Sunday, June 09, 2013

God's reign over church methods, or, how God is not like a bad basketball coach

Some years ago, a high profile college basketball coach had a reputation for recruiting top caliber, McDonald's All-American type athletes, but his teams were criticized for undisciplined play, and critics contended that game management was not exactly an area of strength for him.  One such wag alleged that when he gathered his players for practice, that he simply tossed a ball out toward the middle of the court and told his team to go play.

Sadly, that seems to be close to the way that people view the Great Commission -- God told us to go do it, so that means we are to take our blank slates and go figure out how to get it done.  A friend of mine, writing provocatively a few weeks ago about his church's mission, declared that they would do "whatever it takes, short of sin" to find and reach people with the message of Christ.  However, that description is a bit question begging.  Presumably, "whatever it takes short of sin" means that they won't consider hiring pole dancers to help draw a crowd to his church (don't laugh:  on two different occasions the pastor of a large church in Grapevine has invited the creator of a website that facilitates infidelity and an advocate for polyamory to join him on the platform at his church as a means of drawing a crowd).  However, the Bible provides more guidance to the church's mission than just forbidding that sort of thing.  When the Bible tells us that our mission is to be fulfilled in certain ways, and we deviate from those ways, such deviation is sin. Any caveat restricting us to that which is "short of sin" must take into consideration such injunctions and instructions.

Please don't get me wrong: I do understand some of what agitates my friend to push the envelope. The church's worship and mission is always conducted within a particular cultural context.  Frequently, American Christians have not understood the distinction between the cultural chaff of local context and the universal truths of Christian mission.  Thus, while there has been much good accomplished by missionaries from churches in the United States spreading the Christian gospel around the world, those missionaries have sometimes been legitimately criticized for attempting to impose the ways of life of western culture on those living in other areas.  It should not be expected that musical styles, manner of dress, and other cultural matters would be the same for a church in Mexico City or central Africa, for example, as they are in a typical community in the U.S., even if the doctrinal convictions of those disparate congregations are the same. Thus, while Presbyterian churches in Dallas and Seoul should share a common theological heritage, and the content of worship should be driven by those considerations in each case, we should not expect the mission and worship of those congregations to look identical.

Now, keeping this within an American context, there are those who might expect that the church's worship and work should always look like it did in America in 1975 or in 1950, or for that matter in Geneva in 1650, but that is not so.  However, while admitting that to be true, we also must be careful not to defer naively to our cultural context as dictating either the message or methodology of the church's mission.  Culture is not morally neutral, and the failure to acknowledge the way that methodologies can alter our message can be deadly to a church's faithfulness to the Gospel.  I would argue that contextualization that defers either to an American marketing mentality or to an entertainment orientation are in fact proving fatal for churches that are going down those paths.

It is not uncommon for well-meaning Christians to misuse passages of Scripture such as I Corinthians 9:19-23 to rationalize deference to culture in dictating the church's methods.  Did not the Apostle write that he has "become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some"?  My friend suggested that this showed Paul's "willingness to adapt his personal communication style to that of his hearer," but that is sloppy exegesis, and he should know better.  Earlier in I Corinthians, Paul has vigorously asserted his unwillingness to alter his communication style to meet cultural expectations -- in I Corinthians 2, he talks about his refusal to make use of "lofty speech" or "plausible words of wisdom" -- methodologies that would have connected him to the normal cultural expectations of Corinth for itinerant speakers.  He eschews those techniques because they would serve to distract attention to himself and away from the message of "Jesus Christ and him crucified."  In I Corinthians 9, Paul is not talking about communication style, but he is talking about his willingness to sacrifice rights and personal prerogatives (he specifically mentions giving up the right to draw a salary, if any megachurch leaders are looking for a clear example of what he is getting at) in order that his message not be impeded.

Christians make a mistake when they begin reading the Great Commission at the words, "Go therefore."  The "therefore" points to that which precedes, and Jesus had started by saying that "all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me."  That is to say, that the risen Savior, the one who reigns as head of his church, is risen and at large and, in fact, reigns over all.  It is this risen and ruling Savior who then commissions his church to go and make disciples, baptize, and teach to observe all things he has commanded.  Among things that he has commanded, there is a great deal of information in the Bible regarding both the means and the message of Christian mission.

His message was to be spread by preaching the Gospel, which Paul reminded the Corinthians was foolishness to their neighbors, but which was also the power of God that leads to salvation for everyone who believes.  Paul told the Romans that preaching was necessary, because faith comes by hearing, hearing by the word of God, and that people would not hear without preachers.  That was God's ordained means of reaching people.  The mission of the church, conducted in submission to God's instructions regarding both message and method, must be understood in that light before any discussion of cultural contextualization can take place.  The culture's questions cannot dictate the message or priorities of the church. Is relevance a consideration?  Of course, but one does not become relevant to a fish by throwing a bucket of water into the river. Relevance means bringing the word of God, with its priorities, concerns, and solutions, persuasively to those who need to hear it, even if they are not predisposed to care about the priorities of that word.

Faithfulness to that mandate defines our success.  One of the problems with adopting a marketing mentality for the church is the suggestion that if we do things right that we will be numerically successful.  The goal of the church becomes putting butts in seats.  Not only is that harmfully anthropocentric -- even Pelagian -- it is also thoroughly unbiblical.  The pages of the Bible are full of stories where faithfulness to the divine commission resulted in rejection, with our Savior's own life and teaching providing a prime example. While we should long for people to be converted and to grow in the faith, and we should rejoice when they do, we should never regard that kind of success as proof positive that we are, or are not, doing God's work.

Cultural capitulation can bring about a certain kind of success, but it is not Gospel success.  The culture may not care about questions of sin, death, redemption, eternal life, and grace, but those reach to the ultimate concerns of our existence, and the church becomes irrelevant when she doesn't seek to drive both members and outsiders to them.

No comments: