In 2006, I wrote six articles on why I was not a part of the Emerging Church. Here is the final one, and all you have to do is read backward to find the rest. At that time, I predicted that the Emerging Church movement would fall apart and cease to exist in the years to come. I didn’t say that out of animosity or a desire to curse them. Unfortunately, the Emerging church movement was decontructionist in nature, and thus subject to the same inertia of all deconstructionist movements: They fall down with their own tendency to self-criticize.
In other words, once you start throwing stones as a group, you inevitably start throwing stones at each other. Decontructionist movements always devolve into bickering.
A few years ago Dan Kimball–who wrote the book “The Emerging Church“– wrote an article where he admitted the movement had splintered and was no longer a viable entity. Others such as Scot McKnight and Andrew Jones (a.k.a The Tall Skinny Kiwi) also have lamented and written about the fragmentation of the movement.
But all three men have one thing in common: They still believe in the principles of the Emerging Church even if they no longer believe the movement is viable. The problem is, every one of them recognizes a significantly different set of principles that embody their view of the Emerging church. Perhaps this is another reason it has come to an end.
But since I was a bellringer for this movement’s demise, perhaps it is time to admit some of the things I learned from reading, meditating and participating with some of the leaders of this movement. This is not an homage to something I didn’t believe in–I’m not Cassius Brutus or his kin–but rather this springs from my desire to acknowledge the good things the Emerging church was trying to do.
1. The Evangelical Church Has Become Shallow: As with any retrospective, my analysis of all things related to churches will be painting with a broad brush. Not all evangelical churches are shallow. But there is a pattern which goes back over twenty years in prominent Evangelical churches of emphasizing style over content. Let me just give a few examples:
- Dominance of bass boosters, fog machines, expensive lighting systems, electronic keypads etc. in large megachurches.
- Pastors buying the sermon series of other preachers instead of digging into the Word on their own (thank you Rick Warren for that egregious error).
- Christian bestsellers are all penned by superstar pastors since these pastors can guarantee that their congregations will buy the first 50,000 copies. Therefore, most Christian books are ghost-written and designed for marketing instead of teaching..
- Worship services are designed to sound like concerts instead of providing a place for the congregation to have communion with the Holy Spirit.
- Tendency to mirror conservative political buzz instead of being a prophetic voice.
The Emerging Church desired to have more intimate gatherings of people instead of the consumerist approach we buy into. In this, they are correct. As I wrote in this series on the Walmartization of the church, this trend will not stop as long as people desire little commitment to a local church. I am sorry the Emerging Church was not able to make more of an impact on these practices.
2. Social Justice: If you look back ten years to the messages preached from Evangelical pulpits, you didn’t hear much talk about climate change, recycling, feeding the poor, sex trafficking, backyard gardens, gender equity, GMO proliferation etc. The Emerging Church dedicated themselves to social justice and their voices convinced many in the Evangelical world that this was true and undefiled religion. Now you can hear them being preached everywhere. I am concerned that as the Emerging Church loses its soapbox, we may forget these critical emphases.
3. Narrative Theology has one great result: Narrative preaching seeks to understand where each book of the Bible can be found in the larger story of God. That is to say, all Scripture was penned as a partnership between God, the writer and the culture to whom he was writing. Evangelical preachers have sought to understand what God was saying in each passage, keeping in mind the human elements of the writers while not really paying much credence to their personality. For instance, we recognize the difference between the Gospel written by Doctor Luke and the one that comes from the mouth of the peasant John. Their language is different as is their focus. But that’s as far as we go. We rarely, if ever, parse the cultures to whom books were written. This is a serious error and I thank the Emerging church and their emphasis on reading the original culture as well as reading the original language. It helps to know that culture’s views on poverty, slavery, sex, women, homosexuality, marriage, divorce, church leadership etc. before we finish up our study. Evangelicals are too inclined to only look what God might be saying and not enough to the ideas of the author and the contextual culture. I suspect that as the Emerging Church disappears, we may go back to only one side of the Scriptural partnership. Hopefully writers like Tom Wright and Roger Olson can help us stay on a good interpretive track.
4. People Are Leaving Church Because We Are too Institutional: Three years ago, well-known writers such as Rachel Held Evans and Donald Miller admitted they rarely go to church. CNN ran a series of articles suggesting that children who grew up in Evangelical churches are leaving those same churches when they hit their twenties. Everyone has proposed a different reason for this, but I think the Emerging Church identified the reason better than all the rest: The Millennial Generation doesn’t perceive real community in their home church and this is what they yearn for more than anything else.
Recently, I asked a group of Millennials what they value about church? The answer was consistent and overwhelming: People join churches because of its sense of genuine community. We actually know each other. We are involved in each other’s lives.
Today’s Evangelical church must come to grips with the movement of young people away from the “Show” and the “Celebrity Pastor”. If we are not intimate, genuine, relational and humble, our churches will die just as surely as the Emerging church.
Over the past 20 years, do you know who had the most effective reaction to gun violence in America? The Amish. When Charles Roberts, on October 2, 2006, went into a school in Pennsylvania and shot ten girls (killing five), the world waited to see how this pacifist enclave would react. And they did! They publicly forgave the shooter. They took care of his family. They paid for his children to be sent to college.
