UPDATE: In reviewing this post it becomes clear to me that it could be interpreted as singling out my church for criticism. That is not my intent. Rather, my intent is to speak of evangelical Protestant-dom as a whole. There is nothing in my church that I would criticize that is not also common to evangelical Protestant-dom as a whole–or at least a very large segment thereof. The issues that I speak of in this post–our dependence on human effort in the form of Christian culture and technological and organizational know-how rather than upon the Holy Spirit, our willingness to sacrifice the Gospel to alternative agendas such as the culture war or church growth–are systemic issues which are prevalent throughout much of evangelical Protestant-dom, not just any one church.
I love my church. I love the band, the music, the lights, the teaching (most of the time). I love the community that I get to be a part of, the people that I get to be involved and serve and do life with. I love being part of a church that is intentionally geared toward reaching people of my age group and season of life. And I love being part of a growing and vibrant church community that is among the most well-respected names in evangelicalism here in my city.
But there is one thing that I would like to see just a little bit more of.
Humility to recognize that much of what we consider important, and even essential, to our ability to grow in, to express, and to sustain the Christian faith…may not be so essential after all.
Humility to recognize that we have lost (and even deliberately thrown away) much that is of great value.
Here’s what I mean:
Have you ever thought about how much of what we have nowadays that the early Christians did not have?
For starters, the early Christians did not have Christian media. They did not have books (at least not readily accessible to the general public), movies, DVDs, Christian TV/radio, Christian bookstores, or any of the massive for-profit Christian media enterprise that exists nowadays.
They did not have music. Now I’m sure that there was some music used in Christian worship back in the days of the early church, but they did not have any of the massive apparatus and infrastructure that exists nowadays concerning worship music, or any of the emphasis upon worship music in the life of the believer or the church that we have nowadays. They did not have Hillsong. They did not have Passion. They did not have Chris Tomlin cranking out a new worship CD every year or two. They did not have concerts or music festivals. They did not have worship leaders beating people over the head with 2 Samuel 6:20-22 and yelling at everyone to “GET YOUR FREAK ON FOR JESUS!!!!!!!!!”
They did not have technology. No lights. No sound. No computers. No internet. No blogs. No podcasts. No heating or air conditioning. No cars, buses, trains, airplanes, or roads/bridges built to accommodate such things. Very limited ability to travel.
They did not have any of the general organizational infrastructure that presently exists, whether denominational or otherwise. They did not have denominations. They did not have seminaries. They did not have denominational headquarters. They did not have programs. They did not have the people at denominational headquarters who work tirelessly to crank out the next big program to win your city for Jesus. They did not have consultants, experts, pollsters, pundits, marketers, promoters, etc. They did not have parachurch organizations. They did not have events, conferences, rallies, and other such things. They did not have Focus on the Family, Promise Keepers, Navigators, Intervarsity, etc.
Finally, they did not have religious tolerance or cultural acceptance. They did not have Focus on the Family, the Christian Coalition, the Religious Right, or the Moral Majority. They did not have lobbyists whose job it was to promote those moral and cultural issues that were of special concern to them. Their cultural expressions and institutions did not have a favored place in their society, nor did their ideas have any sort of acceptance in the marketplace of ideas of their day.
So what did they have?
The Gospel. It was passed down through oral testimony, and eventually codified in writing via the creeds.
Faithful leaders. Leaders who took seriously the task of passing on the faith, and did not seek to alter it to make it more palatable to different audiences.
The spoken word. The words of Scripture, spoken out loud.
Memory. The words of Scripture, and the creeds, committed carefully to memory.
Relationships with one another. If you lived in the days of the early church, then the form which the Christian faith took for you was entirely dependent upon the other Christians you knew and interacted with. You couldn’t read blogs. You couldn’t listen to podcasts. You couldn’t turn on Christian TV or radio. You couldn’t go to conferences. You couldn’t call up your denominational rep. You were stuck with the other Christians that you were able to interact with in the flesh on an ongoing, day-to-day basis.
