Church as Prophet or Church as Mouthpiece of Democratic “Progressive” Socialism?

There’s a lot out there about the “new evangelical left,” the “emerging church,” and new missional communities that are seeking to embody the gospel in new ways and live out the mission of Jesus in the world. I’m painting in hugely broad strokes, but many of these churches share in common a skepticism / critique of church as it has been practiced and especially of the political activism of the religious right. It is an easy to blog surf and find some church, group, preacher, or random know-it-all with a laptop (guilty!!) spouting off about how the church has ceased to be relevant, how abortion and gay marriage are important but not really, how the church needs to apologize for so many things, and on and on. There is a good deal out there about how the church needs to deal with issues of poverty, social justice, and oppression and complaint that the church hasn’t done enough. And again there is usually a call for the church to apologize.

Theologically speaking, there is ample room for the emerging dialogue to take place under the umbrella of orthodox evangelicalism, defined broadly as belief that: 1) the Bible is true, and authoritative and we ought to follow it, 2) Jesus is the only Son of God and Savior, 3) return of Christ in judgment, 4) umm something else that I’m probably forgetting. The current movement though is often self described as being “prophetic” because of the ways that the prophets of the Old Testament and Jesus himself spoke about the poor and the marginalized. They see themselves as standing in that stream seeking to “be the church” in a prophetic kind of way rather than just “proclaiming” the gospel in a way that is disconnected from the day to day lives of the average person.

Socially speaking the movement seems to be dominated by White middle class, college educated people who wear black rimmed glasses and use Macs instead of PC’s. They tend to hang out in coffee shops and have churches with one or two word names like “Quest” or “Missio Dei” that obscure more than they reveal. They care about multiethnicity and try to actively pursue it. They have “creative class” jobs and live in gentrifying neighborhoods that have local food markets. They know what arugula is.

In other words, they fit neatly the typical demographic of liberal Democrats except for their pesky clinging to evangelical religion. But honestly, much of what is discussed in the blogosphere and bandied about in circles of these new evangelicals is hardly distinguishable from the Democratic Party platform. Without intending to, their prophetic voice on issues like abortion is suspiciously reminiscent of the bumper sticker, “Against abortion? Don’t have one!” Of course, it much more nuanced than I am portraying it, but there is a distinctive unwillingness to be notably and publicly FOR anything typically associated with recent evangelical politics and a concomitant willingness to be AGAINST anything championed by the Republican Party.

How prophetic though is it to align oneself with the prevailing currents of social and political thought? Has the Christian right spoken only a “negative and condemning message,” and if even they have, isn’t that also in the prophetic tradition? John the Baptist was not exactly sitting down for a conversation with those he preached repentance to, and Jeremiah would likely have been treated for clinical depression based on his frequent weeping and lament over the sinful state of his nation. Does being a faithful follower of Jesus mean that you support the notion of Universal Health Care Coverage?

Missions & Mission

I am attending a missions conference for one of the churches that supports my work with students. The conference is quite the “deal” with the entire congregation mobilized to welcome, support, care for, and encourage their “partners” in ministry. This morning I heard a wonderful sermon on John 3:16 about how we are all sent, and that wherever we are is the ends of the earth to someone else.

It is such a great gift to be in a place and among people who see that what missionaries, both here and throughout the world, is a valuable and critical component of the mission of God. I am thrilled that this congregation takes so seriously the work of caring for missionaries beyond simply sending a check every month, although that too is important.

This stands in sharp contrast to the many conversations I’ve had through the years with potential donors and supporters of ministry, some of whom are not quite sure what we do, or if what we do is valuable, or even worse, view us as competitors to the ministry of the “church” what ever that means. I sure people don’t mean anything by the sometimes harsh comments they make to or about missionaries, but as someone who depends on the provision of God through the generosity of his people, it isn’t easy to hear from someone that they “cannot afford to give” when I supervise college educated people who make less than $20,000 a year. Even harder to hear is the critiques often lodged against missionaries or pastors for their “extravagant lifestyles” when the lifestyles of the average church member is not allowed to ever be evaluated for its closeness to Biblical norms.

