Category: church growth

On Becoming Somewhat Anglican #2: The Joy of Being Religious

Religion is a terrible thing, was the message I got as a child. Religion is what Pharisees – and Catholics – do. Our church is not religious – we all have a relationship with God. Being religious means trying to please God with rituals. Wearing special robes. Reciting prayers out of a book. That’s why I faithfully told other kids at school that I wasn’t religious, just born-again.

These days, I embrace the word ‘religious’, mainly in reaction to how demonised the poor word is. I don’t have a developed theology about this, but attending an Anglican church, I am experiencing the joy of being more religious. Let me explain.

Free church (Pentecostal, Baptist, Church of Christ) worship services are so often deliberately “unreligious”, especially to the extent they have been influenced by the church growth movement. In wanting to be accessible to the non-Christian, in wanting to minimise the cultural barriers, worship leaders banter about football and families. God-talk is casual, prayer is spontaneous (yet usually very familiar), God is translated into everyday language. There is a determination to make a relationship with God seem a normal part of a middle-class existence. There are good reasons for all these things, but it is a mode of worship I have never been at ease with.

For me, what is lost in “unreligious worship” is the mystery of God, the strangeness and ancientness of the Bible and a sense of connection with the two thousand years of the church. Church-growth influenced worship mirrors the complacency of our culture in its embeddedness in a perpetual present, without a sense of history, without an awareness of the wisdom of the ages – without, I suppose, a consciousness of tradition.

Thus, for me, worshipping in an Anglican church this year has restored some missing things. The prayerbook service is theologically deep and draws so deliberately from the riches of two thousand years. I am taken through repentance and forgiveness, thanksgiving and intercession. The language, while not arcane, is more exalted than everyday language. It conveys some of the mystery of faith.

Sometimes the many rituals go from seeming strange to seeming momentarily silly or tedious. But overall, the ritual and structure have been good for me, good for giving me space to encounter God in a new way. This is what I mean by the joy of being religious.

“Passive, feminised Christianity”: a chickified dude with limp wrists strikes out at a misogynistic concept

It disturbs me that I keep hearing phrases like ‘a passive, feminised Christianity‘ and ‘men are staying away from the feminized church’. Mark Driscoll has me nailed – trust a ‘chickified dude with limp wrists’ to get worried about this stuff. A middle-aged friend complained to me that her church had become too feminine, and that was why some men had stopped coming – never mind that in this church, women aren’t even allowed to lead the service, let alone preach! The misogynistic assumptions behind this language and this concept should be obvious – feminine=negative, masculine=positive; feminine=passive, masculine=active. How can we talk like this, even after our eyes (should) have been opened to centuries of the oppression of women in churches?

Mark Driscoll didn’t invent this thinking; the New York Times quotes Billy Sunday making the complaint in 1916. But Driscoll is certainly the face of an aggressive evangelical masculinity taken up by Young Calvinists. I’ve heard rumours of sermons about cagefighting.

Yet if this language and critique is directed at the emotions-driven, megachurch style of evangelicalism which has become dominant, it is a beast which needs to be targeted. Passive church is not what the body of Christ is meant to look like. Church should be participatory, multi-voiced, the gifts of the Holy Spirit enabling the members to form different parts of the body. (Megachurch advocates will claim this happens in small groups.)

The problem, then, is not the target but the diagnosis. To call ’emotional’ and ‘passive’ essentially feminine traits is unfair and sexist. To my mind, emotional worship and passive churches have come about from the mainstreaming of Pentecostalism and the rise of megachurches. And actually, passive worship extends right back in time to the transformation from multi-voiced churches to priest-focused churches. Different groups – Anabaptists included – have challenged this, but multi-voiced has never been recovered as the norm.

Six years ago, Sean Michael Lucas wrote a thoughtful post about the historical context of the concept of the ‘feminisation’ of American culture. More recently came a great reflection on the stereotypes involved from a Baptist pastor, Sarah Fegredo.

The Housing Bubble and Megachurches: It’s Connected!

The housing bubble and megachurches are connected.

The housing bubble is one of the social evils of Australian society today. The baby boomers are largely to blame. Not all of them, of course. But as a generation, they have pushed up house prices to insane levels, to the point where houses are not affordable. This has happened through speculation, media infatuation (property shows), negative gearing, and an obsession with property.

John Howard is partly to blame too. He and his government loved making Australia’s middle aged middle class feel incredibly wealthy because their houses were ballooning in value. It was part of the reason for his electoral success. Rudd’s government introduced the first home buyers’ boost just when property was correcting, and all that money went into the hands of real estate agents and baby boomer investors.

The outcome of this situation is that nobody has any time. Two incomes are the norm, and working hours are long. The average house price is something like seven times the average annual income – while historic averages are more like three. So everyone is so very busy paying off ridiculous mortgages making some other people feel wealthy.

A colleague commented the other day that the death of volunteerism in churches has led to the rise of the megachurches. I say the death of volunteerism is surely linked to the busyness due to the housing bubble. (Volunteerism, of course, is not entirely dead; but it’s not as flourishing as it once was. The reason for this is not simply the selfishness of Gen X and Y.)