Prayer. When they prayed, they had to depend on God as if He was all they had. If God did not come through for them, then whatever they were hoping to accomplish in terms of growing spiritually or spreading the Gospel in their communities, would not happen. No doubt their prayers carried the full force of this desperation: “If You don’t, it wont…”, “If You don’t, we won’t…”.
Do any of us ever pray like that nowadays? We don’t have to. We have all the creativity, the technological gadgetry, the organizational infrastructure, etc. to accomplish whatever result we care to accomplish and call it spreading the Gospel. Thus, we use prayer only as an addendum to all of our activity: “Lord, we just ask that you would please just bless [whatever it is that we are doing]”.
Suffering. There was no presumption of certainty in their ability to go on living life as usual. There was no presumption that their society owed them anything in the way of cultural acceptance, religious tolerance, or a place in the marketplace of ideas. At any moment, any of their leaders might apparently drop completely and totally off the face of the earth, never to be seen or heard from again. Of course, they all knew (or at least had a vague suspicion) what had really happened. And they were good with this.
Simple…everything. Simple worship, simple music, simple faith, simple community.
The decision of when and where Jesus would be born was strictly an act of sovereignty on the part of God. And He, in all His infinite wisdom, chose to plop Jesus down in a place and time where there was nothing in the way of technology or culture. Jesus trained His disciples personally and set them loose in this world, with nothing to depend on but the Holy Spirit, faithful leadership, prayer, simple worship, simple faith. And it worked great.
But we are always trying to improve on God. Trying to make it more complex, more appealing, more sellable, more palatable–whether it’s the liberal mainlines trying to make it more acceptable to a secular and unbelieving academic/intellectual/scientific elite, or the evangelicals trying to make it more acceptable to Unchurched Harry or Saddleback Sam. “Oh yes, but read the footnotes…” “Oh yes, but look at the fine print…” “Oh yes, but these people over here won’t get it…” “Oh yes, but we need to make it more appealing to those people over there…” “Oh yes, but we’ve got to stand up for all those unborn babies…” You get the idea.
We have allowed so much of who we are and what we do as Christians to be shaped by consumer culture. In the process, we have thrown away an awful lot that is of great value. For instance, where is the concept of sacred space? Where is the concept of church as a place where we meet with a God who is completely and totally other than us, yet in His graciousness has made Himself known to us through His word and sacraments? Where is the concept of humility before the word of God–that these are God’s very words to us and it is our task to hear them faithfully and proclaim them faithfully to the watching world without attempting to remake them for the benefit of different audiences? Where is the concept of our place within the broader scheme of all that God has done through the past two thousand years of church history? Where is the sense of our connection with the generations of faithful believers who have gone before us all through church history?
So much of what Jesus wanted for His disciples was centered upon things that only God could see and know and measure. We measure based on what we see and know–how much media coverage something gets, how many people participate, etc. And yet, the things that Jesus wanted to do in and through His disciples, and by extension, in and through us, were things that generally do not get media coverage. Things that cannot be tracked on an Excel spreadsheet. Things that not a lot of people will see or want to participate in.
I’d like to see us get some humility.
Humility to recognize that the lights and the bands and the music and the sound and the production are all great, but aren’t really that essential to our experience of Christ.
Humility to recognize that we are not the end-all, be-all of what God is doing in the world, but instead stand at the end of a long line of believers who have faithfully served God down through the history of the church.
Humility to recognize that we have made very poor choices in allowing ourselves and our expressions of Christianity to be shaped around worthless consumer culture.
Humility to recognize that whatever we were doing with all our technological gadgetry, creativity and organizational know-how, and calling upon God to bless, may not be what God is doing after all.
Humility to recognize that much of what God wants to do in and through us will only be seen and known by Him, and not by other people.
Humility to recognize that we really can’t improve upon the work of God, and we really shouldn’t even try.
Could I get some humility…please?