Thursday, August 25, 2011

Death of the Consumer Church, pt. 4: Purposeful Family Reunions, not Extra-Curricular Activities

EDIT: The review of Chan/Preston's Erasing Hell has been delayed because, ironically, it got erased from my computer.
     It was a sad and humbling transition for my family and I. I didn’t have a full-time job, so I worked at a local coffeeshop for health insurance coverage and some pocket change while we all moved in with my wife’s parents, far from any place I, personally, had considered home. We had an uncertain future, almost no local friends, and we couldn’t afford anything. 
     We thought we’d attend a church plant in the area. It was led by my wife’s old youth pastor, and was in a denomination I respected. They met Sunday evenings in a rented and very traditional sanctuary in a blue-collar and shady neighborhood just outside of the crime-ridden portion of the general metropolitan area. 
     This church helped to define the aspect of community that should be found in more churches in our business-dominated nation. It was hard for any member of the community to compartmentalize or hide their life outside of it. It was a big deal (as it was usually because of concerning reasons) if someone didn’t attend a Sunday evening gathering. The pastor never said anything along the lines of “see you next week!” because we all knew we would have smaller gatherings and get-togethers at least four times again before the next service. After service dinners out (highly attended) were common. Community groups kept growing and reproducing. Social activities and parties between members were frequent. This was a church body that was much more like a family than members of a gym or country club. Whatever happened, we grew or bled as one unit.
     Was it partly because of our small size? Yes. But it’s also because it was a community of like-minded people who vulnerably bear each other’s burdens of impoverishment, drug/alcohol addiction, broken relationships and other trials of life. They took seriously the New Testament’s call (from Jesus, Luke and Paul) to regular community and fellowship, and were willing to sacrifice a lot (and I mean a lot) to compassionately, not judgmentally, bring the Gospel message and biblical love to what was clearly a godless and penniless town. 
     My family and I were obviously excited to take part in every “church activity,” not out of a felt obligation or duty, but because it was an opportunity to be with friends and family, to serve and to be edified. Yes, the church was “all we had,” but, in contrast, all other activities outside of a day-job/school (which many were using to witness, etc.) seemed futile.
     I invoke this true personal story because the consumer church (which we’ve been talking about for a few entries) is on the other side of the spectrum. Elsewhere, church involvement will find itself on a laundry list of other seeming extra-curricular activities, and it will have to compete hard to climb in priority. Some pursue heavy church involvement for the wrong reasons. Others scoff at it as a legalist method to feel holier-than-thou. But, for the stereotype that is the consumer church, the “commitment level” is on the checklist as they sometimes shop for churches because they want to know how much time involvement in a particular church will take away from the rest of their weekly lives. 
     Does that last sentence sound wrong? I think it should, especially from the perspective of the New Testament’s Church.
     The Church, as laid out in the New Testament, has much more the essence and structure of a family, rather than a business. This is why it hurts when people leave. This is also because the Church itself is based upon a Truth that is meant to infiltrate and affect every aspect of one’s life (like a family identity/relationship), not just part of it (like a day job). It operates similarly to a family in that the more time, energy and sacrifice you give to it, the more you receive. Sometimes I miss out on some of my extended family reunions or communications. Do I, then, even have the right to complain about how disconnected or out-of-the-loop I feel at the next reunion? I wouldn’t even dare complain about how my family involves too much commitment or time.
     Even though I have friends and colleagues who have sacrificed much (time, dreams, even financial stability) for service in the local church or some type of ministry, I’m not suggesting any rash decisions here. Simply put, church “activities” don’t even belong on the same list as Computer Club.      

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Reasonable, Relational, and Inspirational: a review of Tim Keller’s "The Reason for God"

