Wednesday, May 09, 2007

On Principalities and the Spirit of the Age: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Caring Ministries

"In our day and time it is the language of the market that governs the way of the world in Paul's sense of that term. The vocabulary of commerce and the syntax of consumption not only distort our relationship with God and thus with each other, they also miscast the church in the role of retail vendor, trading in spiritual goods and services. Thus the market conforms the member's of Christ's body to its ways precisely at the point where the risen Lord summons them to be transformed." [1]

As I read and ponder this quotation, I am reminded just how subtle culture is. Unless we are on the outside looking into our culture, values and assumptions of the culture will usually go unnoticed. I used to be disturbed by some of the language I used to read in evangelism material and in church growth literature of the 1980's. I had trouble articulating why it bothered me so much, it didn't seem quite right. Terms such as "marketing" the church or "closing the study" or finding "prospects" to have an evangelistic Bible study with all sounded too similar to what salesmen who came to my door did. It had a sales and business feel to it. What could be wrong with that? I remember hearing preachers say we need to learn from the business world. Many businessmen built successful organizations and there is much we can learn from this.

I agree that there are things we can learn from outsiders. However, it can become a problem when kingdom people who are not of this realm uncritically adopt methods and ways of doing things their cultural context. The fundamental problem lies in the values, assumptions, and worldview that underlie the structures and activities that exist in the culture.

The underlying values and assumptions in our culture are connected to individualism and consumerism.

Americans are often called "consumers." We no longer consume to live, but live to consume. Our culture seems to accept this as the way things are without questioning it.

Individualism assumes that people are basically autonomous. The focus in life is on self-actualization or personal fulfillment. Therefore, people will look for ways to improve their lives, raise their self-esteem, and find some sort of meaning in life. This should result in happiness and fulfillment.

On the surface, there seems to be nothing really wrong with any of this. However, it is very self-centered. It seems that individualism and consumerism can have a tendency to turn everything into a commodity, even human relationships and God!

Since the Kingdom of God is not of this realm, then it seems that kingdom people would cease to be kingdom people if they buy into individualism and consumerism. Rather than seeing themselves as part of God's church and inherently as agents of God's mission to engage the world selflessly, Christians may see the church as a place to "meet their needs, whether it is esteem needs, physical needs, or self-actualization. The church becomes the vendor and the people become the consumers. The church becomes an institution to attract people to their products and services, and the people become a means to build the organization.

If this is the paradigm, it is any wonder that many people cannot find happiness even in church? Some "shop around" for churches, until they find the one that suits their needs. A particular church may have better social activities. It might have a better children's program. It may have better singing, or more interesting preaching. And the list goes on and on. As consumers, some church members begin to look to other sources that provide similar services for them to consume. Sometimes it may be a civic organization, a club, or something else. As a vendor, the church works to satisfy its customers. It tries to compete with other churches or organizations. The church as a vendor has a hard time competing in the market with other organizations that provide better entertainment, a wider array of social activities, and greater expertise at what they do.

Is it any wonder that the Church Growth phase is now shriveling? Fuller Theological Seminary, once known for its education in Church Growth principles, has recognized many of the shortcomings in the Church Growth movement and has been transitioning to what people are calling a "Missional" model. Many folks like those at Fuller have recognized the weaknesses of the Church Growth model in our changing culture. The success stories associated with the Church Growth model obscured some of its theological shortcomings that stemmed from a blending of some of the underlying assumptions of the times with Christian faith. But that is another story.

I reflect on all of this as a reminder of the pitfalls of engaging the people around us. We want to meet their needs in the way Christ did, not in the way our consumerist culture does. Our mission is not to vend spiritual goods and services, but to engage the hurting and the broken with the holistic good news of Christ, and invite them into the Reign of God. We do not invite them to become customers or consumers, but to be formed into the image of Christ. It is not really about self-actualization. In fact, the whole concept of self-actualization is a fallacy. Theologically, there is only "God-Actualization," if you can call it that. God-Actualization comes not from individualism, but from communion. It doesn't come from consuming, but from giving. It comes from transformation into the image of Christ and participating in his mission from the same motive and heart as God.

I think that if I understand this, then I will be able to do what I can for the sake of the mission of Christ, for the kingdom without worrying about if it benefits my particular congregations directly. I will not be disheartened when I expend energies and resources to help people and there appears to be little "success." I can be free from high-pressure tactics of evangelism and love people in the way Christ did. I can recognize that being socially conscious and being faithful to the Gospel of the kingdom go hand in hand. Perhaps we would eventually be able to shed the opinion by outsiders that all we are interested is "getting me into your church," and that like God, we are interested in them personally. I believe that understanding God's heart and how it is in conflict with the spirit of the age, I can be free to love authentically and have a credible witness.


[1] James V. Brownson and others, StormFront: The Good News of God, The Gospel and Our Culture Series (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 29.

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