Friday, January 28, 2011

Death of the Consumer Church, pt. 1: Diagnosing "Heart" Problems

For many years as I studied the Bible and prepared to be in ministry, classmates and some cynical friends would tell me, “American Christians are a bunch of consumers.” A bit annoyed and discouraged, inwardly I would brush them off and deny the thought.

Then I took part in a deep study of Paul’s epistles and the early Church (pre-Constantine), and how to really (no, really) do church “by the book.” I felt I had been given a truly biblical vision and mission of the Church, and also an inspirational story of how God used it as His instrument in a historical story of countless people who came into God’s family. Then I looked at the current American Church, where I was studying to serve, and I couldn’t deny it anymore. Consumerism is an extreme problem in the American Church. It’s a growing cancer that will hinder the American Church to the point of disablement until it’s addressed.

Now, what is the consumer church? It’s more broad than some might think. When some hear the phrase, they think of:

1) Nit-picky Christians who peruse churches like shopping for a new car, trying to find the closest match to their self-tailored felt needs, which refer to anything and everything including specific theological non-essentials, programs, musical worship style and location.
2) The financial and moral corruption that comes from Christians being involved in commerce, the type of people that Jesus drove out of the temple.

These are just byproducts. Consumerism is not a matter of church programming. It’s a matter of the heart. Consumerism enters a church when attendants primarily go to “consume,” to receive, not to give, and when leaders of the church only further enable them.

Here, where everyone has the freedom to be the architect of their own destiny, businesses and even some politicians are successful in profit-making and campaigning when they cater to such worshipped individuality. Just how many advertisements use the word “you”? With the internet, cell phones, MP3 players and Kindles, it seems a growing portion of all purchasable products have become much more accessible, customizable, and privatized.

Including church.

If one had a late Saturday night, he/she can sleep in through the morning services and attend an evening service at another church to get the “spiritual fix.” Or one can stay at home and listen to a recording of favorite hymns or worship songs, and then catch the recording of a sermon online.  A consumer also thoroughly enjoys the sometimes ridiculous amenities a church provides elsewhere (e.g. a fellow pastor received a recent complaint about the church’s videos not being in high definition). It’s sad how types of conveniences and extravagances climb our priority list.

Outside of materials and conveniences, the consumerism of our culture has spilled into relationships within the congregation. At even slight disturbances, will approach a church leader like the manager of a restaurant. People withdraw from circles of friendship, Bible studies, and even church communities themselves before the idea of reconciliation can cross their minds.     

However, I personally feel that the biggest hindrance of consumerism upon the Church (and I’ll refer to this again later, using my personal journey) is carried by functional ministry itself. When the consumer comes only to “receive,” the very duties of the Church (i.e. teaching, hospitality, charity, fostering community, and even evangelism itself) are left to its leadership alone. This is not the way the Church was built to operate as laid out in the New Testament.       

Now, it’s not the time to point a finger. The consumer Church is not a result of any particular flop by any controversial and assimilating type of ministry (e.g. Willow Creek’s “seeker” approach, Relevant magazine or the Emerging Church’s self-dubbed mission to the postmodern world). On the contrary, there is actually something to be said in favor of attempting to communicate the Gospel to culture.  Sadly, within our country, consumerism has permeated, seemingly, congregations from every denomination and theology of culture. It’s arguably been a longtime problem for the Church in a land of freedom and prosperity. 

I doubt, for example, it’s a threat for the growing Church in China, for example, where people mostly download Scripture off the web (smuggling hard-copy Bibles is illegal and risky) and they secretly meet in each other’s small apartments for worship, for fear of the government. I doubt, also, that consumerism and selfishness is a problem for the strong Church in Africa, where they worship, united, in huts and nameless buildings despite poverty, disease and some Muslim aggression.

The heart of the issue is that we live in a society with the elevated notion of self, the reluctance to commitment, the impersonal stinginess and the general materialism that all make the aura that is our consumer-driven world. This is a real threat, and it’s certainly not how the Church can flourish and bring life and light to itself and the dark and depressing world, as it was meant to do.

And I can only think of the word “flourish” when I think of what could happen if we start giving ourselves entirely and cheerfully to biblical living and to the Church. It’s an act of worship, where worship is not a weekly musical event, but a constant lifestyle.

