Sunday, April 27, 2014

Churches as Businesses: Calling them what they are without judgement

I've only been to church a handful of times since quitting my job as a minister four and a half years ago. It s not because I was so pained or traumatized by a lifetime of both attending and professionally serving churches- after all, I had chosen to serve in difficult places and be employed by difficult people. No, I left because Christendom had become irrelevant to my discipleship.

Perhaps I'll elaborate more on that in a blog post of its own. Back to today....

I went to a "church" this morning. Admittedly, I'm a cynic and am all too quick to analyze all things "church" through the lens of my history, experience and faith. My cringe quotient was as high as ever and it was very responsive to the tsunami of stimuli that confronted it upon entry into the lobby- a large and trendy area where we easily gravitated like herds of livestock toward lines in which we could get coffee. Coffee, by the way, has become as much a part of church liturgy as the offering and sermon. No self respectin church who wants people to attend would dare open it's doors on a Sunday morning without some version of coffee available- and FREE.

Coffee in hand,I was ready to find my seat in the darkened three-tiered auditorium (they are not allowed by cultural convention to call it a sanctuary) and prepare myself for what church goers now affectionately term "worship": a live band presenting their adaptations of popular Christian music. The congregation- or if you prefer, consumer- was diverse in age and gender and the dress code was equally varied. I was back again in the arena of Americana called "mega church".

It was comfortable and it did what it was supposed to do: make me think I was not only in A church, but that I was part of THE Church.

So, my meditation during this scripted and controlled "Spirit-led" event, was focusing on what was really happening and what I had actively engaged in as an attender and as a minister for my entire life. My honest and open assessment of Christian living allows for such meditation and I find it to be both disturbing and rewarding. Honesty about what I was experiencing in this energetic environment led me to the following definition of the church culture in America:

"Churches are businesses that promote their version of the product called Christianity by providing presentations, practices and programs for religious American consumers."

This need not be interpreted negatively- just honestly. It's probably just fine to have places that provide Chrisitan consumers places to be together and enjoy the version of discipleship that is offered by a particular leader and his organization (yes, too few women at these levels to be more inclusive in my use of pronouns). It is not different in this sense from consumers of chicken wings who go to places that offer wings in ways that are preferred by them. It doesn't mean they can't get them somewhere else, it just means they like them best there. (And as it's colloquially said, going to chicken wing places and consuming chicken wings will not make the consumer a chicken wing, let alone a chicken!)

I would be much more comfortable if we could just honestly call a spade a spade. Let a church be defined as I have articulated but don't let it be more lest it confuse and misdirect it's consumer into believing that a church service equates with Spirit-filled living. (Going to a church and consuming its presentation and product will not make them the Church.)

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Living in the Deception of Palm Sunday Part 2

It's Easter Sunday and as usual, churches are putting their best foot forward and "Christians" are attending the church they attend when they attend church. Facebook is alive with Easter greetings and declarations of joy that Jesus is alive.

Somehow I don't think this was the way it was on the actual day that Jesus appeared as a risen human.

Today's church-goer will sing songs, listen to the best choirs have to offer and sermons prepared by preachers who hope to wow the attendees with novelty and fresh insights. The Christian community will affirm their belief in and gratitude for something they understand to be the resurrection of God's son, Jesus, thus securing their hope in heaven because they can have their sins forgiven- over and over again. Churches will be presenting the idol they call the "resurrection" to religious consumers who choose to accept a superficial theology that does not disrupt their lives.

And I think God's ok with this. Perhaps God even rejoices in this superficiality. It may be a reflection of some of what Jesus taught about different "talents" granted to different people based on their capacities. Some followers will only go so far either by choice or by ignorance.

The story of the resurrection has evolved to conveniently cover what must have been enormously difficult for the people who had waived their palms and shouted their Hosannas just a week earlier. This crowd bought into the deception that Jesus was the king they hoped for and his power and presence would be that which altered their lives in every area of which they were aware.

But there would be no more Palm Sunday Processions for this King- even after he rose from the dead. His appearances after the resurrection were not as attention-getting. It is even written that on more than a few occasions he was not even recognizable to those who had been with him more intimately and regularly than the crowd that flocked to him on that Palm Sunday.

The events that would follow Palm Sunday would challenge beliefs to the core. The crowds were as easily swayed to yell "crucify" as they were "hosanna" within a matter of a few days. They quickly turned from allegiance to a king about whom they had certain beliefs to conspiring to kill someone they had been persuaded was a criminal and seditionist. They weren't open to the possibility that going further than Palm Sunday feel-good followership might include death to belief systems that fed into their all-too-human desires for theological comfort and earthly self-service.

