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A Counterculture of Christian Commitment

A Counterculture of Christian Commitment, by Jeremy Beck

 

DIAGNOSING A PROBLEM

My title is taken partly from a recent Harvard commencement address by Pete Davis.  His title was “A Counterculture of Commitment.”  I Initially titled my writing “A Counterculture of Church Commitment” but decided against it for reasons that will be obvious when you finish reading.

There are all types of battles raging within Christianity and I don’t wish to add to any.  Some are new and many are very old: Calvinism vs. Arminianism – Covenants vs. Dispensations – Systematic Theology vs. Biblical Theology – City vs. Rural – Mega Church vs. Small Church.

I pastor a small congregation in a small town and there seems to be a growing problem that’s easy to identity when you’re in a smaller setting.  It’s not impossible to recognize this problem in a larger setting, but I do think it’s more difficult to diagnose.

Just to preface, this is not an attack on large churches.  I love large churches.  I wish my small church was a large church.  I wholeheartedly wish that more people heard the gospel week after week and I selfishly wish that more of those people worshiped at our church.  Most of my favorite preachers come from large churches.  My Mother works for a very solid mega church in Tennessee.  Not to mention there is much to be said for large churches pooling resources to fund and accomplish what could never be done through small, individual congregations with limited resources and people.  I love big churches.

So, what’s the problem? What’s the issue that smaller churches can see more clearly than mega churches?  Well, it’s not that Christians aren’t as committed as they should be – because everyone already knows that, and every statistic for the last twenty years bears witness to that already.  And really, I’m not as committed as I should be to Christ and probably neither are you.  So, that’s nothing new.

 

THE ILLUSION OF GREATNESS THROUGH PROXIMITY

So, what’s the problem then?  What disease is more difficult to diagnose in large, “successful” churches than in smaller, “less successful” settings?  I worry that many people are skillfully hiding behind a veneer of their local church’s greatness.  Sure, you can do this in a smaller church as well, but it’s much more difficult.  So many people are hiding their lack of desire, lack of growth, and lack of fruit behind a façade of mega church growth and greatness.

In an article by Stephen Whitmer, he writes, “As a small church in a small place, you won’t have access to the illusion of greatness through proximity.”  When I read this line a few months back, I remember thinking that it was the most profound sentence I had read all year.  I shared it with Heath and he wrote a wonderful little post about it in June.

The illusion of greatness through proximity.  Let that sink in.  Look around and ask how much of this Christian fluff that we see is nothing more than people wanting to look great and feel great about themselves through connectedness to a large, well-oiled-machine of a church.  It’s profound because it’s true.  If going to a small church doesn’t allow you to have the illusion of greatness through proximity (because usually nothing in a small church appears that great), it must mean that if you go to a large church that having an illusion of greatness is at least a possibility.  Especially, if you attend a mega church in a mega city.

I would go so far as to say that many people attend churches that serve Christ faithfully, so they themselves don’t have to. Seeing your church grow and thrive.  Feeling that it’s “relevant” and engaging can at least, in many situations, make you feel better about your own lack of effort, desire, and results– “Hey, at least my church is wonderful and growing. I may not be growing. But my church is growing so fast that at least I know I’m a part of something God is doing.”  Growing through osmosis, so to speak.

“My church runs a food shelter and helps with homeless people.  My church has a fund for the less fortunate.  My church is involved with kids and teenagers and reaching them for Christ.  My church has a 24-hour prayer line.  My church takes meals to shut-ins and visits the sick.  My church has a program for evangelism.  My church has a program for fellowship and hospitality.  My church has a discipleship ministry.  My church is associated with foreign missionaries…” Take almost any of those statements, and I’m afraid that many people could add “…so I don’t have to” at the end.

“My church runs a food shelter, so I don’t have to. My church disciples people, so I don’t have to.” You get the idea.

This isn’t an indictment on large churches.  The problem exists just as much (or more) in small churches. Apathy in small churches is rampant – but it’s easily seen and diagnosed, and often challenged.  People are just as uncommitted, but they’re forced in some ways to admit, “I’m not doing anything towards discipleship…and I know it.” Or they’re at least forced to internally acknowledge the fact that they don’t help with foreign missions because they’re not really all that interested in foreign missions. It’s a problem, but it’s a problem that’s easily recognized.

 

WHAT PROGRAMS DOES YOUR CHURCH HAVE?

It’s a scary thing when someone asks me, “What program does your church have for ________________?”  Because the answer to almost all those types of questions is “We don’t really have any.”  We have many people in our church who serve.  We have many that are passionate about serving Christ.  But we have very few structured programs.

