Month: March 2014

Exhibit A

In my last post, I suggested that the American Evangelical Church is experiencing a fairly significant credibility gap. One of the things I pointed to was the idea that pastors were moving toward celebrity status. Here’s current evidence of that part of the problem. Steven Furtick’s Elevation Church recently put out a coloring book for the kids. Check this out!

 

coloring book

 

This kind of celebrity status is actually what the kids are used to in our media saturated culture.  I’m sure to them Pastor Steven is like the other stars they see on the Disney channel.  You’ll notice some of the same “Moses” kinds of thinking, as if Pastor Steven is the only one in the body that “hears from God.”  What is troubling, in addition to the cult like feeling of this coloring book, is the bizarre sense of entitlement that surrounds these Christian celebrities.  Furtick and his wife have recently endured criticism for building their 16,000 sf home near Charlotte, NC where Steven pastors.  He’s not alone in drawing scrutiny from folks inside and outside of the church.  Many of these superstar “pastors” make unbelievable amounts of money from their pastoring gigs and are still able to make much more from their book deals and outside speaking engagements.  James MacDonald, another pastor celebrity, is purported to have made $500,000. in 2009, just from his church job and his radio show.  He’s grown in popularity substantially since then.  Current figures for his income aren’t available, much like many other megapastors.

I do believe that “the workman is worth his wage,” but these kinds of numbers are ridiculous.  I’m afraid something happens to these “pastors” that get a taste of success and the good life.  They, it seems, actually begin to believe their own press reports and feel entitled (blessed) to receive such lavish signs of God’s favor over them.  Though their loyal followers continue to support the one to whom they feel God gave the vision, the rest of the onlooking world looks on with a large degree of cynicism.  These are the very kinds of things that widen the credibility gap for believers and unbelievers alike who are hoping that the “church” would act more nobly.

The Gap Got Too Big

Brene Brown is one of my favorite human beings. Her thought has been a lifeline for me and continues to inform my vision for full humanity. One of her foundation principles involves the reality of what she calls “the gap.” By that, she means the gap between our aspirational values, those things we aspire to be, those things we say we are all about, and our practiced values, what we really do. The larger the gap that develops between those two things the greater the level of disengagement that will result from those that are part of our system.

Here it is as an equation:

aspirational values
————————–        =       level of disengagement
  practiced values

Here’s my theory on what’s happening in American evangelicalism in a nutshell. The gap got too big. We are seeing unprecedented numbers of people fleeing from the organized evangelical church. These aren’t just “flakes” or the “uncommitted” but people who have given their lives to the cause of the church. For many, the new level of disengagement has found them outside of the bounds of organized or institutional Christianity altogether. The funny thing is that the machine of evangelicalism has hardly stopped to notice this reality. The church is bleeding out and acting as if everything is fine.

Here’s the gap between what we say we believe (our aspirational values) and what we actually do (our practiced values)

Slide1

In these and many other significant ways, the Evangelical Church has lost its credibility with large numbers of Americans, many of whom formerly found themselves among her ranks.

A gap, of smaller scale, indicates a healthy sense of not having arrived, not yet having become what we aspire to be. Paul, himself, says that he didn’t think he had arrived or that he had fully apprehended the mystery of Christ [Phil. 3:12-13]. This reflects a healthy sense of humility on his part. He knew that there was more work to be done in him, that God’s work was not complete yet.

This current gap, however, is far too large to be useful or an indicator of healthy humility. It reflects a tragic lack of self-awareness on the part of the professing community. This is the sobering reality. We can’t be recovered without a resurgence in self-honesty and we are busy convincing ourselves that “we’re fine.” There is an unhealthy form of groupthink that operates in our groups, a conspiracy of silence. “I won’t talk about reality, if you don’t.”

What can we do to regain credibility? The only answer is returning to honesty, admitting how far we have drifted away from congruence and in true heartfelt contrition and repentance, returning to first things. This may be nearly impossible for some congregations and leaders. Without the transformative work of the Spirit, it is entirely impossible. There is, however, no way to return to a biblical paradigm without this critical step. Similar to the way in which Jesus counseled the church in Laodicea, we may need to follow this prescription [Rev. 3:17-22]:

You say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

How Our Hypocrisy Affects God

Many of us have rightly been taught that God is transcendent, that He is apart from and over His creation.  The discussion about God’s transcendence has often been connected to the idea that God is without emotion or unaffected by His creatures.  I have a hard time seeing that when I look at the repeated refrain on the lips of the Old Testament prophets.  God, speaking by way of them, tells His people in no uncertain terms that He is deeply affected by their hypocrisy.  The height of hypocrisy is pretending to offer worship to the living God, before Whom all things are naked and exposed, and thinking that somehow He doesn’t connect the dots.  Israel and Judah were, nonetheless, famous for doing just that.  They conducted themselves in their daily lives in a manner that was far from righteous and yet they had the gall to show up for church and pretend to be someone else.  God, through the prophets, calls them on it.  A great example of this is Amos 5.  Here are verses 21-24 but the whole chapter is revealing:

I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them;
and the peace offerings of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them.
Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen.
But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

The obvious point seems to be that our sacred gatherings are offensive to the Almighty when we have glaring issues of social injustice among us.  Our worship is in vain.  God is not hearing us.  He cannot support our conspiracy.  He is bound to the truth regarding our real situation.  What kinds of things were getting in the way of a real relationship with YHWH?  Isaiah gives us a clue in chapter one of his prophecy:

Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth; for the LORD has spoken:
“Children have I reared and brought up, but they have rebelled against me.
The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib, but Israel does not know,
my people do not understand.”

Ah, sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, offspring of evildoers,
children who deal corruptly! They have forsaken the LORD, they have despised the Holy One of Israel, they are utterly estranged.

Why will you still be struck down? Why will you continue to rebel?
The whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint.
From the sole of the foot even to the head, there is no soundness in it, but bruises and sores
and raw wounds; they are not pressed out or bound up or softened with oil.

Your country lies desolate; your cities are burned with fire;
in your very presenceforeigners devour your land; it is desolate, as overthrown by foreigners.
And the daughter of Zion is left like a booth in a vineyard, like a lodge in a cucumber field,
like a besieged city.

If the LORD of hosts had not left us a few survivors, we should have been like Sodom,
and become like Gomorrah.

Hear the word of the LORD, you rulers of Sodom!
Give ear to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah!
“What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats.

“When you come to appear before me, who has required of you this trampling of my courts?
Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations—
I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly.
Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me;
I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.

. . .

How the faithful city has become a whore, she who was full of justice!

Righteousness lodged in her, but now murderers. Your silver has become dross, your best wine mixed with water. Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves. Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts. They do not bring justice to the fatherless, and the widow’s cause does not come to them.

This is the context of the famous passage where God holds out the promise of restoration.  If only the people would stop playing the game and come clean with Him, they could be cleansed [Isa. 1:18].

Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD:
though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red like crimson,
they shall become like wool.

When are we going to wake up and realize that God is wholly unimpressed with our religious displays.  He is not only not delighted by them, He says that He can’t stand them.  They frustrate Him in a way that is required of One who watches over the body of Christ, sees the way we actually treat one another, and then observes our juvenile attempts to pretend that we have done nothing wrong.  We are like children, hiding behind our own hands, bloodied as they are, thinking that He can’t see us.  When will we learn how deeply our hypocrisy affects the living God?