Friday, September 23, 2011

Selling God Short

I have nearly finished reading a book which is as interesting as it is terrible. Shopping for God by James B. Twitchell is an interesting peak behind the curtain at what the Church would be without God. Reporting from the perspective of the jaded atheist (while putting on the mantle of “apathiest,” one who does not care about his own or others' faith, so as to be less jarring), our narrator weaves us a tale of the Church as a free market enterprise, and writes the narrative of faith as a commodity to be sold, with churches as brands in competition. I do still have a chapter to go, so I may be surprised by a late twist, but overall the book has left me often shaking my head, feeling sorry for the narrator so blind he will not see, and yearning to give comfort to the confused and lost masses which he counts no more than shoppers at market day.

What the book has led me to, however, is the consideration of the important distinction between a church using the products of sin for the good of God, and becoming so focused on a worldly measure of their success that they will set aside the works of God to provide for the wants of man. It is easy to see how one can get lost along the primrose path, but it is a path which is difficult to return from. While one may always continue to do God’s work with lesser means, it is much harder to guide a body which has grown rife with ungodly ways back to the way of the Lord. From the perspective of the observer without the Spirit to guide them, it is natural that they see in the various denominations of the Church competitors selling unique products, and suspect that measuring their success by economic means of cash flow or attendance would seem to be reasonable. While those who seek to humbly do God’s will are unlikely to fear the ebb and flow of members, so long as they are not lured away from the Love of God to the Love of Worldly things.

Consider the statement quoted by G.B. Shaw from a Salvation Army officer back around 1900, "they would take money from the devil himself and be only too glad to get it out of his hands and into God's." This is a rather pithy summary of the first idea. At first many Christians may have a kneejerk reaction against such a sentiment; we don’t want to sully our House of God with dirty money from those who have earned it in ways the Church does not condone. But stop for a moment and think this through. Do we not come together as Christians to confess our sins and beg forgiveness? Do we not preach that all sins may be forgiven, and it is the place of the Christian to forgive, and the Lord to judge? Applied strictly, is not most of the money offered up to the church tainted by sinful behavior? Of course, but it is a natural human desire to be better than someone else, to feel that our sins are more forgivable. These are the very drives which we must turn to our Savior for his compassion and aid in overcoming. Now, there is a danger here, but it is not that goods earned in sin cannot be put to good works, but rather that it is natural for man to feel a sense of gratitude and indebtedness. Here is where the church must be vigilant, for it is far better to do without funds than to allow the ungodly to place demands upon the church. The church should look long and hard for hidden dangers before accepting any gift, no matter how righteous or wretched the apparent source, lest the church place the tools of God under the rules of man with his flawed understandings.

When looking to the other side of this issue, the phrase which comes to mind as a red flag is ‘bigger is better,’ a notion that if one fills the pews, it will only lead to good things. To me this is a very dangerous idea which can easily subvert a good motive to ends which do not further God’s work. There is a notion that if you can get the body to show up at church, in time the spirit will follow and the people will come to seek a Christ like life. This illusion is attractive, and in a very small scale can even be true, a curious member or two in a church of several dozen or a hundred is likely to be drawn in to the church life and begin to fill their time with thoughts and actions focused on Christ. But this notion does not simply scale up. When you add dozens, or even hundreds, of curious bodies into a church which holds a thousand or more bodies at each service, they are not likely to feel a need to look into the habits of the most faithful, they will form self supporting social groups which provide fellowship, but very little drive to look deeper into their relationship with Christ. At most they will learn to display group emblems or use a few pieces of jargon which show their solidarity with the church they nominally worship with, while partaking of the church as a social club and not a spiritual haven.

Certainly, these situations may have many devout and faithful Christians in the mix, looking for ministry and doing God’s work… but how do you overlook the irony that the church itself becomes a haven for those estranged from Christ to feel better without repenting? If a church shies away from preaching the crucifixion and resurrection to avoid making the congregation squeamish, if it focuses on the good things the Lord wants for you and not on the good deeds the Lord wants for you to do, If it teaches you all about how much God loves you, but avoids talking about the obligation we have to Love God, how can the lost sheep find nourishment?

The old guard of Christians with our Doctrines and our Denominations must stand ready to welcome back the prodigal son when he is tired of the feast of self empowerment and comes once more looking for a life with piety, not just purpose. The mantle of Christ’s Ministry has never been a popularity contest, and does not simply fall onto whoever can attract the most people while still slipping Christ in the title somewhere. How can a wounded soul learn to heal if it is never shown why it hurts? On the website of one of these post-denominational high tech churches, I found a link to a “sample prayer” that church members were asked to pray. This prayer informed the members of the Church to vigorously convert their friends, family, and co-workers to attend this church, and warned of the evil of culture from outside of the church approved media (available for sale), and the dire punishments to come if the church message was not consumed, and informed the members that the suffering around them was the just punishment of God on a wicked and Godless people. Loyal readers know I do not support a fire and brimstone theology, but one in which we are called to serve those who have been given less, that we may show in token the nature of compassion.

When working in the service of the Lord, one learns to know the touch of the Holy Spirit. I am unabashedly ecumenical, and state with no shame or hesitation that that Spirit does not belong to any church, we belong to it. This is the key fact that I think an “apathiest” going from church to church and trying to understand them as brands pitted against each other cannot understand. A clever lady said to me that to her the mainline denominations were like cupcakes. There is a crumbly cake of Gospel Doctrine which has to be there, without it, it isn’t a cupcake, but on top of that, you can put frosting and sprinkles, even fruit if you like. Some folks love fudge icing, and can’t imagine a cupcake without it, others love butter cream icing with sprinkles, some folks think the frosting is tacky and want a plain cupcake… but we all get the cake. As long your church isn’t giving you icing that is cake free, I’m just happy you are finding your dessert in the bakery of the Lord. Sure, some folks in my church with its elaborately sculpted filigree icing are adamant that other cupcakes are just plain wrong, you always have a core that needs to cling to what it knows, but most Christians are happy to be part of an assorted pack, and are happy when someone finds a cupcake they like, even if it isn’t our favorite.

This is why we can’t be understood from an economic perspective, we need each other, and we wish each other success. We come together and may merge in times of scarcity; we stress our differences and may spawn new creeds in times of plenty (or times of great stress such as war). But we are all the Church Invisible, One holy catholic church. We are all wholly owned subsidiaries of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and as such we simply cannot be in competition. We may quibble and have roaring arguments from time to time, but it is the bickering of siblings eager to look good for Dad. Further, just like those siblings, we will close ranks and support each other against the attacks material or ideological which want to send us to bed without our cupcake.

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