So with no time to volunteer or help, people need/want churches which do it all for them, with a large paid staff to do all the things which the ‘laity’ once had the time to do. My colleague’s theory, then, is that this situation means megachurches work best for the busy lifestyle of today.

I feel angry and disenfranchised by the way things have gone. I hate this obsession with property; I hate that I have ended up spending a lot of time thinking about it. I think we have a huge house of cards, and there is this part of me which longs for it all to come crashing down. The other part of me dreads the pain this will case so many people, the overly-indebted Gen X and Y, particularly.

But the society which will emerge in the aftermath of the coming financial crisis has to be better than the one we have now. In hardship and humility, we may just reconnect with each other. We may have time for each other. We may lose the Australian obsession with property and wealth.

Megachurches on Radio National

I’ve just listened to an interesting program from two Sundays ago on Radio National’s Spirit of Things.  The Spirit of Things often seems disconnected from the evangelical/pentecostal world, and it was good to see this intelligent engagement with it. It starts out with an excellent critique of the megachurch phenomenon by Marion Maddox, including its fixation on wealth, its individualism and its many backdoors of people leaving disillusioned. (There I am cheering Marion on.) But then there’s a twist, with an articulate defence of the movement by Jacquie Grey, ‘young’ (was Rachael Kohn being condescending or complimentary?) academic dean and OT lecturer at what was Southern Cross College but is now named after some star. I’m not a convert, but Jacquie responded very well to what she must have known what was not going to be the most sympathetic interview, recognising the movement’s shortcomings and its shifts and attempts to address these problems. (Nothing is more gracious, in my opinion, than recognising your own shortcomings. It’s something I’ve never heard one or two evangelical movements do.)

It bugs me how influential megachurches are on the wider evangelical movement. It is now almost compulsory to aspire toward being a megachurch, at least from what I’ve heard about Baptist churches in my neck of the woods.

Megachurches are antithetical to Anabaptism, that’s for sure. Anabaptists hate crowds, for a start. (Tongue in cheek, I offer this facetious comment in lieu of a full blown discussion, as I’m not up to it right now.)

Consuming Jesus : A Review

Consuming Jesus: Beyond Race and Class Divisions in a Consumer Church (Eerdmans, 2007) Available from Koorong for about $20

In this book, Metzger argues that evangelical churches are consumer orientated and this perpetuates the race and class divisions of the world. The gospel, he insists, is the good news that these divisions have been broken down through Christ and are shown in a new humanity of different races and classes worshipping together around the same table. Instead of consuming ‘stuff’, we should be consuming Jesus and being consumed by him, ‘and as Jesus consumes us, he graces us with a nobler vision : to remove disunity from his body the church, including race and class divisions.’ (12)

The church is a power instituted by God. It was designed with the particular mission of bearing witness to God’s advancing kingdom of beloved community through participation in the crucified and risen Christ, and of being consumed by him on behalf of the world for which Christ died. As such, that beloved community should be breaking down divisions between male and female, Jew and Gentile, slave and free, and it should be confronting the demonic forces that distort and reduce people to races and classes, to rugged individuals in isolation, people whose value lies in how much they produce and consume. (36)

Metzger begins with a helpful historical overview of how fundamentalism and evangelicalism became hostile or apathetic toward social engagement, and accepting of the secular consumer culture that built up over the twentieth century. He focuses much of his critique on the church-growth and seeker-friendly attitudes of Bill Hybels’ Willow Creek and the Purpose-Driven theology of Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church. But by insisting on a critique from within evangelicalism, he draws on the father of American reformed evangelicalism, Jonathan Edwards. He asserts that good deeds done outside Christ are not pleasing to God and are not of lasting value (p. 96). The inner transformation at the heart of evangelical spirituality is essential, Metzger insists, to the reconciling church:

Attempts to confront race and class divisions can be intense and overwhelming and will not bear lasting fruit – indeed, could end in anger or apathy – unless we experience the undying love of God that is poured out into our hearts through the Spirit of grace, whom God in Christ freely gives us to transform our hearts and lives. (91)

His engagement with church growth theory and the homogenous unit principle is important and interesting, if too brief. Church growth theory undergirds most of contemporary evangelicalism – the main resistance to it has come from conservative and Reformed evangelicals. He discusses how for years Bill Hybels, pastor of America’s biggest church, Willow Creek, ‘made sure nothing interfered with reaching people for Christ – including issues of race. He was afraid that addressing such problems would serve as a stumbling block to (white) people, keeping them from Christ.’ (25) The attitude is typical of much of evangelicalism, where the only thing which counts is getting individuals ‘across the line’ and into heaven, even at the price of a heavily discounted gospel.

