Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Everyman’s Religious Varnish

The last post on fruit, leads into the next section (and a couple of posts) of the DMin paper, the malaise of the Constantinian church and the scourge of rampant consumerism in the church and what some people are doing about it.

Frost and Hirsch describe the revitalization of the church as a diaspora – being thrust out of our safe environments like a mother robin pushes her fledglings out of the nest. Frost uses the term “exiles” to mean Christians who find themselves caught in that dangerous wilderness between contemporary secular Western culture and an old-fashioned church culture of respectability and conservatism.

Douglas John Hall describes it this way: “If we have the courage to give up our defense of the old facades which have nothing or very little behind them; if we cease to maintain, in public, the pretense of a universal Christendom; if we stop straining every nerve to get everybody baptized … if by letting go, we visibly relieve Christianity of the burdensome impression that it accepts responsibility for everything that goes on under this Christian topdressing, the impression that Christianity is a sort of Everyman’s Religious Varnish, a folk-religion (at the same level as that of folk-costumes) – then we can be free for real missionary adventure and apostolic self-confidence.”

Shane Claiborne says “I gave up Christianity in order to follow Jesus.” He then quotes Soren Kierkegaard: ”The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly … Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close.”

If committed Christians are leaving the institutional church (yes, even Evangelical and Charismatic churches) to pursue radical obedience to Jesus, perhaps the very existence of this institutional church needs to be challenged. The philosophical aspects of church as we know it are expressed in tangible structures. The structural characteristics of Christendom thinking include:
1. dedicated, sacral buildings that are central to the notion and experience of church so that church becomes a visible, tangible place to be sacred,
2. leadership and much of the hands-on ministry provided by institutionally ordained clergy, mostly gifted as pastors/teachers/administrators – a professional guild,
3. a hierarchical/top-down organizational structure, that often excludes “undesirables” (women, youth, poor, new people, those not of the dominant ethnic group, etc.),
4. the institutionalization and formalization of sacraments into a symbolic event administered by the dominant leadership culture,
5. the perception that church is central (or should be) to society and culture,
6. an attractional (come to the church building) and extractional (extract people out of the host culture and into the church culture) missional mode.

To put it into context, this list describes a church that invests much of its time and energy into conducting a weekly “worship service” and a number of other programs that include music and teaching, designed to appeal to a small percentage of society. These events are planned and conducted by about ten percent of the people (predominantly male paid professional staff members) and presented to the other ninety percent of the people (who are predominantly female). The majority (90%) of the financial resources are committed to the upkeep of the building and the hiring of staff.

Given the poverty in the world, and that of our own neighborhoods, spending millions on church buildings begins to become a justice issue. The main mode of growth of this type of church is marketing (by members and often through various forms of media) that invites people to come to the church building to consume what the paid professionals are presenting. This description may sound harsh or crass. In reality, some are able do this type of church with excellence producing positive results (in terms of some conversion growth, and some discipleship). But the fact remains that the vast majority of resources of this type of church is consumed to sustain itself and it typically doesn’t transform communities , produce new converts or truly disciple Christians.

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