  • They help in serving food every week to the homeless and needy.
  • They take up food and supplies for the Way of The Cross soup kitchen.
  • They deliver MANNA meals.
  • They have served with the Gideons passing out Bibles.
  • They serve on Young Life boards and help raise money for kids to go to camp.
  • They serve on boards for orphanages in Mexico.
  • They serve with Habitat for Humanity
  • They take up love offering and gifts for families in need or going through tough times.
  • They offer meals when a family is sick or hurting.
  • They’ve paid large sums of money out of their own pocket to help pay off other church members’ school loan debt.
  • They personally support foreign missionaries both prayerfully and financially.
  • They write articles for the local Christian magazine.
  • They’ve personally hosted bible studies for inner city children at their business office and paid for the meals out of their own pocket.
  • They help teach kids during the summer who are suffering with addiction.

But programs? We have very few.  We host Young Life for Etowah County because several years ago they needed a place – I guess that’s a program – and we love them being here.  We have a Women’s Prayer Breakfast – I guess that’s a program.  But we don’t have very many committees and almost no programs.

So many times I’ve heard, “Well, I really like the teaching. I’m really growing in the gospel and everyone is super nice and loving and has welcomed me, but…”  I always know that the “but” means, well, there just isn’t much going on here.  Sure, I’m seeing the glory of Christ, I’m growing in grace and I feel loved, but…No programs.  Not a lot for kids.  I get it.

Sometimes this “but” means they want to do more.  But, that’s what’s so confusing to me after ministering for the past 9 years in this setting.  What is keeping them from serving?  When someone asks me, “What do you have in place for Evangelism?”  I always explain to them what I have personally done and people that I am currently discipling.  Then I ask, “What do you have in place for evangelism?”  Usually I hear crickets.

If you want to serve, there are plenty of opportunities.  Everywhere!  But it’s hard to hide here.  People in our church know who does the work and who doesn’t.  They know who attends frequently and who only shows up once a month giving recommendations.  They separate those who actually do the real ministry from those who only recommend that others do ministry.

I preach and teach and try and disciple a group of men, that’s pretty much my life.  In the scheme of things, their work (the people) totally dwarfs mine (the pastor) and they don’t even get paid.  Not to mention that so many tell me of how they took some of the sermon and relayed it to someone at their office who was struggling or needed encouragement.  They are true ministers of the Word, yes. But we don’t have any real programs, not really any to speak of.

But the only thing scarier than when I’m asked about programs is when I ask a person what they’re passionate about.

 

PASSION AND PROGRAMS

They ask me, “What can I do to get involved at your church? Are there any programs?”

Then I say something like, “We don’t have a lot of set programs. But if you could do anything, anything that excites you, to serve Christ, what would you do?” Then I offer, “Whatever that thing is, I will try to help you. I will do my best to link you up with people and support you in any way I can.  Just tell me what you want to do.”

Then they look back at me like they’re trying to figure out the square root of 47. They usually respond with something about a program.  It’s as if they want permission to serve.  They’re worried they might mess up, so it’s less scary if they just join into a program – even if they have no passion about the program.  Or better yet, they might just wait, browse a little longer.  Wait for the perfect opportunity.

I have even talked with men who wanted to work for a salary at the church and said, “If I could pay you to serve Jesus and you could do whatever you desire, what would you do?”

They usually respond with the same square root stare.

 

REBELLING AGAINST BROWSING MODE

I want people to rebel against this.  I don’t want people to rebel against big churches or small churches.  I want people to rebel against this false notion that because your church is big and successful that it’s okay for you not to have any idea how God wants you to serve Him or the people around you.  Rebel against having an illusion of greatness through proximity to a church, whether large or small.

In his recent Harvard commencement speech, Pete Davis said,

“I am sure many of you have had this experience — it’s late at night and you start browsing Netflix looking for something to watch. You scroll through different titles — you even read a few reviews — but you just can’t commit to watching any given movie. Suddenly it’s been 30 minutes and you’re still stuck in Infinite Browsing Mode, so you just give up — you’re too tired to watch anything now, so you cut your losses and fall asleep.  I have come to believe that this is the defining characteristic of our generation: Keeping our options open. There’s this philosopher, Zygmunt Bauman — he called it “liquid modernity” — we never want to commit to any one identity or place or community… so we remain, like liquid, in a state that can adapt to fit any future shape.”

I’m afraid that while large churches have done a tremendous amount of good, their (the church’s) successes are being felt too personally by people who are still in an “infinite browsing mode” as Christians.  This illusion of success through proximity has allowed massive amounts of people to feel they’re successful and flourishing as Christians despite lacking real personal fruit or growth.

In one sense, many American churches have been too successful.  The church looks so healthy and is growing so fast that many of its members believe they’re just as healthy themselves as individuals.  It’s like they’ve joined Tom Brady’s Patriots as bench warmers and then start believing they’re Hall of Famers because they won a Super Bowl ring.