Not coincidentally, it was the last murder of any kind in their county. You can’t tell me it didn’t have an impact.
For 11 years, I was a pacifist pastor in Montana, the state known for its Wild West attitude toward gun ownership and usage. The 2nd Amendment has many champions in that part of the world. Yet they didn’t fire me, shoot at me, or publicly ridicule my personal stand and teaching on violence. Why?
Because I was not against guns per se. Instead, I followed in the great theological tradition of Anabaptists worldwide who oppose the killing of another human for any reason.
My problems were never with the gun owners in Montana. I am not just a pacifist, but also a libertarian. I believe everyone should be allowed to make their own choices in life and by not rescuing them from those choices, have to face the consequences of choices. I believe this is how God treats us also, so I have a good example in this. I also believe in mercy and grace, knowing if someone hurts me and asks me to forgive them, I need to do that also.
So if you want to own a gun, that’s fine with me. If you want to point it at me, that’s fine with me. (I have had two people point guns at me and threaten to kill me, and I talked them out of this foolishness both times). If you fire that gun, that is not fine with me, but I’ll deal with it. If you want to fire it at another human, I am against that strenuously and will never support it.
We have had more gun murders involving the deaths of more than one person in America in 2015 than there have been days this year. The gun lobby is advocating for stronger vetting of foreigners and those with mental illness. The anti-gun concerns advocate for tougher gun legislation. I think both groups are missing the point completely, but I’ll give most of them a pass on this one. Many of them don’t know God and don’t know what the Bible says about the human soul.
But I cannot give the Church that same pass. We do know God and we should know what the Bible says about the human soul. I believe that our world is becoming increasingly violent for the same reason it always has: Human Beings are selfish and the human heart is deceitfully wicked above all things.
My contention is that the Church in America–apart from the Amish and other Anabaptists– must be held accountable for failing the American people on this issue of gun violence. I have a number of reasons I feel we have failed:
- By and large, preachers have not taught against killing other people. My observation is that preachers are afraid their constituents will think they are unpatriotic if they teach there are no qualifications on the commandment “Thou Shall Not Kill”. In today’s church, most Christian leaders will allow for a certain measure of exception to the murder rule: Self-defense, justifiable war, capital punishment, to save the lives of others who are threatened, to protect property, to overthrow bad governments, to preemptively attack those who would attack us later, maybe. All of these rationales are given tacit approval by the church in America. What is interesting is there are few churches outside of America that agree.
- Evangelical Christians have adopted the 2nd Amendment as an apocryphal commandment. There is nothing biblical about the 2nd Amendment. It is fine if you want to agree with it–that is your prerogative as an American citizen–but it doesn’t make it a biblical mandate. The pulpits of America glibly support the right to bear arms and never challenge the wisdom of bearing arms. Isn’t the church supposed to stand up against those things that destroy a nation? Isn’t the reason God left Christians on earth to state the minority opinion when things get out of hand?
- Liberal Christians have supported measures to limit gun ownership when every rubric and study shows that this is not the problem. I have never owned a gun, but even I can tell you that whether I had a gun in my possession or not it would not alter my decision to kill another person. A gun is a tool that a violent nature uses to express itself. Timothy McVeigh used a white van and fertilizer. My issue with liberal and progressive Christians is that they march in quick-step with slogans that do not have basis in fact. Michael Moore is not a Christian prophet.
- Conservative Christians are in lock-step with anyone who advocates the freedom to own however many guns and whatever types of guns you want. They advocate open carry policies. I don’t mind if a Christian believes in those policies. But as a Christian, this is never to be our primary focus in life. We are about preserving life, bringing salvation, being Salt and Light and being the Beacon of Hope in a dying world. Conservative Christians have made gun ownership way too high a priority for themselves AS A GROUP.
- We have not taught enough on non-violent alternatives. I listen to sermons all the time, and what I hear from the most popular preachers on the subject of non-violence is … very little. One very popular preacher advocated the castration of all effeminate Christians because they were polluting the manliness of “Real Christian Men.” He was applauded by so many. What bothers me is the amount of people in other religions who advocate for non-violence and put their lives on the line for it, while American Christians do the opposite.
- Christians in America keep buying more guns. Most of my Christian friends own non-hunting guns. When I have personally asked my friends why they are purchasing guns, the answers, when boiled down, all revolve around Fear. The Bible tells us that “perfect love casts out fear.” But I will also say that intense fear blocks love. Love and fear cannot co-exist. You will choose one or the other.
I hope I am getting an emotional reaction from you with this article. It is only when you are emotionally engaged that you will continue to think about something. I am fine if you disagree with me. But there need to be voices that cry out when everyone is falling into two camps. There is a third way. This way will not prevent gun violence. It would not have stopped the violence in Southern California this week. But when violence does happen, if all American Christians had abhorred violence, people would run to churches when this world falls apart. Now, the non-believing world is right to ridicule and despise us and see us as part of the problem.
I am sad for the wasted time and money we have spent on such foolish arguing over hardware that could have been spent educating.