But Hybels has repented of this attitude and acknowledges that a ‘true biblical functioning community must include being multi-ethnic.’ (56) Metzger faces the question of whether this means that his fight is already won and evangelicalism is backing away from the homogenous unit principle. However, he insists that the battle is not won, that a ‘pragmatic consumerist mind-set’ remains even amongst followers of Hybels who are now embracing multi-ethnic churches – they are still chasing what works and neglecting structural injustice. I think Metzger needs to spend more time investigating the turn around of Hybels and others before dismissing it.
Metzger calls for a number of ‘reorderings’ to break down the divisions of class and race and to ensure that we are ‘consumed by Jesus’ rather than consuming stuff. He believes we need to replace the café – a symbol of consumption and ease – at the back of the mega church with an altar at the front – a symbol of sacrifice. He believes in the power of the Lord’s Supper, calling for its symbolism and ritual to reflect equality and Jesus’ centrality. He briefly suggests a potluck supper could be a part of it, but does not develop John Howard Yoder’s idea in Body Politics of the shared meal as central to the Lord’s Supper. He calls for redistributions in the church – for the affluent to start realising they need to learn from the poor about surviving oppression and being poor in spirit; for the churches with resources to give time and money to those without; and to redistribute blame, taking responsibility for the sins and injustices of the past committed by our ancestors and embedded in structures today.

Overall, Consuming Jesus is an important book, presenting a central idea about race and class divisions that all churches should grapple with. It also offers a promising vision for change. But readers might also find it a slightly frustrating book, because it doesn’t finally seem to pull the threads together. The idea of ‘consuming Jesus’ remained vague for me, and the reorderings were not as practical as I hoped. (It might be that Metzger was keen to avoid the simplistic template structure of so many church growth books.)

Metzger has set up a wonderful blog to continue the conversation around the book –

Quote: pastors as shopkeepers

The pastors of America have metamorphosed into a company of shopkeepers and the shops they keep are churches. They are preoccupied with a shopkeeper’s concerns – how to keep the customers happy, how to lure customers away from the competitors down the street, how to package the goods so that the customers will lay out more money.

– Eugene Peterson, Working the Angles : p. 2.

Book review – Evaluating the church growth movement : 5 views

This is an important book for me to have read. Throughout the book, several references are made to common misunderstandings of the church growth movement. The problem is that people like me associate it with megachurches and seeker-sensitive services and don’t know the historical roots.

This book starts with a good historical sketch to correct such misunderstandings. The movement has its roots, as you may know, in the missiology of Donald McGavran (1897-1990), a Disciples of Christ missionary in India. (I’m surprised to learn that the founder was a Restorationist when the result today is nothing like the primitive church!)

He seemed to be reacting against the social gospel priority and believed that the main business of mission was to ‘save the lost’. (Helping them in their poverty and suffering etc was something of a second priority, which is one of many problems I think I have with McGavran.)

To maximise conversions, he investigated which churches grew and why. He then stated principles from these of how to reach people in a particular culture.

For him, discipleship meant simply conversion; ‘perfecting’ had the sense of growing in Christ and it was another second priority for him – and another point on which I strongly disagree with him. It’s interesting to note that his sense of the word ‘discipleship’ is opposite to the way it’s used in Anabaptist circles, where it is code for much more than conversion – the whole life process of bringing everything under Christ.

After the historical sketch, this book brings together five different perspectives on church growth – two of them very sympathetic, one of them ‘reformist’ and two of them critical. I have a lot in common with the two critics – Howard Snyder, from a ‘renewal’ perspective (I think his ecclesiology is excellent) and Craig Van Gelder using Lesslie Newbigin’s work for a ‘gospel and culture’ perspective.

But what I am shocked to realise is that some of the other movements that I sympathise with actually have roots or alliances in the church growth movement.

1. Vineyard movement – John Wimber came out of these circles and his friend Peter Wagner was McGavran’s successor as spokesman for the movement.

2. New house church movement – the saturation church planting and similar stuff in the ministry of Wolfgang Simson and Tony and Felicity Dale seems to use some of the same language and theology of the movement, even if it is mostly a reaction against the dominant ecclesiology of the megachurch side of it. They may be just as much in the McGavran tradition as the megachurches.

3. Emerging missional church – for example, as represented by Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch in Australia. I’ve just picked up my copy of Shaping of Things To Come, and there’s a quote on the back from Eddie Gibbs – Donald A. McGavran Professor of Church Growth. And then there’s the section on the homogeneous unit principle p. 52, taken straight from McGavran. Target a people group, you could put it as. (Reading back over it – and remembering how disappointed I was when I first read it – I am pleasantly surprised to see that they do regard heterogenous churches that bring together Jew and Greek so to speak, are the ultimate aim. HUP is just a missional strategy. So maybe emerging missional church has taken the best part of the church growth movement.)

The sort of criticisms that emerge of the movement are expected ones that I agree with. Most importantly, is an emphasis on numbers when numbers in the New Testament are a side effect of faithfulness and power in the Holy Spirit.

Significant also is the pragmatism that looks to ‘what works’ and then tries to justify it with Scripture.

I think I’m going to come away from this book with a better understanding of what’s going on in evangelicalism today.