Friday, January 07, 2011

We Are Not In Charge Anymore

Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Lament and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy into dejection. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you. - James 4:8-10


I ran across this video recently, and I was struck by the state of the American Church as we experience the transition into a post-Christendom context.


On the face of it, I really like this video. I fundamentally agree with pretty much everything Mike Slaughter says. He's right that we need to get serious about being disciples of Jesus rather than just striking a pose on Sunday mornings. I agree that the pseudo-gospel of "accept Jesus and go to heaven" needs to be challenged; and he's right that our words are meaningless unless they are accompanied by transformed lives. Mike says a lot of good stuff that I can unite with. However, as the video ran, I began to feel convicted: Something is amiss here.

A couple of phrases really stood out to me. The first was when Mike talked about us being, "part of a movement that changes the world..." I was convicted of how big I like to talk sometimes. In my joy and enthusiasm, I am apt to run ahead, ready to make declarations about how I am going to change the world. As Jesus noted long ago, this is an easy way to miss all the change that needs to happen within my own heart.(1) The world is indeed in awful shape - but why am I so quick to assume that I am part of the solution, rather than a perpetrator of sin? When I open myself to Wisdom, I see that my own life is on the front lines of the struggle for change. I am humbled, seeing the world I want to change - with its greed, fear, pride and violence - reflected quite clearly in my own life. Changing the world must begin within.

The other part of Mike's sermon that struck me was when he talked about the Church being "effective." Hearing this, I was convicted about how limited my own conception of effectiveness is. When I place my focus on how to be effective, I often lose sight of the things God might be calling me to that do not seem very effective to me. When my primary goal becomes obtaining certain outcomes, I have moved beyond faithfulness and have put myself in God's place.

As my friend Tyler Hampton has pointed out to me, the focus on being able to deliver results reflects how entrenched humanist market values have become in the thinking of the Church. Growth in church membership, number of people fed and clothed in church missions, Bibles translated and distributed, the quality of the music in our services - all of these things are important. If they become our primary focus, however, we have missed the mark. We have adopted a consumer model instead of a Kingdom model.
Of course, we want to be part of a movement that changes the world; we want to be effective. This is as it should be. We should seek to glorify God with our lives, having a positive impact on others. But when "results" become more important than waiting on Christ's guidance and obeying the immediate promptings of the Spirit, we have made an idol of our own understanding. And make no mistake - our claims about "what Jesus would do" are often little more than cover for our own selfish desires.

That, I realized, is our condition as a people. We are still caught up in our long-established habit of using God to justify our own human motivations. We participate in the same triumphalist church culture that most of Christendom has been mired in for the last eighteen hundred years. We see that we are entering into an age of post-Christian culture, yet Christendom is still under our skin. We see the decline of Christian predominance in the West, and yet we believe that the Church is entering into a new phase of influence and high-impact ministry. This reeks of human ideas shrouded in the mantle of God.

And I stand as convicted as anyone. I confess that I would like to be powerful and respected in society at large. I would like my arguments to be persuasive, my methods to be viewed with approval, my assumptions to be validated. However, if we are indeed transitioning into a post-Christian culture, we as followers of Jesus Christ need to come to grips with the reality that our influence in polite society is diminishing.

This should be easier for Quakers to accept than for many Christian groups. We have generally been on the margins of Christendom - frequently persecuted by the wider Church, and, with a few exceptions, rarely permitted to wield much power. And yet, this transition will challenge us, too, because we have grown comfortable and respectable. We share most of the assumptions of the wider society, and as our culture becomes more secular, more focused on products than on people, we will be greatly tempted to follow suit. If we want to stay true to the Lord Jesus, we must embrace our powerlessness. We must allow God's power to shine forth in our weakness, just as Christ did during his self-sacrificial life on earth.

How do we begin to accept the reality that we are weak and uninfluential? How can we embrace our place as a Church on the margins - not only in rhetoric, but in fact? What new opportunities can this afford us to truly be the Church of the Crucified Savior in a broken world?