If you want to boil down all I am saying to one statement it is this: Guns are never the problem. Believing in violent solutions to human problems and not embracing non-violent solutions is the problem. From Cain and Abel to today, this has always been the case.
I am a pacifist. Readers of this blog and those who know me personally can attest I do not believe in violence as a solution to any problem.
Unfortunately, many people misconstrue pacifism. They believe it refers to people who are too timid to confront others, who would never hurt anyone by nature. This may be true of some, but it is not true of me. My younger brother and sister can tell you I have been known to throw a few punches–mostly at them. Though I was not the most pugnacious character in school, I was hauled down to the principal’s office a couple of times for schoolyard fights.
And I am not against standing up for something I believe in or defending someone in peril. I simply choose not to resort to physical violence to achieve this. I believe the New Testament does not allow for it for any reason. More about that in other articles.
But the last time I considered violence, it was at lunch in a rural diner in the middle of nowhere. I am not proud of this, but it illustrates a point I want to make about racism.
Many of the years I was a pastor I lived and served churches in serene, rural areas. The serenity came from the beauty of nature around me, not the people. No people anywhere are more at peace than anywhere else. But when you live in a place with less people and more nature, it is easy to be lulled into a belief that country living equals peaceful living. This is simply not the case.
In rural areas, I found out that child sexual abuse is higher than urban areas. I discovered that family violence is just as pronounced, the violent crime rate per capita is higher, methamphetamine and marijuana use is much more prominent and suicide rates are at least equal to the largest city.
But it’s quiet and serene. There aren’t many people around and no one talks to “outsiders”. I lived in one rural community for seven years. I was never fully accepted into their culture. Every time someone gave me directions to their house they invariably included landmarks that no longer existed. As in “go down the dirt road until you get to the field where Joe Smith’s barn used to be. Turn right there and go half a mile until you see the hole in the ground that I dug to remove that old Redwood. Turn there.” I was sure it was a perpetual initiation rite. But after seven years of this, I also began giving people the same directions; only I was still considered an Outsider.
Yes, this is the biggest sin of the rural mindset: Xenophobia. It sounds like this: “You’re not from around here, are you.” I could call it racism, but it often doesn’t apply to people of different races. In the rural north and west of the United States, there aren’t that many races and certainly not that many nationalities.
So though the problem could be racism if enough other races were around, it is simply Xenophobia. You don’t remember that word? It means “the fear of those other people.” Your mind can fill in the blank about who those “other people” are.
To someone in the rural hinterlands, “others” can be Californians, Texans, city-people, rich people (especially if they buy the farm next to yours to use as a hobby ranch), tourists (a tourist is anyone not born here). An “other” can be anyone from another state. If your accent is different, if you dress like someone from New York or LA, if you drive anything other than a truck or an SUV, if you don’t know where to go to pick huckleberries–you’re an outsider.
Back to my violent lunch. I had been pastoring only a few months in this rural community. I took a week off to go to a friend’s wedding and asked a touring musical preacher to come and sing and speak. I had never met the man, but he came highly recommended by another church whose opinion I respected. When I returned from the wedding, several people in the church said he had done a good job both singing and preaching. One person asked me if I was going to invite him back some time.
A week after I got back, one of the church members asked me to have lunch with him. I knew he and his wife drove 40 miles to come to church, so I asked him if I could come out there instead of him driving into town. He told me about a diner by the side of the road ten miles from his property. He gave me good directions and a half hour later I walked into the most quaint little side of the road place I had ever seen. Most people reading this can probably guess 90% of the menu items. I’m sure I ordered chicken-fried steak or its equivalent.
“Pastor Mike, I hope you don’t mind that my wife joins us. This is an important talk we need to have.”
“No problem Bill. It is long past time I got to know the two of you.” We bantered back and forth until the food came. The waitress put Bill’s food in front of him and he picked up his knife and fork. And then, as if reconsidering his decision, he put them down again.
“I can’t eat until I get something off my chest” he started. “Had you ever met that preacher you invited to come to the church last Sunday?”
“No, Bill, I had never met the man before.”
Bill’s face changed from his sour expression to a more peaceful look. “That’s what I thought. Boy, I feel relieved. I was sure you hadn’t made that kind of mistake.”
Hmmmmmm. My first thought was “what kind of mistake?” But I wasn’t sure I wanted to ask. So I just ate my mashed potatoes and figured he would elucidate if I gave him enough time. He did.
“Yep. I knew you had a good head on your shoulders. I knew you wouldn’t deliberately invite a Darkie in to preach. You probably couldn’t tell from his name…it sounded so normal.”
Yes, he used the word “Darkie”. This man was relieved because I didn’t know I had invited a Black preacher to come to the church! I felt sick to my stomach. I felt all the blood rush to my head. I put down my eating utensils and pulled out my wallet. I took out $30 and threw it on the table.
“There Bill. That should cover lunch. And let me tell you one more thing. Don’t you ever drive the 40 miles into town and darken the door of our church. If you come within ten feet of it, i will come out there myself and escort you off the property as I kick you in the ass. You sick racist!” i stood there in a apoplectic rage. I tightened my fists into balls and almost prayed he would take the first swing.
Until that lunch, I had no idea the preacher/singer I had invited to speak for me was African-American. It wouldn’t have made any difference to me if I had known. But seeing the absolute hatred on Bill’s face was the most evil I had witnessed in years. And I used to work with men in the prison system.
Bill stood up and faced me, but he couldn’t look me in the eye. Several times he tried to say something and words escaped him. He finally sat down and threw his napkin onto his plate. His wife started to cry.
I walked out of that diner ready at any moment to turn around and start swinging at Bill. But Bill never followed me. I never did see Bill again, but I heard he phoned everyone in the church he knew and told the world that I loved “those people”. Fortunately, when the people of the church found out about Bill’s racism, they were of the same opinion as I. That’s how I knew I had found a good church.
You hear stories of groups of people who gather in churches and call themselves Christians but then spew out racist viewpoints under the guise of “protecting our children” or “keeping the gene pool pure” or some such nonsense. But there is no possible way to be a Christ-follower and believe that any other racial group or nationality is superior or inferior to others.
I even hear another wave of this garbage is sweeping Evangelicals again. it makes me sick to consider that any follower of Jesus would be so mixed up in their mind as to believe that Jesus would treat any race differently or see them differently. It makes me so angry I want to hit someone.
And no, the irony of that statement is not lost on me.
An old Indian proverb tells the story of six blind men examining an elephant. One touches the elephant’s ear and tells the others this animal is “like a fan”. Another man touches the trunk and concludes, “no, it is just like a snake.” A third blind man examines the tusk and tells them the elephant feels like a spear. The man who touches its leg concludes it is like a tree, the man who grasps the tail says a rope and the one who feels the belly concludes the elephant is like a wall.
This story has long illustrated the difficulty of relating the Truth you understand to others. All of us have limited perspectives and all of us communicate those perspectives from our own limited experience. All of these men are right in what they observe, and all are wrong when they say their conclusion is the entirety of what an elephant is.
This is the difficulty of many things modern society argues about. It might be a Muslim boy bringing a homemade clock to school, a police officer shooting a teen at a suburban party, a military hostage who might have deserted, a President’s birth certificate or Donald Trump’s hair. Everyone has a perspective on all these things and depending on which angle you are viewing these issues from, the results will differ greatly.
I’m not telling you anything new. But allow me to show how important it is to reserve judgment until you have taken time to examine all the facts and opinions.
In this case, I want to use the Blind Men’s Elephant story to re-examine an already well-hashed-over issue: That of Kim Davis the county clerk from Kentucky. Here is essentially what happened. The Supreme Court declared that gay marriage is legal. Kim Davis is an elected official whose signature needs to be on all marriage certificates. She refuses to sign the certificate for same-sex couples in her office. The courts order her to fulfill her duty as the County Clerk. She refuses to sign them, citing only her Christian belief in marriage as between a man and a woman as the grounds for her refusal. As a result, she is thrown in jail..
Several days later, she was released from jail and told to do her job or allow her co-workers to do her job. She agreed to allow her deputies to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples as long as her name is not on any of them. For the moment, this ends the most dramatic part of the story, though I’m sure comedians and political pundits will continue to make hay with this issue.
I am bringing it up for a completely different reason than most people. In order to get to my point, let me look at some of the Blind Men viewpoints that have been expressed about Kim Davis.
First, Kim Davis’ viewpoint. Here it is in her words, given through her attorney last week:
In addition to my desire to serve the people of Rowan County, I owe my life to Jesus Christ who loves me and gave His life for me. Following the death of my godly mother-in-law over four years ago, I went to church to fulfill her dying wish. There I heard a message of grace and forgiveness and surrendered my life to Jesus Christ. I am not perfect. No one is. But I am forgiven and I love my Lord and must be obedient to Him and to the Word of God.
I never imagined a day like this would come, where I would be asked to violate a central teaching of Scripture and of Jesus Himself regarding marriage. To issue a marriage license which conflicts with God’s definition of marriage, with my name affixed to the certificate, would violate my conscience. It is not a light issue for me. It is a Heaven or Hell decision. For me it is a decision of obedience. I have no animosity toward anyone and harbor no ill will. To me this has never been a gay or lesbian issue. It is about marriage and God’s Word. It is a matter of religious liberty, which is protected under the First Amendment, the Kentucky Constitution, and in the Kentucky Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
She claims that this is a Heaven and Hell issue for her. (She never clarifies this, not noting whether she means the couples she would be marrying are going to hell or that she would go to hell if she issued the licenses). In her mind the issue is simple: If she issues the license, she is violating a “central teaching of Scripture and of Jesus Himself regarding marriage“.
There are some who agree with her viewpoint on marriage who point out that she could have just resigned her post and it would have accomplished the same thing. She claimed that would have been a slap in the face of those who elected her. Please note: She could not be fired since she was elected, not hired.
This is Kim Davis and her perspective. Obviously, the same-sex couples wanting to receive a marriage license from her see her differently. They see her as a religious bigot who tries to prevent them from doing what they are legally allowed to do. Their position is just as clear as Kim Davis’ position in the matter. Few people can misunderstand either Kim Davis or the couples wanting to have their marriage recognized, regardless of which of these you agree with.
Enter, everyone else! The rest of us observe all of this and have our own slant on it.
First, there are the preachers, teachers and religious leaders of various denominations. To them, Kim Davis becomes a symbol. For the preachers who believe gay marriage is a violation of the Bible, Kim Davis is their spokesperson. She is a lone voice crying in the wilderness. Or, at the very least, she is a sacrificial lamb being hoisted upon a misguided Supreme Court decision.
There are other preachers and teachers who are in favor of gay marriage who see Kim Davis as a caricature of Bible-belt conservatism, of Kentucky Bible-thumping. They are saying that Kim Davis and others like her are a dying breed and that their brand of Christianity is now completely marginalized and should be abandoned.
In this circus of opinions, you will always have the clowns. These are the ones who mock what they disagree with and treat every social issue as an opportunity to rip others apart. Primary among these are the late-night talk show hosts and their ilk. Every host took a shot at Kim Davis and every one of them used her as their whipping girl in one fashion or another. The Social Media jury also weighed in, creating several different memes. One of the most popular was the “Still Did Their Job” meme.
Here are two examples of this buffoonery:
Then, the politicians got involved. Senators, a Governor, several Republican presidential hopefuls all traveled to the jail where Kim Davis was being held to show their support and encouragement. When she was released from jail, many of these politicians stood there and held up her hands, applauded her and told the world how proud they were to be associated with her. Not surprisingly, now that her issue has died down, they don’t book any more flights to Kentucky. She may never hear from any of them again.
Civil Rights and Gay Rights groups continue to pummel Davis. Conservative Christian groups are inviting Kim Davis to come and speak at rallies, conferences and churches. We all can see that no matter what Kim Davis is doing right or wrong personally, all of these groups are using her to further their own agenda. That is not surprising or news but it does bring up an issue for all of us who read, listen to or watch the news.
The wrong thing to do is to jump on the bandwagon for or against anyone too early. The wrong thing to do is probably to jump on any bandwagon. And with the Internet, that is getting harder to resist doing every day.
During the week of 9-11, I was taking a class in Creative Writing from a local community college. Two days after the twin towers were demolished, we sat stunned in the classroom trying to make sense of it all. Our professor, a noted poet laureate and wise woman had a caution for us that morning. She warned us not to write about the event itself for a long time. “This is the kind of thing that will prompt you to fiery diatribes or cries of indignation. Try to resist writing down any of those thoughts for now” she offered.
Instead, she urged us to write down what each of us was feeling inside. If we were wrapped up in anger, grief, pain, confusion, racism, revenge, sadness, etc., those were the things she counseled us to focus on. Not to put too fine a spiritual point on what she said, this is similar to what Jesus said to his closest friends on the night he was betrayed. He told them to watch and pray so each one of them would be able to stand firm in the disaster that was coming. He didn’t wax eloquent on the injustice of the moment. He didn’t give them reasons to be indignant, reasons to be sad, reasons to be hopeful. He instructed them to deal with their own stuff.
I did write about how I felt during that season. I had the additional pain of my brother-in-law’s death, which happened two days after 9-11. All of that grief and pain ate up my mind during those days. Writing helped me to put it all in perspective. I waited two years before writing my feelings about what happened when New York, Washington, D. C. and Pennsylvania were attacked on 9-11. Those two years opened my eyes to so many things, most of which I never would have seen in the first week after the attack.
Let’s bring this around to Kim Davis. Every person who takes a position on what she is doing has a part of the equation correct. Kim Davis is trying to live out her faith. She is not living up to the Law. She could have resigned. She is not doing her job. She has a right to protest a law she does not agree with. Davis is allowing her subordinates to issue marriage licenses.
But those are always going to be the surface issues here. There are much deeper ones involved and they are not obvious. Let me give you an example. In her lawyer’s statement to the press, she says this:
Following the death of my godly mother-in-law over four years ago, I went to church to fulfill her dying wish. There I heard a message of grace and forgiveness and surrendered my life to Jesus Christ. I am not perfect. No one is. But I am forgiven and I love my Lord and must be obedient to Him and to the Word of God.
Kim Davis has been married four times and divorced three times. There are many bible-believing Christians that would say every time she divorces and remarries, she commits adultery. Many of the same preachers that say homosexuality is sin also say divorce is sin. So, when Kim Davis went to church four years ago and surrendered her life to Christ, it was because of the message of grace and forgiveness that led her to God.
Does that same grace and forgiveness extend to her job and the people she believes are sinning? I can’t say, and I can’t say what that would look like. There are some who would say that it is hypocritical of her to take a stand against gay marriage but not against serial divorces. If she acknowledges that her sins can be forgiven, does she also acknowledge that the sins of the same-sex couples can be forgiven?
I am not proposing what is right or wrong in this situation. What I am encouraging my readers to do is to always take every news story and ponder it before jumping to conclusions. There are hundreds of issues we may be attracted to and count ourselves part of. Most of the time, we take the position that fits with our worldview at that moment. Or, we adopt the position of the news outlet we most often view. Or, we form an opinion based on the position we already hold.
Instead, perhaps we should reserve opinions on the actions and inactions of others until we have thought about and meditated on the entire issue. This is wisdom. It also helps keep us from dying on every mountain and championing causes that will be here today and gone tomorrow.
