In my last post, I wrote that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is powerful, curative medicine for a sinful and sin-sick world. I also wrote that the preferred method for the delivery of that message has historically been through the words and deeds of spiritual men and women who earned the right to a hearing from others by living a blameless life among others. However, as modern Western society became more industrialized and advanced, those in the West who claim to be preachers of the Gospel have moved away from these historical, personal methods of delivering the Gospel message and have moved toward large-scale, high-tech, media campaign-driven methods of broadcasting Biblical truth.
This has reduced the preaching of the Gospel to a mere sound bite or bumper sticker or shouted slogan delivered by means of a slick marketing campaign – a campaign which lacks any opportunity for those hearing the proclamation to examine the proclaimers to see whether the truths proclaimed actually work in the lives of the proclaimers. This has also reduced the public perception of the Gospel to that of merely one more amplified voice, one more slick high-tech marketing campaign being pushed on a nation that is being advertised to death. This perception is especially prevalent in America, a society which has seen that the ministries of some so-called preachers of the Gospel are really nothing more than means for these preachers to get rich or gain political power by defrauding their hearers. The result is that high-tech, slick, mass-broadcast means of preaching the Gospel are becoming less effective in the First World, because fewer people are willing to trust the proclaimers enough to listen to them.
What is needed is a return to the historical methods of delivering the Gospel, methods which depend on the testimony of holy and blameless lives lived by those who proclaim the Gospel. It is necessary for members of the Church to return to a local, personal, low-tech emphasis on being genuine in relationships, being a genuine blessing to the men and women with whom they interact on a daily basis. It is rumored that the Catholic order of St. Francis of Assisi was given the command to preach the Kingdom of God, “using words if necessary.” (Biographical Sketches of Memorable Christians of the Past, “Francis of Assisi, Friar,” http://justus.anglican.org/resources/bio/258.html)
I believe that words are daily necessary, but that they are best spoken by people whose lives are an obvious reflection of the Word they claim to preach. The problem of the American evangelical church is that as that church has moved away from personal witness to high-tech proclamation, it has also moved away from a blameless, authentic testimony. Most of the posts of this blog, TH in SoC, have discussed how the American church has allowed its testimony to be corrupted. As Aaron Tate once wrote, “There's tarnish on the Golden Rule, and I want to jump from this ship of fools.” How can the testimony of the Church be cleansed from its tarnish? That is a very large question and I am sure that there are many answers; but I want to focus on three particular answers.
First, I believe that the Church must become a real and tangible blessing in the world. I don't mean this in an abstract or “theological” sense, but in a practical and material sense. Matthew 5:16 says, “Even so, let your light shine before men; that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” James 1:27 says, “Pure religion and undefiled before our God and Father is this: to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” James 2:15-16 says, “And if a brother or sister is naked and in lack of daily food, and one of you tells them, 'Go in peace, be warned and filled'; and yet you didn't give them the things the body needs, what good is it?” The parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) tells of the practical duty to the poor which is owed by everyone who is called Christian. Matthew 25 and Luke 16 tell of the punishment which awaits those who refuse to provide material help to people in material need.
It's easy to absolve oneself of personal responsibility by saying, “Well, charity is the pastor's job,” or, “Our church has a ministry that takes care of that,” but the Bible seems to indicate that this is the responsibility of each Christian, to the best of his or her ability. And it is the testimony of people who live as a practical blessing which opens the door for speaking the Word to non-Christians. Consider the testimony of Rich Mullins, who made a lot of money as a successful contemporary Christian music artist. Yet he gave most of the money away to the Quaker church, which administered several charities and paid Mullins the average salary in the U.S., year by year. He also lived in a hogan on a Navajo reservation where he preached the Gospel and taught free music classes. There is also Dr. Paul Brand, an extremely talented and insightful physician who received many awards. He was the first to discover the neuropathic nature of leprosy, and invented a number of successful surgical procedures for restoring limbs and other body parts damaged by neuropathy. His discoveries helped not only people afflicted by leprosy, but also diabetics and others at risk of limb damage from neuropathy. Yet for much of his life he was content to serve in India as a poor missionary doctor whose services were largely free.
These two are not the only examples I know, nor are they the most radical. I know a man who used to teach free guitar classes at a local public library in a working-class neighborhood. At the beginning of each semester, he announced to his class that the reason why the lessons were free was that they might be a demonstration of the free gift of God in Christ Jesus, available to anyone who repents of his or her sins and believes in Christ. Though he never mentioned the Gospel in words after that, he made sure that he gave the best guitar education he could provide in the ensuing classes, going so far as to even bribe his students to do their homework assignments by rewarding them with Starbucks gift certificates. There are opportunities like this waiting for any Christian whose eyes are open to see them.
Second, the American evangelical church must stop giving its unquestioning support to rich elites, particularly the leaders of the Religious Right. By that support, the Church has given Christianity a bad reputation, namely that of a mere tool to justify oppression by claiming that God condones it. This is seen in the insistence by people like James Dobson that American evangelicals must support the Republican party in all of its agenda, even though there is abundant proof of the harm done to poor people and poor, nonwhite members of other nation by that agenda. There is also the push by the Right to rally all evangelicals behind supporting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, even though in the case of Iraq at least, there was no good reason to go to war, and the behavior of the United States in Iraq after the invasion shows a clear intent to rape and loot that country's resources for the benefit of rich American elites.
There is the insistence that the Republican Party is the party of godly Christianity, and we must support the Republicans because they are our best hope for restoring America as a Christian nation – even though the Republicans have long been known for corruption, dishonesty and greed, and that reputation has grown much stronger during the Presidency of George W. Bush. (Need a recent example? See “Sex for Oil Scandal At Interior Department,” CBS News, 13 September 2008, www.cbsnews.com/stories/2008/09/10/national/main4436263.shtml) There is also the insistence by leaders of the Religious Right that “Evangelicals MUST NOT believe in global warming!!!” But there is overwhelming evidence that global warming is real, that it is happening much faster than even the most pessimistic scientists guessed, and that it is caused by human activity. When the leaders of the Religious Right insist on pushing an agenda of denial, and when the American evangelical church swallows that agenda, it causes the world to say that the Church in America is simply another tool of the rich to control and to deceive the masses. “For 'the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you,' – just as it is written.” – Romans 2:23-24. (By the way, I intend to write a post very soon stating all of the scientific evidence for global warming. I will probably post it on my other blog, The Well Run Dry.)
The American church must therefore regain its powers of discernment and its sense of social justice, and must begin to actively speak out against oppression and the destruction of the earth, even when that oppression and destruction are being carried out by American and Western elites.
Lastly, the Church must become more discerning in taking care of itself. Many posts of my blog have dealt with how selfish and unscrupulous people have taken leadership roles in the American church for the purpose of fleecing their flocks. The fact that we continue to allow this, that people are still allowing themselves to be hoodwinked and abused, does not speak well for us before the world. As St. Paul said, “For you bear with a man, if he brings you into bondage, if he devours you, if he takes you captive, if he exalts himself, if he strikes you on the face.” – 2 Corinthians 11:20. When the world sees churches full of people who gladly submit to that kind of treatment from leaders who gladly seek to dish out that kind of treatment, what sort of testimony is that?
The American church – including each member – must become much more active in rooting out abusive leaders. Members must insist on holding church leaders to a high standard of humility, trustworthiness and godly conduct. Much damage has already been done, and wolves in leaders' clothes have made much of the American evangelical church unsafe. When unsafe leaders and shady practices are found, the Church should be first and foremost in exposing the sin. As Ephesians 5:11 says, “Have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather even reprove them.” (See Ephesians 5:12-13 also) As strong sunshine is a powerful disinfectant due to its ultraviolet component, so corrupt leaders in the church are cleansed away by exposing them to the light of day so that everyone may see what kind of people they really are, and so that those who engage in corrupt practices may have no more place to hide in which they can continue to practice evil.
This reminds me of an Internet bulletin board created by members of my old abusive church for the purpose of talking through issues related to recovering from that church. In my early days just after leaving that church I used to visit the bulletin board (or BB) site regularly, but I stopped for a long while until recently, when I began reading the posts of a man who was working through some issues concerning abuses he had suffered in our cultic church long ago and which he was just now facing. He also posted a number of news items relating to corrupt pastors of other churches who were exposed and in some cases arrested this year. While I didn't agree with everything he said in his posts, I acknowledged the therapeutic value of being able to get some things off his chest.
The reaction of others on that BB was interesting. When he expressed pain and anger at the realization of some of the subtle abuse he had suffered years ago, a few other BB members jumped on him with both feet, accusing him of being “unspiritual” because of his anger, and communicating clearly that their idea of acceptable behavior was just to smile and deny the pain and anger. To me, this is an unhealthy expectation (I don't have time to explain why now, but for an insight, please see the excellent post by Stormchild on the blog Strange Mercy, titled “Unilateral Forgiveness and Cheap Grace” (http://strangemercy.blogspot.com/2007/05/unilateral-forgiveness-and-cheap-grace.html)).
The thing that was really strange was a challenge issued to this poster by one of the other BB members who told this poster to take six weeks to write posts only on ministries that are doing good in the world, since it was “obvious” that this poster had a problem because he could only see the bad that was being done by false religious leaders. But to me, such a “challenge” illustrates an even more unhealthy attitude – namely the idea that it is wrong for someone to criticize corrupt practices in the Church, even when those corrupt practices have become rampant. Almost all of my blog has been such a criticism, as well as the blogs of many others who have been burned by religious power abuse. And the criticism – healthy, constructive criticism but criticism nonetheless – must continue until structural, functional changes occur in American evangelicalism which make abuse much less likely. As long as there is abuse in the American evangelical church, I intend to criticise that abuse, and I encourage others to do the same. I am not going to put up with any more of it.
There is evidence also that some of that criticism is beginning to have an effect. One thing I have noticed is the increasingly strident and desperate tone of some champions of the undemocratic “staff-led” and “elder-led” forms of church government. I think that the exposure of abuses perpetrated under these forms of church government is causing some religious empire-builders to sweat a little. But there is an even more encouraging sign: a number of blogs, including City Business Church and An Inside Look With Pastor Burt, have carried an e-mail apology for the excesses of a particular Charismatic church (http://pastorburt.lifewithchrist.org/permalink/42856.html; http://www.citybusinesschurch.org/blog/2008/09/04/dutch-sheets-apologizes-for-failings-of-the-charasmatic-church/). This apology was put forth by Dutch Sheets, a well-known Pentecostal pastor. I can't help but think that constructive criticism from the blogosphere is playing a helping role in ridding the Church of corruption.
Note: All Scripture quotations are taken from the World English Bible, a public domain translation. No royalties are owed to anyone for its use, and it may be freely quoted in all settings, public and private.