The story we read indicates that Jesus went through his own crisis of belief. He died to his belief that God was present when needed. He was the quintessential example of a bad thing happening to a good person. The followers that remained loyal that day- a paltry few compared to Palm Sunday- no doubt had oodles of questions about who Jesus was and what they had been led to believe. Their own crisis of faith came on the heels of feeling the same celebration that the crowds felt on Palm Sunday.

After Jesus died, the few disciples who huddled together in a safe-house must've thought that when Jesus said, "It is finished", that it meant the dream they had bought into. To them, "it" was done. They might've contemplated going back to religion-as-usual for good Jewish people. What they thought couldn't have been true since what they believed to be true had died. Not only had their Messiah died but they had died as well.

So Easter came to people who had died to their beliefs. God, therefore, resurrected not only Jesus but the followers who had gone through the darkness of doubt and extreme confusion. Resurrection came to people who had no idea what resurrection meant or what it would look like. Perhaps that's why some still doubted, even when they were with the resurrected Lord.

Christianity today lives in the glow of Palm Sunday even thought it thinks its living in the reality of resurrection. We celebrate accepting Jesus as King but choose not to go through the crisis of belief that opens the door for God's resurrecting power.

The level of living that the resurrection calls us to goes beyond superficial church services. It invites us to the abundant life of the Spirit that thrusts believers into an incarnational life, embracing human existence in all of its various forms. It engages us with each other in love and mutual support so that no matter what life dishes out, we face it with the real presence of Christ and not the superficial belief in an idol that will rescue us out of discomfort and confusion.

Ah, the resurrection and the incarnation- together like peas and carrots, like Christmas and Easter.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Living in the Deception of Palm Sunday Part I

I'm writing this on what's called "holy Saturday"- the day between Good Friday and Easter. This would've been a dark, dark day for the early followers of Jesus. After all, they didn't appear to comprehend the possibility of what would happen tomorrow.

That being said, I was reflecting on the events we commemorate this "holy Week" and went back to its traditional beginning point: Palm Sunday. This, as we all know, remembers one of the highs in Jesus' life and is therefore celebrated with gusto all over the world. It seems from the biblical accounts that the people who lauded Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem that day were at the least self-deceived into believing that event marked the inception of a new Kingdom and an new King. For that jubilant population there was a perception that the old had passed and the new had come. They at least felt reborn.

There was hope that day that everything had, or was changing. They could be more politically engaged as their King would no doubt expect them to "vote out" the godless Roman regime and install leaders that would reflect their values. The religious landscape would be affected, but not dramatically. After all, religion was part of their culture and attending weekly events to remind them that God existed and expected them to live according to the Commandments was a part of the routine. Big holidays and seasonal emphases were in place. The entry of King Jesus would simply make those rituals more meaningful and less lifeless.

Unfortunately, Palm Sunday was deceiving them into a belief that was incomplete. The crowds that embraced Jesus as their King that Sunday wanted to believe this was not only a beginning, but in a way, also an end. They enjoyed crowning their King and undoubtedly were prepared to pledge him their nationalistic loyalty. They left no room for additional insight into this King and his expectations not only of them that day, but for the entire world living elsewhere who did not have a palm branch to wave or a place in the crowd. There were people yet to be born for whom this King's agenda was in place.

What more could there be but living in the glow of a coronation?

For many if not most Christians in today's Americanized Christian culture, Palm Sunday is all there is and for them, it is enough. We live in the deception that recognizing and accepting Jesus as our King fulfills the formula for eternal life. Celebrating a new perspective is all that God ever wanted from humanity, right? We are glad to be on board and we shout "Hosanna" with zeal, knowing we are on the right team now.

And Jesus accepts it. He doesn't condemn their misguided understanding of him and his mission. He receives their praises without additional words that would complete the picture. After all, he had already spent a few years teaching about God, challenging the entrenchment of religion that had prevented them from living as God's people. No, Jesus let the palms sway and the voices swell.

Christians, like the Jews on that day, allow the initial entry of King Jesus into their understanding to be an end rather than a step toward what is really hoped for by God. We live our lives in the warmth of a pleasant memory that can be marked on a calendar signifying when we recognized Jesus as Lord and received that understanding in a way that would hopefully alter their thoughts and decisions about their life and world. We accepted Jesus into our hearts.

Anything after that- no matter how confusing, disruptive, or apparently heretical- is sacrificed to the deception of Palm Sunday.

NEXT: Why no more Palm Sundays?