Lord, show us the way of your cross.

-

1. Matthew 7:3-5

9 comments:

Alice Y. said...

Thanks for this Micah. I have this sense as well. The battleground so often for me is my willingness to not be in charge, to actually rely on God, to accept the help. I think this is the place where God's grace and power can reach us, if we are willing to trust and wait, even in our own weakness and ignorance.
I know that when I have been able to find that point of difficulty and trust God in it, ask for more help with it, to trust God's own grace and power coming through with the answer - huge changes seems to happen for me.

michaeldavidjay said...

Also, when we focus on marketing we forget the impossibility of selling God. We end up marketing even more marketing, which does nothing but frustrates the customer.

Thank you for this thoughtful reminder that we need say with John the Baptizer: "May I decrease so Christ may increase".

Thank you also for the thoughtful reminder that we are trying to live the Christian life -- so we still need God to transform our lives.

C. Wess Daniels said...

Micah - along the lines of effectiveness read Yoder's "Patience as Method." It's brilliant and something that is continually playing in the back of my head now. http://theology.nd.edu/people/research/yoder-john/documents/PATIENCE.pdf

Anonymous said...

I ultimately agree with what you are saying and think that Michael summarized well in reminding us of the impossibility of selling God.

Alternately, there is a temptation for religious institutions (and, in fact, all non-profits) to abandon any sense of accountability and judgment of effectiveness. Just because we cannot measure our success by how many "souls are saved" does not mean that we cannot set goals (finding new community events to participate in, honestly adhering to our decision-making practices, using good accounting practices to manage endowments, evaluating educational programs in terms of their impact).

We need to recognize what belongs to God, and recognize that the problem is how we define effectiveness. Then we can give up the guilt or triumph we feel about successes or failures that had little to do with us, and enjoy the genuine feeling of accomplishment when we (with the inspiration and help of God) have completed a task well.

Valerie Hurwitz

Diane said...

Micah,

This post speaks my mind.

Jim714 said...

Micah, beautifully said.

Thanks,

Jim

Raye said...

Thanks again, Micah. Perhaps there is good reason that one song I continually play and sing is Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross....

Jesus, keep me near the cross;
there a precious fountain,
free to all, a healing stream,
flows from Calvary's mountain.

Near the cross! O Lamb of God,
bring its scenes before me;
help me walk from day to day
with its shadow o'er me.

Perhaps it is because I need to learn this, to know it in my bones, to live it.

Karen said...

I enjoyed this post very much. I have not been much involved with churches but it spoke to my recent understanding of how often I have tried to be in control of things that aren't in my control. I've tried to "obtain certain outcomes" as you put it to the point where I'm a hair's breadth from outright manipulating others. I stop asking "what is right to do" and concentrate on what will "be effective". In the process I find myself stepping on other people's free will and interfering with God's will for them. I find myself doing what is hateful to me unto others. It was a real shock when God showed me this side of myself and the fear(s) that fuel it... but I was grateful for it.

Thanks for this post

Micah Bales said...

@Alice Thanks for sharing your journey with Christ in letting go of your own will and strength and giving yourself over to God's plan for your life and the community where God has placed you.

@Michael It's important to remember, especially for those of us who are particularly concerned for the work of evangelism, that even the Great Commission can turn into an ego trip. Christ's Kingdom comes in unexpected ways, and we shouldn't assume that the growth that Christ sends us will fit into our preconceived plans.

@Wess Thanks for the piece by Yoder! I'll give it a look!

@Valerie Thanks for pointing out that we should not hide behind a false sense of "faithfulness" as a way of getting out of our responsibility to act, and to do so in ways that have a beneficial effect on our community, society and planet. While the Church should to avoid arrogance, we surely don't want to slip into quietistic disempowerment!

Thank you for helping hold these tensions together.

@Diane and @Jim Thanks!

@Raye Thanks for sharing those beautiful lines, Raye. I hope that we can walk together under the cross.

@Karen Thanks for sharing your experience with this struggle. I am glad to know that this post has spoken to the condition of others.