        Apologetics seems a different animal these days. The most well-researched books are shelved equally alongside editorial fluff at chain bookstores, and sometimes well-researched arguments are useless in a world of relativism and relational-ity.
        Enter Tim Keller, a pastor from Manhattan who differs in many ways from most the pastors that make headlines in media and Christian media. Described as “the pioneer of the new urban Christians,” (Christianity Today magazine) his ministry is in a geyser of new and pervasive cultural trends and thoughts, and is different from the suburban or small-town approaches that have come to define the stereotype of much of American Christian worldview. Keller is not politically argumentative. His congregation consists mostly of young singles and “nontraditional households (xiv).”  When his church attendance exceeded capacity, the church reproduced and appointed new leadership, rather than building a megachurch or simulcasting campuses. His church’s worship music mostly consists of classical music, with the participation of Julliard students, etc.
        Keller writes The Reason for God for “two kinds of people,” he told B&N Studio. It’s for the non-believers who have doubts that are, in Keller’s words, “passionate, well thought-out and deserving respect,” and it’s for Christians who want to gently and relationally approach those doubts with others.         
In his introduction, Keller relays his testimony and the events surrounding his planting a church in the heart of New York City. He shows himself as someone that, in the past, struggled with doubt as far as the existence of God and the trustworthiness of the Church, as well as the arguments of secular humanist thought. 
        One of his main points (which is significant for all readers) in his introduction is that, simply put, things are complicated. Whether in debates on political thought, theological non-essentials (and even some essentials) or church practice, the answers, Keller argues, are not as black-and-white and simple as anyone believes. However, there’s an unnecessarily widening gap between opponents, both in relationship and the spectrum of thought. There isn’t explicit instruction, but Keller might be discussing this pending schism upfront to call his readers (both Christian and non-Christian) away from stubbornness and demonization and to more of a relational (yet not necessarily compromising) form of conversing and living.
        Part 1 of Reason for God is structured by arguments against Christianity, all of which have surfaced in some form in his conversations with attendants (or would-be attendants) of his church in New York, and many of which have also been carried from skeptics of ancient philosophy to the leaders of the New Atheism. And like a conversation with a would-be Christian over a cup of coffee, he replies to the arguments gently, conversationally, and thoroughly. 
        One pet peeve among argumentative anti-apologists I’ve noticed is the notion that most to all of the defenses that Christians give are handed-down, quick-wit, simple cliches (and I’ll admit, some of them are). Keller, however, shows well that many of the defenses that non-Christians have are just as well.  These are one-liners that don’t usually have too much substance or justification, but they sure sound nice to abruptly end a conversation, and they’re a pain for the opponent to unpack. As both sides are using seeming cheap shots, not only in debate but even in constructing worldviews, it’s another good reason to strive for a more relational form of conversing and living. 
        Keller, however, does make some assertions that might make some Christian readers uncomfortable. He affirms some students’ argument that religion is an enemy to world peace (4) (but he does not believe the same for orthodox Christian living, by itself). He also acknowledges the possible truth of theistic evolution. In the chapter that responds to church hypocrisy, he dips into the classic Reformed view of depravity, seemingly (in my opinion) having non-Christians to expect little success from Christians in their strive toward moral purity. I wish, obviously, he could have further unpacked the latter issue, maybe bringing Bertrand Russell’s arguments to the table or using the opportunity to explain the crucial difference between (I’m about to use theological jargon) justification and sanctification, which many of readers, more used to the “I’ll-go-to-heaven-because-I’m-a-good-person” misconception, won’t know.
        After an intermission, we enter Part 2, where Keller discusses “The Reasons for Faith.” Although some portions of the chapters read more like a not-so-engaging philosophy textbook, Keller does well to maintain his conversational tone, and, through connecting his theological points to conversations he’s had in New York and to current issues, he makes the theological tenets of Christianity rightfully relevant to the reader, whereas a basic statement of faith (on which Part 2 seems structured) would come across much more detached.
        Keller’s references (which he cites thoroughly) are very diverse in history, geography, profession and spiritual status. His “notes” for this book fill up a chapter’s worth of pages at the end. In Keller’s closing epilogue, like the rest of the book, he concludes with what he (and Christians) believe as truth and gently leaves the personal application up to the reader, whereas another apologetics book or tract would be more aggressive and impersonal with conviction.
        In retrospect, I think there are a few more specific issues he would have tackled. Evolution is not the only snag in reconciling faith and science in many people’s minds today. Noah’s flood and the parting of the Red Sea are a couple others. I think it would have also been helpful to tactfully address the sinfulness of homosexual practice in the first section of the book, as that issue continues to make Christianity more and more implausible in Western society.
        I am a bit sad that I’m typing this book’s review on its 2-year birthday, and that I hadn’t heard of it before.  I wish this book had more attention. It stands out from most the popular moderns in Christian apologetics (e.g. Strobel, McDowell, P. Hitchens, Craig, etc.) not so much because of its substance or level of research (which certainly isn’t lacking), but because of its surprising relational and non-aggressive tone.
        The book’s very title uses the word “reason,” not “proof.” This book is not written like an argument in a courtroom or a laundry-list-filled textbook. Nor does this book have any distant association to any type of non-Christian movement or person. Keller is clear that there is no intention or capability (anywhere) to prove anything (e.g. “Nothing in history can be proven the way we can prove something in a laboratory,” 219), but there are, for him and Christians, very convincing clues and very good reasons to believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and in the Truth of His words as found in the Gospels. Keller is not a lawyer or a professor by trade (though’s he qualified for the latter), rather a pastor. And because of that, readers will close the book and think that Keller lovingly hopes and prays that they will, one day, agree with the reasons and clues he sees, fully committing their lives to the love and service of Jesus Christ.
        And they would be right.