My step-dad Larry told me he had been listening to a lot of “Mike Smith” on CD lately. Larry’s musical tastes and mine had never overlapped much, so I only half-listened. He told me about Mike Smith’s approach to music, worship and public speaking. I had never heard of Mike Smith, so I asked Larry if he had a favorite song of his.
“I love “Above All”” Larry told me. Then it dawned on me.
“Oh, you mean “Michael W. Smith” don’t you?”
“Sure. Don’t they call him “Mike Smith”?”
I guess his crew calls him that. Maybe. No, I doubt it. His brand has always had the full name and middle initial. I envision his wife calling him “Michael W.” when she has dinner ready. I believe his children call him “Daddy W.” I wouldn’t swear on it, but that’s my theory.
I have an ambivalent emotional relationship with Michael W. Smith. First, he is a little too “pop” for my taste. But I admit he sings well, has an ear for songs that fit his range and ability and puts on a great concert. There is little I don’t like about him.
Except he ruined the style of church I love the most. Ruined it. Just took it outside and tied it to his truck and took the corners hard and ripped the skin off it.
I blame Michael W. Smith for the mess we’re in.
In the mid-1990s, MWS toured the United States several times, hawking his brand of pop CCM. These were some of the most well-attended concerts of any genre and he and his team were making a boatload of money. I went to one of the concerts and came away thinking “this guy has figured it out.” I meant the business part of performing, not the God part.
Then he did something unexpected and risky. In the midst of one of his tours, he took a chance and led the concert-goers in an impromptu worship service. He borrowed songs written by friends and put together a set of worship songs most of his audience knew. Because there were 18,000 people there and he had a live band and an already skilled mixer board, sound system, lighting effects, smoke machine, backup singers etc., it was an auditory and cultural experience that few people had ever been part of. The crowd in Houston, TX that night was blown away.
Let me interject a word about pop performers having worship music in their concerts. MWS was not the first or the best to do this. Keith Green started the ball rolling on this one. The Gaither Vocal Band took the aegis of the Gaither Trio and turned it into massive concert experiences. They were completely focused on worship. Don Moen, Vineyard Music, Christ For the Nations Bible Institute, Rich Mullins, Petra, The Imperials, and a lot of other Christian musicians had hosted public worship services before. But MWS did something that no one else had thought of. Essentially, Christian singers could choose one of two formats. They could perform in churches where they led congregations in worship. On the other hand, they could perform rock, folk or pop music with a Christian theme. They utilized concert halls and arenas for these performances. Occasionally, during a song or two, the formats would blur. Petra, for instance, used to perform the worship song “King of Kings” with a heavy metal sound that their fans loved.
But Michael W. Smith for several years made a full 50% of every concert a worship time. This was wildly successful both from a marketing standpoint as well as having spiritual impact on people’s lives. Church-goers who never went to concerts attended the tour stops of MWS. He had to get larger venues to accommodate the crowds. The church crowd and the concert crowd were now blending into one demographic.
This changed the Christian music industry forever. The stars of CCM became the groups that wrote and performed worship music. Their songs crossed over and churches began to sing their music in worship services. Thus, we saw the emergence of David Crowder, Chris Tomlin, Hillsong, Delirious, Kari Jobe, Newsboys, etc. Like most of the people reading this, I like their music. I have enjoyed their concerts and approach. It’s all good. I couldn’t care less who writes the songs we sing or where they are first performed. But it is this worship service/concert blend that I am angry about.
And I still blame Michael W. Smith.
For 20 years now, this style of concert worship has infiltrated church services. The seepage is so complete that anyone who started attending church in the past 20 years will think it has always been this way. But it hasn’t. Let me give a couple of examples.
If you walk into a contemporary church today, the feel is completely different than 20 years ago. If someone was transported from 20 years ago into a church without any context or feel for what has taken place, they would notice the following:
- They can hardly see because it is so dark (churches used to have as much lght in their buildings as they could)
- The ceilings and walls are black. (Colors used to be the standard)
- There is professional stage lighting everywhere (we used to have functional lighting and maybe some flood lights).
- The drummer’s kick-drum is miked and overpowering. (drums were never miked until recently…and yes, I know this started so the volume of the drums could be controlled. Well, they’re not controlling the kick-drum any longer, they are enhancing it).
- The platforms are three times the size of what they used to be
- Musicians cover every inch of the platform (there used to be symbols up there. No longer).
- Rarely does anyone explain the meaning of the songs. No pastors (except musical pastors) are seen on the platform. (The theology of music used to matter. Hymns would be explained. It is good to know what we’re singing and why. Now, pastors almost never interrupt the “worship set”).
- Few people in the congregation are singing. (The performers are so loud and the songs so complicated, few people feel like they can sing them. Also, because so many new songs are introduced, few people even know all the words).
- The lighting changes with the mood of the song. There are pulsating changes to the lighting to match the rhythm of the song.
If you asked this person transported from 20 years earlier where they were, they would say “I’m at a concert.”
Contemporary churches now design their musical worship to mirror concerts. This is because the average church-goer attends concerts and while there, is invited to join in for musical worship. The real problem is the focus on the concert worship is always upon the performers. That’s who you are there to see and hear. And why not? It’s their concert.
The generation that was discipled by Chris Tomlin and Hillsong has come to expect that musical worship will look and sound like a concert. The difficulty with this is, the goal of the concert is the exact opposite of what congregational worship is designed to emulate. We learn from both biblical and historical evidence, music is supposed to be a group experience. We are supposed to see each other, encourage each other (speak to one another in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs). Now the focus is on the performers and the lighting.
How can you be part of one another, speak to one another, if the lights are completely out and curtains cover every window? By the way, why do churches black out the musical part of their service? One person told me it was so they could see the projector screen better. Well, first of all, that isn’t true. With today’s powerful projectors, you can see the screen clearly even with bright lights on. Second, they don’t do this when the preacher is speaking. The lights go up for that and no one struggles to see the screen.
No, they dim the lights so the focus goes to the front and the performers there.
Why do churches have strobe lighting, mood lighting, spot-lighting? It is all designed to look like a concert, because this is where people associate their most powerful musical moments in worship.
When you look at the words of the song on the screen, in most large churches the background is a video of the worship team playing. The same team you are watching.
I blame Michael W. Smith. And I fully believe he had no idea what he was starting.
My advice to churches is they turn up the lights, turn off the spots, get rid of the mood enhancers, take the mike off the kick-drum, stop putting your “team” on the screen and teach the congregation to sing again. Allow the congregation to be the performers.
Anne Ortlund, in her book “Up With Worship” said this.
“We get worship all backwards. We are right in believing it is like a concert, but we get the roles reversed. We think that the Performers are the musicians and singers, the Prompter is God and the Audience is the congregation. That’s not it at all. The musicians and singers are the Prompters, the congregation are the Performers and the Audience is God.”
“We’re coming back to the heart of worship, and it’s all about you…it’s all about you Jesus.”
To all my friends who have written me in the past month wondering why I have not joined in the cacophony of voices denouncing Mark Driscoll. I have a simple answer. I addressed my problems with MD years ago. I grew tired of being one voice noting that he is a bully and a poor preacher. Now that many others are saying it and his empire is collapsing, I am mostly content to let others have their say.
With this article, I am done discussing him. Now it is time to focus on those groups of people who enabled him over the years (and are still enabling him). I think those people need to take a look at themselves in the mirror and answer for their actions. Here are the groups I am speaking of.
Christians Who Like Bullies: One teaching of Jesus that disturbs a lot of people is his insistence that we turn the other cheek. Jesus clearly teaches we are to expect to be persecuted and that the mark of a Christ-follower is that they don’t strike back. They don’t complain when they are mistreated, but they pray. In recent years, Christians have come under fire for our beliefs and many of our practices. In some cases, the criticisms are just. But other times, they are just mean-spirited attacks on our belief system.
As Christians, it bothers us to have people attack us indiscriminately. It bothers us that culture now accepts certain sins that we find abhorrent. It bothers us that our children like television more than church, their friends more than youth group, drugs more than prayer, video games more than Bible Study. It bothers us so much that we want to lash out at the world.
That is why so many Christians latch onto bullies and those who preach like bullies. I am speaking of people like Pat Robertson, John McArthur, Bill Gothard, Michael and Debi Pearl and MD. People rush to hear these people because in their gruff, judgmental and unapologetic ways they sound prophetic against our decaying culture. Unfortunately, all of them have shown by their actions that they are bullies. I use the word “bully” as another word for “abuser”. The word abuser has become so tainted by association with sexual things that I think the word bully suffices. The same people who like Driscoll also like Rush Limbaugh and Judge Judy.
They all come across as hard and critical. In reality, their style doesn’t allow anyone to disagree with them. They shout down all their opponents. They have opponents.
People, it is time to examine the ones you like to listen to. Isn’t it true that you love voices that cry out against the decadence and even though they may go too far, you listen because the alternative sounds “wussified” (to use a term made common by MD). Time to see that Jesus is not the way we think he is. He dialogued with people, showing them the error of their ways, weeping over Jerusalem. Yes, he turned over the tables of money-changers–once–but more often he tenderly protected those who were being bullied. Today’s pulpit bullies have more in common with the Pharisees than Jesus.
Mega-Church Addicts: I have written so much about the mega-church in past articles here and on my old blog. Suffice to say, I consider the mega-church to be the Christian equivalent of Wal-mart. Their existence in a community may help people to find lower commitment, but they end up destroying the smaller churches who have more to offer the community. MD and other mega-church pastors are crumbling these days and part of it is because no person can handle that much notoriety and devotion without it destroying them. People like Steven Furtick, Joel Osteen, MD and Ted Haggard are being brought before the general public in articles published by major magazines. Their lives are shown to be failing and it causes the Christians who attend the mega-churches to get cynical and to be done with church forever. The church of 500 doesn’t put on a show, they don’t buy their way onto the NY Times bestseller list, they don’t have CDs for sale in the lobby. They don’t have a lobby. Time to consider that you joined a mega-church for the show and stayed because they asked for the least amount of commitment. They are Wal-mart.