Not for the sake of changing culture. But for the sake of changing lives.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Love for the Sacred Human Life

    “So, you’re sure he’s the father?”
    “Uh, yes! He’s my husband,” my pregnant wife confirmed to the doctor, as he prepared to give her a shot. She was a bit annoyed and sad that such questions needed to be asked of all patients and that she had given an honest but, to them, a seeming minority answer.
    My wife and I had to face the sad reality that we were an unusual couple in the north suburban Chicago hospital. We were seemingly young to be having children, and we were having children while I was in grad school and washing windows for a living. My wife had a good job that she was leaving for the sake of the family, being always able to nurture our upcoming firstborn. We also surprised a few of the hospital staff with our decline to the pre-natal Downs Syndrome test, the information from which usually determines some couples to abort, which we would never do. We were, sadly, a seeming rare couple that was willing to put finances, goals, and other freedoms (some evil) on the altar for the sake of family. For the sake of sanctity of life.
     This certainly wasn’t the only way that my oldest’s birth portrayed to me the sanctity of life. There was also the magnificence. It’s amazing to think that she was once small enough to fit under my fingernail. Now she too big to even lay across my lap.  I remember being in awe that, as soon as she was conceived, her genetic code was all in place, the details of which will only marginally unfold as we watch her grow. With the creativity beyond that of an artist and the precision beyond that of an architect, He knit each one of us together.
    Life is a miracle of God. It’s sad that it seems Christians are among the few to see it, and its irreplaceable beauty and value.
    Maybe it’s also because Christians better understand the alternative.
    The Bible is replete with stories where the essence of life is defended or even saved by a passionate God. God speaks in Ezekiel, saying that He “takes pleasure in the death of no one.” Jesus, who also declared that God is the “God of the living,” healed the sick and raised Lazarus from the dead, both outraged and weeping at witnessing the effects of death upon His children. The apostle Paul declares to those in Corinth that death is the “last enemy to be defeated.”
    Death is not what God ever wanted for His children. Life is.
    I recently stumbled upon a video on the internet entitled “99 Balloons.” It’s the story of a little baby named Eliot Hartman Mooney, a victim of Edwards Syndrome, born to a young Christian couple. Predicted not to survive even to birth, he continued to surpass expectations, receiving nothing but love, support and affection from his parents, their church friends and fellow patients in neonatal intensive care and their families. He lived ninety-nine days. At his funeral, the attendants released ninety-nine balloons. (Click here for the story).
    When I look at how I was taught the sanctity of human life, it wasn’t from first becoming a father. It wasn’t from the shouting by people that hold up signs outside abortion clinics. It wasn’t from inspirational stories of very fertile couples who (all the power to them) morally raise a large number of children. It was from watching my parents care for my mentally-handicapped little brother.
    And I’m reminded about the sanctity of human life from stories like Eliot Hartman Mooney. Any type of story that gets people to ask, “Why would a married couple, along with their friends, family and even their church, invest so much of their time, money and emotional energy into a child who would not live long to communicatively return their affection or make them proud with some adult-like accomplishment?”
    Because life is a sacred miracle.
    Believe in life. Pass it on.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Top Ten Signs you're an NFL addict.

You might be an NFL addict if . .

10. You’re emotionally involved in each season’s storyline. Beyond your own team. And not just for the sake of fantasy football points.
9. All the people that came to the Super Bowl party that didn’t pay much attention to the season or just want to talk, eat and play games? You’d prefer they weren’t there.
8. The NFL is the only sport where you watch regular season games intensively (namely, not while doing the laundry). In all the other sports you watch (if any), you just read the papers or check the team websites until the playoffs start.
7. You really don’t care who’s going to be featured in the Super Bowl’s halftime show. It’s the time to refill on refreshments or switch parties.
6. You aren’t caught up in the drama and gossip of players’ off-the-field issues.
5. When you need to learn about a city’s culture, you first take a look at their NFL team’s fan base.
4. You wonder why other championship series need to drag on so long at seven games.
3. You talk about the NFL authorities and their decisions on regulation with the passion of Rush Limbaugh.
2. You celebrate the spring draft each year, hosting a party or going out to eat, as it’s a lone event in the long and boring off-season.
1. AFL? UFL? What are those?

I might come up with a few more. Feel free to add.