We all know commitment is lacking in most churches and in most people.  As I said earlier, small churches are probably guiltier of apathy and a lack of vision than large churches.  But we’re forced to constantly deal with it in ourselves and in our fellow members.  My passion for evangelism is weak.  I’m not doing a good job with explaining our vision.  My prayer life is struggling.  I know all these things.  It’s right in front of my face – when you have less than fifty people you can’t hide it.  I must admit it and pray for help.  There are no illusions of greatness through proximity in small churches.  But maybe there shouldn’t be illusions of failure through proximity either, and that’s important.  You aren’t a failure as a Christian just because your personal ministry doesn’t have a committee and a Facebook page.

That is why my title is “A Counterculture of Christian Commitment” and not “A Counterculture of Church Commitment.” Because it really isn’t about church size, whether big or small.  It’s about Christians in Browsing Mode.  It isn’t about what your church is committed to – the church is just made up of people – it’s about what you are committed to.  Your passions and desires drive the local church’s activities, not the other way around.

Your desires and passions will ebb and flow.  One day you’ll feel like you’re going to change the world. The next day you’ll want to quit everything and never speak to another person.  This is normal.  But God can lead you where he wants you.  Follow your God-given desires and let him steer you.  But pick something.  Start doing something.  There are a million needs.

See what your biggest hurts are. Maybe that would be a good place to start your ministry to help others.

Do, by all means, serve in your mega church programs.  That is a wonderful thing – please don’t misunderstand me.  But don’t let that hide your lack of passion.  And don’t say you are passionate about evangelism just because your church baptized twenty people last Sunday.

Don’t get an illusion of greatness through proximity to a church.  Get your greatness from being in proximity to Christ.  Connect to the one true vine apart from whom you can do nothing.  The only truly great one who was despised and rejected and was seen as an earthly failure, so we could be accepted by God.

It’s scary to depend on Christ for your ministry.  It’s a fearful thing to depend on God and not on man.  But we know that he is working in us and will produce fruit when we depend on Him.  By His power, we need not be afraid.  As Pete Davis concluded in his address,

“That is why, in this age of liquid modernity, we should rebel and join up with a counterculture of commitment consisting of solid people. In this age of Infinite Browsing Mode, we should pick a…movie and watch it all the way through…before we fall asleep.”

Commit.  Quit browsing.  Force yourself to start serving.  Be counter-cultural and actually commit to something.  Be counter-cultural and quit hiding behind someone else’s ministry.

So, your ministry won’t have a committee.  Who cares?  So, it won’t have a website or 10,000 followers on Twitter.  Who cares?  Maybe your ministry will even be messy and have problems and struggles.  So what?  Our entire faith is built upon grace, not works.  We serve a God who says it’s not about how good you are, you don’t have to have a perfect ministry, you weren’t saved because of your goodness – you were SAVED BY GRACE!

 

PERMISSION TO FAIL

Do you still need permission to fail?  As writer and writing coach Tom Spanbauer so wonderfully reminds us,

“Most of all, at the beginning, as a teacher, I must give the permission to do it wrong. In the wrongness there is a treasure. If a wrong note is played long enough, the dissonance can become the speech of angels.”

You’ve officially been given permission to fail.  Not by me but by Him.  By His grace.

Don’t let yourself be fooled into believing you’re committed when you’re really only browsing.  Watch the movie.

_______________________

-Jeremy Beck serves as pastor of Covenant Fellowship in Rainbow City, Alabama. His sermons are available here at Recognizing Christ.

A Heads-Up for the Blog

Since I (Heath) started the original Tides and Turning blog several years ago, I have been the only person to write on the site. I have written every single post there and here at Recognizing Christ. Well that changes tomorrow. My co-conspirator, and longtime friend, Jeremy Beck, has written a doozy.

In the article, he deals with taking false comfort, and justifying lack of Christian growth, because of connection to a large church. It’s well worth the read, so I hope you’ll check it out when it’s posted. And we plan to bring more content like this to the blog as time permits. We are both swamped these days but are committed to adding content when we can.

The title will be, “A Counterculture of Christian Commitment.”

The Illusion of Greatness through Proximity

Stephen Witmer on small churches:

Your weakness cannot hide behind an excellent band, or a beautiful new building, or the excitement generated by packing 1,000+ people into a big room. It can’t hide behind a large budget surplus, or big cash reserves. And if your small, unimpressive church is plopped down in the middle of an equally small, unimpressive town, you will also be denied the pleasures of what E.B. White once called (in his 1949 essay “Here Is New York”) “the excitement of participation” — the sense of belonging to something “unique, cosmopolitan, mighty, and unparalleled.” As a small church in a small place, you won’t have access to the illusion of greatness through proximity. Your church’s weakness will be evident to you and to all – and this is God’s gift.

