Over the last week I have watched a handful of documentaries regarding churches and their interactions with society. Two of those documentaries, Hell House (2001) and Lord Save Us From Your Followers (2008), have fueled some thoughts I have been having about the way congregations choose to interact with society (HH is on instant Netflix and LSUFYF can be found here). Further fueling the fire have been a couple of recent blog posts by Dave Fitch, prof at Northern Seminary and all around theological and missiological guru (You find both posts here and here). I suggest if you have the time to watch both documentaries and read both posts. For now here is a quick rundown of each.
Hell House(Full synopsis from IMDB here). It may be because I grew up Lutheran in a suburb of Chicago that I never knew these things existed but regrettably they still do. This documentary depicts the formation of a hell house put on in Texas by an Assemblies of God congregation which apparently draws over 10,000 people a year. A “Hell House” is like a haunted house but it depicts ‘real’ scenes of suicide, date rape, abortions, family violence, driving under the influence, etc. using makeup and props. This is done in an attempt to scare people away from hell, which is apparently where those who commit the sins depicted in those scenes will end up. Of course each tour through the hell house ends with a chance to ‘make a decision for Christ.’
Lord Save Us From Your Followers (Full synopsis from IMDB here). This documentary is at times playful but it takes a good look at how some Christians choose to speak to the world in which they live. The director was raised Evangelical, and he wears a suit of bumper-sticker theology, going to major cities and asking the marginalized what they think about Christianity. He also interviews people on both sides of the spectrum to get a pretty fair/balanced view. The film really emphasizes how people are not often willing to have a dialog but would rather yell and argue against a position contrary to their own. It does a good job of showing how Christians are generally perceived, i.e., judgmental and bigoted.
In this post Fitch discusses three recent attempts by Christians to interact with society. The first was a ‘Crusade’ held by Greg Laurie in Chicago which mirrors the old Billy Graham crusades. The Second was the use of the Alpha Program which invites people to come ask questions about faith which is geared less toward secular folks than it appears. The third is an experience with One-on-One Tract Evangelism he had in a local park. Fitch raises the concern with each instance that these programs might just be the “church talking to herself.”
This post revolves around multi-site churches which use recorded videos for preaching rather than an actual person. Fitch expresses his views raising three concerns, 1) Video Venues decontextualize preaching, 2) Video venues draw crowds to a celebrity and this attraction works against (as opposed to helps) the formation of church in mission, 3)Mission requires more than words. Video venues intensify the dependence upon words. His discussion is framed within the context of a video he reposted which features a discussion regarding primarily the positives but also the negatives of video based multi-site churches held by Mark Driscoll (Mars Hill in Seattle), James McDonald (Harvest Bible Chapel in Chicago Suburbs), and Mark Dever (Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington DC).
First, I want to make a distinction that I will flesh out in another post soon; when I say church I mean Christians and vice versa. If I am refering to a a specific ‘church’ i will use the word congregation. I want to make this distinction because I am increasingly leery about using the word church to refer to a specific group of people located at a specific place, e.g. St. John’s Lutheran Church, because I firmly believe that the church does not exist outside of our flesh. So from now on church = christian and congregation = name/location of a worshiping community.
Needless to say my mind has been circling around the theme of how we interact with society. The above are only four examples of a much larger issue that has been documented numerous times and has undoubtedly been experienced by many if not all of you reading this. These examples force us to ask again the question that Dave Fitch asked in that first blog post, are we ending up just talking to ourselves? Does what we do actually impact and transform our communities or does it only serve to stroke our own egos? Is the answer somewhere in the middle?
Society has spoken concerning us whether we like it or not. For decades, the vocal majority of the church has been concerned more about being right than it has been about being compassionate. This has caused more harm than the good that was intended in that through our desire to ‘preach the truth’ we have alienated those to whom we have been called to serve. I know that this is not a new idea or realization but I thought it best to reiterate it.
We have lost the idea that communication is not what is given but what is received. Even if we have preached the ‘truth’ that doesnt mean we have communicated anything about God’s or our love for our neighbor. The message is important, but equally important is the means because, the means is the message. A hallowed professor of mine once said, they will never care about what you know until they know that you care. But dont just take his word for it, let us also look at only two instances from our own biblical narrative, consider James 2:15-16 and 1 John 3:18.
James 2:15-16 Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?
1 John 3:18 Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.
Even divorced from their context I could make a case for my point but to do so would be to ignore their context which is essential. The passage in James piggybacks a discussion concerning showing favoritism which is capped off with the phrase, “Mercy triumphs over judgment.” It is then followed with a discussion concerning faith and works and the necessity of both. In this context this verse speaks even more volumes than if was simply plucked as a proof texted passage. It is not enough to have words, to speak, but we must work toward meeting physical needs even if it is at the expense of our voice. The 1 John passage emphasizes this point. This passage is within the context of the redemptive work of Christ. It is the capstone to a discussion regarding how Christ loved us and how we are to love our neighbor and it is followed in John 4 by a discussion about what love looks like. This is the point, to love with actions not with words.
We need to come up with new ways of interacting with society. The great thing is that this is totally dependent upon context. There is no one specific way this can be achieved by congregations because the cultural context of each congregation is different. The church can no longer be hemmed in, afraid of society, because the only way we can interact with society in meaningful and impactful ways which will communicate not only our message but more importantly the love of God for all people is by being integral parts of society. By being part of the community in which we live. We have been empowered by the Spirit, we need to live like it.
I feel that the answer to the original question is that most of what we are doing is stroking our own egos. To borrow from Fitch, its the church speaking to herself. It doesn’t have to be. We have the ability to change not only how society perceives us but how we communicate God’s love to people. To do so we must be willing to change. I want to close with a quote, “This is not a time to protect what we have and long for the good times to come back. It is a time to review what we’re doing and how we’re doing it—our heart for all our activity, our love for God and people—and find better ways to be Christ’s people in this world.” Alistair Brown – President Northern Seminary.