Nevertheless, I am not writing this primarily as a rant against the some time stinginess of the church, but rather to raise the question of how “missions” and the “mission” of the church go together. Most of the financial resources of the church go mainly to creating programs designed to care for the needs of the congregation with missions and outreach receiving whatever might happen to be left over. In some ways this would be fine if members were mobilized towards active mission, whether on their jobs or in their neighborhood, or wherever. However, in most cases, mission giving ends up being nothing more than a salve to the conscience of believers who know that they are to be generous, yet cannot bring themselves to sacrifice the comfort of padded pews and the latest high tech multimedia to give to some missionary somewhere. Besides, aren’t missionaries and pastors supposed to be poor?

What is the mission of the church and how is it connected to “missions?” Are they separate things, united only by their common name? Is the mission of the church accomplished through writing the monthly check or by doing the occasional inner city (read poor people that don’t look like us) service project? What about all those people hell bound and dying who look to all appearances that the don’t need the Lord? Are they not an appropriate target for missions? What do you guys think?

A Cool Church?

Yesterday I had the chance to meet with a local pastor in my community. He leads a PCA church plant in what is arguably one of the “hipper” parts of what is, I think, a fairly “hip” city, Nashville. We drank coffee, we chatted sophisticatedly in the coffee house in the heart of this hip neighborhood whilst all around us other “hip” looking people surfed the internet and drank decaf mocha’s.

His church is “hip.” They are an eclectic bunch, and meet on Sunday afternoon rather than Sunday night, all the better for those “hip” types who sleep in. They have community groups (not cell groups) and are doing their level best to be a part of the diverse, economic mish-mash, and culturally relevant place that is East Nashville. I told him that I grew up in East Nashville, long before it was considered a “hip” place to be and that even now I live in the “pre-trendy” part, i.e. the part where there are no corner cafes or cool looking White people with black rimmed glasses ordering scones while surfing the internet on their Mac. People in my part of East Nashville are more likely to be running from police than out for a morning jog.

We talked about the pros and cons of gentrification, that delightfully complex process whereby a community goes from being a “hood” to actually having a name and a Starbucks.

He informed me that he doesn’t want his church to be “cool” and that that is not the point of church or ministry anyway.

I agree.

As much as I admire and appreciate the way folks are trying to present the gospel in a relevant way, I can’t help but notice that many of the folks paying attention, like the clientèle at my pastor friend’s church, are “hip.” I don’t mean to suggest that they aren’t sincere, or that they don’t need the gospel or anything else detrimental. It’s just that, well… I’m not sure what I mean. It just seems to me that we put a lot of effort into being relevant, and in practice it turns out that we’re just trying to be “cool.” And if you didn’t know, Blessed are the Uncool (great book by the way; the author is a personal friend).

I just don’t know if the church is supposed to be relevant in that sense of the word. Are we really supposed to be cool, hip, or trendy?

As a missionary on the front lines of “cool” i.e. the college campus, I find that most non-believers really aren’t drawn to or repelled by Christianity on the basis of the “cool factor” of our groups. To be honest, many of our groups are thoroughly “un-cool.” We play cheesy games, go to cheesy conferences, and do all kinds of things that aren’t especially appealing to those aspiring to “hipness.” Ironically, the couple of weeks we showed cool videos to talk about the gospel (including a Nooma video) the non Christians complained about it. What draws people to our groups is the same things that always have: the power of the Spirit.

Of course we should speak with intelligibility and relevance to the culture around us. I cannot but be in favor of contextualization and relevance in the articulation of the gospel. People still need to hear, “in (their) own language” the “declaration of the wondrous works of God.”

But I think we also should remember that the church is really not meant to relevant. Church is, to me, like a big slightly dysfunctional family. And families aren’t relevant; they are decidedly “un-cool.” In fact, families are somewhat embarrassing, and all the more so when you invite friends over. There are the relatives that say too much, or are too critical; the nosy aunt, the overbearing uncle. There are kids who always wait until company comes to act out, and then embarrass their parents and everyone else by having to be punished. There’s just the general weirdness that each family has that you don’t really know how to explain to an outsider, but you want to anyway, lest they think you’re too strange.

But what makes family “family” is just that strangeness. It isn’t cool, it isn’t hip and it isn’t relevant. Its home: the place that when you have to go there, they have to take you in. I suspect that people are looking for a relief from being “cool.” They want a place where they can come from behind the trendy eye wear, disaffection and cynicism; a place where laughter is untainted with sarcasm, and emotions don’t have to be explored, but can simply be felt.

Let us not give up meeting together as some are in the habit of doing, but let us spur one another on to love and good deeds. Let us not give up being the church in exchange for being cool.