One principle often spoken of about Billy Graham’s evangelistic campaigns was, “a crowd draws a crowd.” This is one of the reasons ‘flash mobs’ became popular a while back. Everything looks more impressive when a big crowd is involved. But the key word here is “looks.” It’s an illusion. It’s an illusion of greatness.

E.B. White’s idea of the “excitement of participation” rings true as well. I was a part of a worship service last week with several thousand people. At one point in the service we sang, In Christ Alone. I’ve sung that song with 40 people, with 800 people and with 4,000 people. It’s always the same song. But it feels different when you’re with 4,000 people than when you’re with 40. Remember that much of this is illusory.

Small churches can’t hide their weaknesses as easily as big churches. But they both have weaknesses. In a small church, you’re stripped of all illusion and get straight reality. Most of us can’t sing well enough to join the opera. And our sins are ever before us. Sometimes it’s good to see reality. To make a joyful noise that’s off-key instead mumbling the words and hoping the masses will drown out my voice so that God won’t notice how awful I sound. To look the preacher square in the eye instead of staring at the big screen and ducking down and hiding behind the 500 people sitting in front of me. To be forced to shake everyone’s hands instead of being able to sneak out without shaking anyone’s.

Empowertising = Depowertising

Andi Zeisler writes about advertisements catering to feminism. Quotes are from We Were Feminists Once.

On creating needs no one really has:

Here’s the thing we all know about advertising to women: the products aimed their way, from household cleaners to cosmetics to personal-care products, are pitched to solve a problem that in many cases the consumer might not ever know she had until she was alerted to and/or shamed for it (Wait, I didn’t know my armpits were supposed to be sexier!) (p. 25).

On selling back a movement to target groups:

Celebrating [feminist] ads themselves simply celebrates advertisers’ skill at co-opting women’s movements and selling them back [to] us – and then rewards us for buying in (p. 28).

Zeisler makes the argument that when the feminist movement began to gain steam, the corporate world jumped all over it – to sell feminism back to women in a repackaged, reshaped, and gutted form.

The movement’s success has rendered it irrelevant as something to be considered in shaping culture (p. 20).

I’m still working through this book, but the seeming thesis is interesting. If you apply her thoughts on the feminist movements to other movements in culture, including Christianity, here’s what you get. The corporate world co-opts a movement and tries to sell it back to those who are a part of that movement or who might be attracted to it. By the time the product goes through the mediator of the corporate world, it inevitably changes into something that is different from the original movement. In the words of Martyn Lloyd-Jones, every institution becomes its opposite.

It shouldn’t shock us that corporate Christianity, or as a writer/publisher I know calls it, “the Jesus business,” is a watered down mess. It’s gone through the wrong mediators. And now it’s being sold back to us in a gutted form that has no power to actually shape culture.

Anything that might give it to them

Mick wants a violin. She tries to make one. It’s pretty hard to make a violin. It doesn’t work out. She reflects:

Maybe when people longed for a thing that bad the longing made them trust in anything that might give it to them.

-Carson McCullers, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, p. 51

“You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.” – John 5:39-40

Image-Free Language

Robert Alter makes the point that modern English translations of the Bible tend to abstract physical imagery and metaphor. There are a number of examples of this. For instance, the translating of the word “seed” as “offspring.” Or the phrase “hot of nose” being replaced with “wrath” or “hot anger” (see Ex. 32:19, Lam. 4:11 as a couple of examples among many). Or the phrase “he who pisses against the wall” being replaced with “male” (see 1 Sam. 25:22, 34 among other passages).

Alter writes,

One of the most salient characteristics of biblical Hebrew is extraordinary concreteness, manifested especially in a fondness for images rooted in the human body. The general predisposition of modern translators is to convert most of this concrete language into more abstract terms that have the purported advantage of clarity but turn the pungency of the original into stale paraphrases

Gerald Hammond tartly observes, ‘eschew anything which smacks of imagery or metaphor – based on the curious assumption, I guess, that modern English is an image-free language.’

– Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary, pp. xix, xx

One of the reasons I’ve found myself over the years struggling with metaphor, imagery, and imagination is that so much theological literature is devoid of it. This issue is compounded if our Bible translators follow the pattern. But if you look at the teachings of Jesus, and of the Bible as a whole, they’re remarkably full of imagery and metaphor. James Harleman imagines someone talking about Jesus’s sermons:

Why is this guy talking about a farmer? I wanted esoteric spiritual truths!

What’s this crap about mustard seeds?

Where are my bullet point steps for getting in good graces with God?

Why doesn’t this Jesus guy just give us an acronym with the keys for successful living?

-James Harleman, Cinemagogue, pp. 71-72

Jesus didn’t use image-free language. We need to learn how to go “on the body” (as minimalists writers put it) in our speech and how to understand such language in our reading and listening. Or else we may really end up saying, “What’s all this crap about mustard seeds?”