Tuesday, February 28, 2006

PZ quote re: Contemporary American Evangelical Christian Church mis-guidedness:

Almost every week it seems, I am out in the field, all over the country, and asking how Christianity is faring in whatever region I happen to be in. This is how it stacks up in many places: the mega-churches, almost all of them Pentecostal and offering mostly rock ‘n roll concerts on Sunday mornings, are doing well, but they have tapered off. They are almost all down about 10% or so from a few years ago. The mainline churches are about a third to a quarter full in most places, with some holding their own at 50 to 60% capacity. Our own Episcopal Church is generally failing to attract younger families. This is partly because families with small children are reluctant to entrust their children’s spiritual formation to our denomination, given the current reputation we have. (People usually don’t say this in so many words, but they are voting with their feet; and many old-line Episcopalians are telling me that their grown children are now attending PCA and other conservative churches.)

The other big thing to note is the mall-culture of our life. Everywhere I travel, there are new and bigger malls. I saw one off Route 95 in Florida yesterday, which is a new “destination” mall. It must have been the size of Altoona, Pennsylvania – all stuck in what was very recently a cow pasture. It was Sunday afternoon and the parking lot – more or less in the middle of nowhere – was jampacked, the entry ramps all bumper to bumper. Now these are mostly church-going people, or in that “catchment,” but they are being drawn in vast numbers to new malls everywhere. I think it is fair to say that the biggest competition we are facing, as committed Christians, is the tractor-beam of “shop till you drop.” It is all so empty – an easy target for any serious competitive ideology.

I feel the phrase “empty bromides” provides a clue to the Christian churches’ stalling. For we have stalled, in almost all sectors. Not fallen radically down yet, but stalled.

The preaching in most of these churches, from left to right, is not making contact with the felt needs of people. At least if numbers are any indication. This is because most ministers are speaking from the pulpit as if they are addressing an “in house” group of people who simply need to be motivated to get off their duff and go out there and win disciples. That is not the way to go about it. We need to realize that the people who still come to us Sunday mornings are not a team that needs a cheerleader, but rather a wounded group of sufferers who need to hear the re-animating Word of comfort in God’s Grace and forgiveness.

I noticed this yesterday in a wonderful parish church. I just talked about how it is that people are able to recover from terrible discouragements: They don’t need guilt to motivate them, or cheerleading. They need Love. They need, pure and simple, the strengthening Word that Christ is with them at their point of need. People seemed to line up afterwards. “That was for me”, they said. “You were speaking about my son, my mother, my former spouse…” They don’t need Tony Robbins. They need a Comforter and a Savior.

We are treating congregations as if they are a football squad to be readied for the second half. There is no Balm in Gilead there. No wonder the people who still come are discouraged and so many of our churches are not growing. I almost wonder whether the preachers themselves are in touch with their own need. Can a preacher who tries to exhort his hearers into action really be holding any wisdom about his own problems? We surely are, each of us in public ministry, just sinners and needy weak vessels like everyone else. But that does not seem to be coming through.

“Empty bromides”! And Ferrigno’s book – and note its timeliness in reference to real events that are happening right now, the “cartoons” controversy, which just took 15 lives in Nigeria over the weekend, and the burning of Christian churches, and the dire life-threatening attack on Bishop Ben Kwashi’s family – names it. With the unbeatable pull of the mall (barring a stronger pull from the Rock of Ages, or the Holy Qu’ran, for that matter), Christian churches that offer little of weight and deep comfort to their listeners will go under, slowly. The people won’t come. The people are not coming.

Preachers, dear colleagues, and those who believe in preachers: Look to yourselves, look to your own Achilles heels and your own points of need. Then you can speak with feeling and connection to the enervated selves who are looking up to you, in arithmetically decreasing numbers, on Sunday mornings.



John Zahl said...

While reading this, two things came to mind immediately:

1) the song "The Boy with a Thorn in His Side" by The Smiths. a brilliant song.

2)Dad is saying something here that is almost identical to something hinted at the in NY Times piece on Redeemer, posted below. Here the exact quote from Tim Keller:

"Their churches (i.e., Redeemer church plants)emulate much of Redeemer's approach, including its attitude of embracing the city and its focus on the Christian message of grace and redemption, which Dr. Keller argues has been muddled in many churches."

Finally, Hebrews 5:1-2 (on the need for ministers to minister out of their own weakness):

"Every high priest is selected from among men and is appointed to represent them in matters related to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray, since he himself is subject to weakness."

AMvL said...

How about the idea that the mall (consumerism) is a competing ideology? I know of a church that literally tries to sell itself via a quasi-corporate marketing campaign. It seems to work enough to get people in, but the message is most often devoid of any real spiritual content (much like the trip to the mall). The heart is in the right place, people want desperately to share Jesus to a dying world, but in an attempt to make church marketable and fresh (is it not already?), they have left out the heart of the gospel. The end “product” is a message about how to make your life better (usually in 5 steps for that week- seriously). The problem is simple, people would go there on a Sunday morning with real stuff going on in their hearts and souls that they can not fix within their own power, and the pastor pours gasoline into a car with no motor.

Jeff Dean said...

My roommate and I were having a very frustrated discussion Sunday after church about how we're not only continuing to be sinners, but also starting to feel less guilty about our sinfulness.

We came to the conclusion that the only hallmark of a Christian life is faith in the Gospel, both personally and publically.

Then we suddenly saw how publically preaching the Gospel could become a law and produce (well-meaning and important!) organizations like Campus Crusade for Christ.

Tim Galebach said...

I had never thought of Boy With the Thorn in that way. But it actually sums up ministry perfectly.

Tom Becker said...

Great post John and excellent article by your dad. Forde's very good, "Theology is for Proclamation" comes to mind as does 2Tim 4:1-4 which the wifey and read this morning:

1In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge:

2Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. 3For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.

4They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. 5But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.

Morgan Flagg said...

Wow, Cougar you are a hard man to find me and tom(bagels) are on the hunt for your email of you could "hook a brother up" it would be most appreciated my email is CheesBallShwng@gmail.com

¡THOMAS SMITH! said...

Indeed, indeed, johnny boy. There has been an el camino on your tail for some time now and i think it needs to catch up. drop me an email or something letting me in on the world according to cougar. Misterbagels@mac.com

Anonymous said...

The new format makes the blog too hard to read imho.

Anonymous said...

yeah, campus crusade stresses me out!