Neo-Calvinists: The ones who supported MD the most are the bullies of the theological world. They are the ones who like to present God as the Great Benevolent Bully (my term, not theirs). This group is the Neo-Calvinists, those who believe so much in the sovereignty of God that they essentially lay all of the world’s evils at God’s feet. Teachers like John Piper, CJ Mahaney, MD and RC Sproule have littered the church landscape with their vision of God. Calvinists were content simply to place God’s sovereignty over our salvation. They believed that we are saved by God’s fiat choice and by nothing of ourselves. They never extended that beyond salvation.
But now you have preachers like Piper who claim that all the children who died in the shooting at Newtown a couple of years ago died because God wanted them dead. The old Calvinists would say that God allowed it, but the Neo-Calvinist claims God wanted it that way.
In recent months, most of the Neo-Cals have had to make one apology after another. They apologize for hurting others with their bullying teaching. I thought this wayward doctrine had disappeared in the early seventies, but MD and Piper made it popular again. Mahaney had to resign his church because of how many people were hurt by his ways. Piper had to take a leave of absence because he realized how much his teachings have hurt people. MD has made four public apologies for making misogynistic, arrogant, gay-hating, worship-leader-bashing statements.
I look at Arminians such as Jack Hayford, Roger Olson, Greg Boyd and Francis Frangipane and note they have never had to make these kind of apologies.
It is time for those who like the mega-church, bullying, Neo-Calvinist preachers to take stock and look at your lives. Do they look like Jesus? The men you’re following don’t.
A couple of weeks ago, I met my regular golf partner at one of the local courses. We expected to play our usual quick round of golf; and we would have – except that day they paired us with two other golfers, thus slowing us down. In reality, they turned out to be better golfers than us, so I’m not sure who did the slowing.
As usually happens, we asked each other what we did for a living. Most readers of this blog know that my answer is always complicated. I am a pastor, but I’m also a writer, a counselor and a public speaker. In addition, I do employee assessments for small businesses and even interpersonal training for people in helping professions. Normally, I just tell people “counselor” and they get back to golf.
For some reason, I told the two guys I was a pastor. I don’t know what made me say that. I almost never do. It makes people nervous as they mentally review whether or not they have been using profanity during the round of golf.
A few holes later, one of the guys started making small talk as we waited for our turn to hit. With one simple question, our conversation got weird and since that time, it has bothered me
Here’s how he started: “So you must be happy today huh?”
“Your side won this morning.”
“Sure, you know…the religious side…in the Hobby Lobby case before the Supreme Court.”
“I have no idea what you are talking about” I told him. And I really didn’t know what was happening. I had not read the news much the week previous because my counseling load was so heavy and I had a lot of evening appointments. I had never even heard of Hobby Lobby. I told him that and he looked amazed.
“I thought every Christian in the country was praying for the outcome of this case” he said.
“Apparently you’re wrong” I retorted. “Not only do I know nothing about this case, even if I did, I would have to spend a lot of hours looking into it before I could form an opinion on it.” I thought this statement would correct his false conclusion.
You see, he had come to believe that all Christians stand together on political issues. Perhaps he also believed we are all guilty if one of us is guilty. Maybe he believed that we all secretly hold to the same viewpoints on all cultural memes, regularly attending meetings where we decide as a group how to vote, where to protest, whom to exclude and how to let our displeasure known to the masses. If there are such meetings, I have never been invited, and I’m sure I wouldn’t attend.
Here was my final word to him: “I do not represent Christians, I represent Christ. I know what Jesus stands for, what he teaches, how he loves me. As for Christians, we are a mixed bag and must be treated individually.”
This blew him away, and he kept returning to the subject for the rest of the golf game.
I want all readers of this blog to know that I don’t represent you and you don’t represent me. Neither does Focus on the Family, the Billy Graham Association, the National Association of Evangelicals, Christianity Today Magazine or the National Day of Prayer.
I don’t represent your political views and you don’t represent mine. It never impresses me when the President, a Governor, Senator or Congressman announces they are a Christian. I have no idea if that statement is supposed to convince me I’m on their side or they’re on mine, but we’re not.
I don’t represent your moral values and you don’t represent mine. When a priest molests a child, don’t hold that to my account. When a stupid church decides to picket gay funerals, don’t look at me. I am dreadfully sorry for what they’re doing. When someone bombs an abortion clinic, I am not cheering. When a pastor in town has multiple affairs and is publicly humiliated, I am not pleased in any way at his failure; but I should not be tarred with his brush. When a Christian 15 years ago treated you badly and dragged your name through the mud, don’t think that gives you a right to drag mine through the mud today.
I support no Christian agendas.
I support no Christian parties or politicians
I don’t think watching a Christian movie or listening to Christian music proves whether I’m a follower of Christ.
I represent Christ and that is it. If you look at my life and I do not live according to the principles that I profess, then criticize and challenge me. If another Christian does not live up to what they profess to believe, talk to them.
What it comes down to is this. Christians have only one thing that makes us similar to each other. If we are following Christ, our goal is to eventually look like him. In that process, we don’t have to look like each other. We don’t have to sound like each other. We don’t have to vote like each other.
That’s all I have to say about that.