derek Webbâ€™s announcement that the church is a whore canâ€™t keep us from hearing those words. The same technology that evangelicalism has used to become what it is can be used to unmake evangelicals from what theyâ€™ve become.
Industrial evangelicalism would like to absorb the resistance into itself, but we canâ€™t let that happen. We must determine not to play the game of seeing our efforts to cease giving up ground to the monster become just another section in the local Lifeway.
No, the resistance has to be real, on the ground, authentic. It has to actually resist and be willing to actually go a different path. Our resistance must be self-critical and not just angry. Resistance is not creation. It cannot be violent or self-justifying. Many of us are deeply implicated in the mess that Christianity has become in the west and we know it.
Resisting the religious-industrial complex that is evangelicalism must not take the form of more conferences and more t-shirts and more concerts. Our spiritual formation and pursuit of being the church must be in stark contrast to the evangelicalism of our time, and we must be able to stand in the presence of that evangelicalism without shame, knowing we are renouncing it, its products, its plastic heroes and its price tags.
This is the journey many of us are on, but it is a journey we want to more fully embrace in the presence of our brothers and sisters. We will not be intimidated by the name-calling of the doctrinal watchdogs who have, unwittingly, become just another manifestation of evangelicalismâ€™s Faustian traffic with modernity. The great danger we all face is cynicism about what is possible in small ways, small places and with small resources.
The parables of Jesus remind us that the Kingdom of God is no industrial production and that even in its smallest manifestations it carries the dynamic power of the new creation. This is what Iâ€™m holding on to in my corner of the world: the small things I can write and do are enough, but they will be nothing if I donâ€™t do them at all.