Saturday, August 28, 2010

Beyond a Christianity That's Cool

Brett McCracken has written a new book entitled Hipster Christianity.  The book has apparently just been released, and I haven't read it yet.  However, McCracken used material from the book to write a recent article in the Wall Street Journal.

Part of the thesis seems to be that Christianity is trying to re-brand itself once again.  McCracken suggests that the change is a reaction to numbers.  The latest generation isn't attending church, and leaders are working hard to find the magic formula to bring in waves of young evangelical Protestants.
Increasingly, the "plan" has taken the form of a total image overhaul, where efforts are made to rebrand Christianity as hip, countercultural, relevant. As a result, in the early 2000s, we got something called "the emerging church"—a sort of postmodern stab at an evangelical reform movement. Perhaps because it was too "let's rethink everything" radical, it fizzled quickly. But the impulse behind it—to rehabilitate Christianity's image and make it "cool"—remains.
There are plenty of "emergent" church folk who would take issue with McCracken's judgment that the movement fizzled.  Despite that small quibble, McCracken is correct.  The church desperately wants to be cool.

However, this is nothing new.  Style and attitude have always accompanied the journey of faith.  Fads come and go even among Christians.  Probably, 21st Century Americans understand this better than anyone.  We live in a culture in which style trumps substance every day.  We covet celebrity, and those futures are more volatile than any financial market.  Today, among Christians or "Christ followers" there is a certain style in ascendancy.

I have spoken about this video before, but it illustrates the point well.  For all the desire to be inclusive, we are merely replacing one style with another.  Clearly, the "Christian" in the video above is a caricature.  In a way, McCracken is suggesting a caricature of the "Christ follower".  The "cool" or "hip" of one generation are just as self-righteous or judgmental as another.  We have merely changed what we value.

Every generation is so self-regarded that it often cannot see the contributions of another.  For example, I have heard edgy preachers condemn those wealthy churches who worship Mammon, but then rely on those same churches for contributions for their "alternative communities."  In addition, consider the churches that actually promote themselves as "This is not your parent's church".  As much as proponents will not admit it, this is a soft condemnation of our parents' church.  Something was missing which we have figured out.  

The danger is when style and attitude become unmoored from something more substantive.  In the past, the church was identified by a set of moral behavior or by its theological doctrines.  Both were limiting in their own ways.  After all, we are empowered by the Holy Spirit.  We worship God, not our good works or intellectual constructs.  Nonetheless, living in an age of biblical illiteracy and moral license makes one pine for stale orthodoxy.

I am a product of this generation.  I don't want to return to a golden age that never was.  Likewise, I don't want to enter into a golden age devised at some late night seminary bull session.  I am part of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.  A respect for others, whether "cool" or not, shows my unity with the greater church.  Who knows?  Maybe I'll learn something from those who came before me, or at least I'll discover that I've never had an original thought.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Worship Attendance Overrated?

Bill Easum has been a leader in the "church growth" movement for years and years.  In a recent blog post, Easum grapples with the reality of competition between worship and youth sports.  In the past several decades, the culture has grown less and less accommodating to Christianity, and families must often now choose between extra-curricular activities for their children and worship attendance.  Easum's solution is to let the youth participate, but then encourage them to be missionaries on the ball field.  Worship attendance, according to Easum, is overrated.
I think we place too high a premium on church attendance.   Most of our people spend too much time a church and not enough time sharing their faith with their neighbor. We have led our people to believe that attending church is the mark of a Christian. But it’s not. The mark of a Christian is what we do in our everyday lives.  
Although I love the idea of young people showing the love of Jesus to their teammates, Easum shows a regrettable disregard for worship.  I'm afraid that he is not alone.  For many Christianity is simply doing.  Modern evangelicals might add a vague personal relationship with Jesus, but we Protestants have primarily focused on doing good works and changing social structures.  What we are missing is an ecclesiology and a theology of worship.

Consider the church's current infatuation with the word, "missional".  If the purpose of the Christian life is mission or ministry, the church simply becomes a society for good works, and worship becomes a pep rally for mission workers.  A biblical focus on God's mission to the world need not exclude the church or worship, but sadly too often it does.

In contrast, I would argue that the purpose of human life is in fact worship.  As the Westminster Catechism describes it, "Man's chief end is to glorify God, and enjoy him forever." As the Apostle Paul states,
"God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" (Philippians 2:9-11).
When the Scriptures criticize worship, it criticizes worship that is hypocritical.  For example, Paul condemns gluttons and drunkards who deny others food and drink at the Lord's table (1 Corinthians 11). The problem is not the Lord's Supper, it is the Christians who fail to "discern the body".  Mission, ministry or the life of discipleship should be an extension of worship.  The Bible again and again uses the language of worship to speak of our good works.  The acceptable sacrifice is a "broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart" (Psalm 51).  The fast that God chooses is "to loose the bonds of injustice" (Isaiah 58).  As we gather in worship, we catch a glimpse of the kingdom of God, and we are called to carry that vision into the world.

Our salvation is not dependent on our Sunday morning attendance, but why would we want to give up that vision?  Why would we begrudge our youngest missionaries the reason we go into the world?

UPDATE: Bill Easum responds on his blog.
James, you took my comment out of context. I didnt say worship wasn’t as important as doing good. No way. I said we put too much emphasis on going to church as if that were the measure of a Christian. I was talking about being a representative of Christ in the community as one of the most important thing a Christian does. Sure worship attendance is important, but it is not the final measure of a person or churches worth. The final measure is whether or not the community would miss the church if it were no longer there.