So. This is the situation I find myself in:
I’m hearing small explosions directly outside my window and just watched several unidentifiable individuals erect football goal posts where none are supposed to be. Additionally, I’ve been advised that I’ll soon be receiving several visitors, garbed in black and possibly masked, who I should do my very best to ignore, and that before I go to bed tonight I should take one final look at the statue which rests near the “front circle” of my college. Bets are good it’s being set on fire. Again.
Yet here I am writing an article on church economics.
People say I have no work ethic.
As some of you are no doubt aware, I just recently entered into a pastoral internship program at my own Three Rivers Community Church, and the first book my pastor and trainer Mitch Jolly gives me for a homework assignment is Erwin McManus’ An Unstoppable Force. The book’s main focus is Inspirational, but in the first chapter (“Chapter None – Atrophy”), McManus does make an insanely interesting little point about the recent boom in Christian non-profit organizations (remember when all we had was the YMCA?). Let’s talk about it.
Here’s the quote (on page 27, for those of you with a copy; it is a good book):
“In many ways the emergence of the parachurch reflects the paralysis within the local church. When we stopped calling youth to the mission of Christ, Youth With A Mission emerged. When we ignored opportunity to reach university students, Campus Crusade emerged. When we settled for church attendance and neglected discipleship, Navigators emerged. When we hesitated to call men to the role of spiritual leadership, Promise Keepers emerged.”
Now it embarrasses me terribly to write this, but the truth is I never actually considered what McManus is saying here: that the creation of a separate entity to address the concerns of college students is a response to a deficiency of traditional churches in addressing same, that in fact the existence of all these new organizations is the result of consumer need (well, listen; for a guy who prides himself on seeing the economics behind everything, yeah, it’s embarrassing). Is it true? Do the extremely popular “parachurches” of today owe their existence to the traditional church being, to quote Dr. Robert Nash, “an eight track church in a CD world”?
And if so, we inevitably wonder, does this mean they are a threat?
Well, for the record, Mr. Erwin McManus appears to think so. To devote much space to the subject would divert attention from his main points, so he doesn’t spend much time considering it, but he makes his feelings clear enough when he relates the following story:
“[A man I'd never met] introduced himself and explained that he had been attending [my church] for a little over a month. He informed me that the teaching met his standards, that the music was acceptable, and that he was pleased with what he found in the children’s and youth ministries… He wanted to check us out for several weeks before he brought his family. He wanted to make sure the products and services were in line with what he felt his family needed. This wasn’t about theology; this was all about customer service(italics mine; so get your own).”
It’s not hard to read between the lines there and tell that Mr. McManus thinks the general practice of “church consumerism” that’s developed in America today is unacceptable. Even though this entire point is merely an aside in his book, though, Mr. McManus is far too excellent a writer to not at least provide some rudimentary support for any position he mentions. He gives us a small window into his logic on page 37:
“On another day Alex, one of our pastors, was engaged in an intense conversation with one of our more gifted artists… Like many from a church background, [the artist] had a tendency to see the church through a critical filter and proceeded to express his criticisms. Alex stopped him to establish a frame for the rest of the conversation. ‘Remember, this isn’t about you.’
“Unfortunately, for too many people, when the conversation is no longer about them, there’s not much left to be said. We’ve been taught that we are the center of the universe, and we evaluate everything on its ability to meet our needs… Is it really all about us being fed? I think it might be important to remember that over 60 percent of Americans are overweight or even obese. Is it possible that this is also true in the arena of personal spirituality? Are we too much about us getting fed and too little about us exercising our faith?”
To paraphrase: The Christ has called His followers to be a part of His church. In order to constantly evaluate our church in terms of our own enjoyment, we must of necessity be in a mindset that we are being catered to by an entity (The Church) separate from ourselves, rather than that we are part of an entity that caters to others. For if we consider ourselves part of the serving entity rather than the consuming, wouldn’t we constantly evaluate our church only in terms of the rest of the congregation’s enjoyment? Isn’t The Church supposed to be your extended family? How can extended family be so interchangeable?
Objections? Easy enough to imagine: As a conservative Southern Baptist, perhaps I’m not equipped with the sensibilities common to today’s college student, and would be more useful serving those to whom I can relate. After all, is there really any inherent problem with rock-loving Christians congregating for musical worship with other rock-loving Christians, and so on? Can’t a Gen-Y teen more effectively reach out for the Christ to those with whom he or she has common ground?
We know where this practice logically leads: segmentation (a news reporter would probably call it “the Balkanization of the Church”). Does this matter?
So: The promised visitors have arrived. A fellow student with the body of a hat rack and the skin tone of Casper the Friendly Ghost just entered the room. He’s clad in a black t-shirt and jeans, and wearing a red, grinning Satan mask. Perched atop his head of long, greasy hair is an incongruently baby-blue fishing hat. Both of us have taken a moment away from our respective tasks to look at and quickly gauge the other, then returned to our work. I’m finishing this flippin’ essay, and Mr. Devil Prankster is printing off copies of- something.
I remember “shopping” for a church in Rome for quite some time before finally settling on Three Rivers. Looking back, I think I spent too long at it. I was certainly more interested in whether the music was exactly what I wanted and the preaching was exactly the style I wanted to hear. McManus pegs what I was at the time in his book: a Christian more interested in being helped than helping.
Maybe the solution is to pick very carefully, but then to stick with your choice.
Humm. Impossible to say- at least at 4:40 in the morning, with devils running around.
It’s time to take a look at that statue, and it’s time to go to bed.
‘The Boss bless every one of ya.