Monday, November 8, 2010

The Mind, the Face, of American Christianity?

She had forgotten to “fall back” with her clock, what with being a visitor and staying with friends just down the street from the church.

As it turns out, upon moving to Colorado Springs 30 years ago with her husband, joined the First Presbyterian Church there, but then affiliated a few years back with Ted Haggard’s New Life Church, “Where,” she said, “we had those shootings” (no mention of Haggard’s troubles).

The conversation began when she asked, “Are there any evangelical churches nearby?”

I replied, “What do you mean by evangelical? We’re evangelical here.”

She said, “Oh, I mean non-denominational.”

To which I responded, “We have only denominational churches in the area. But, then, all churches are sort of denominational, including the independent churches who do a lot of things alike – sing the same music, and worship pretty much the same.”

She said, “Oh sure, but for me, it’s the Bible. I only believe what the Bible says.”

At which point, I changed the subject.

She joined with a few folks in my office for prayer and then stayed for worship. Afterward, she expressed gratitude for the day, though it took her awhile to adjust to a bulletin and a printed liturgy and hymnals.

I couldn’t help but feel sorrow for her, an otherwise bright-spirited person who loves the LORD, but without any personal awareness of the culture in which she has been living and moving for some years now.

When she retreated to “I only believe what the Bible says,” I knew that we had reached her limit.

How sad for her, and millions like her, who are fed spiritual pabulum by silver-tongued preachers in multi-million dollar buildings with the latest in technology, mindless praise songs – you know, the 7-11 kind – seven words repeated eleven times. And they leave these stainless steel sanctuaries convinced that they “believe what the Bible teaches” and that “denominational churches” are suspicious.

No wonder the confusion in American religion, but don’t for a moment think that I believe our mainline gang is in any better shape, conservative or liberal.

American Christianity, by and large, stopped thinking some time after WW2, or so it seems to me, though I think the antecedents in a Billy Sunday and the bully pulpits of the big-city churches during the Roaring Twenties had already started the full retreat from mindfulness.

The influx of post-WW2 millions into the churches, in quest of stability, home, marriage and the suburban life, guaranteed the church’s material success, but at what price for the faith? Then came McCarthyism, Eisenhower and the insertion of “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, and our all-out war against god-less Communism. Then Billy Graham, who took Billy Sunday’s world and mainstreamed it, and before you know it, millions were singing “Just as I Am” and signing up for Jesus, while leaving their minds in the parking lot, only to retrieve it later, untouched by the gospel now held so dearly in their hearts.

All of this, allowing American Christians to embrace the central sin of the Book of James, faith without ethics, or faith without works. Or at least the kind of works envisioned by James – to confront and overcome partiality driven by appearances, boasting about tomorrow and a growing love of riches, little of which seems to bother contemporary Christians in America.

Meanwhile, our seminaries have suffered deeply under the pressure to turn out “leaders” who can compete in the religious marketplace with all the tools and styles inherent in the American entrepreneurial spirit.

All of this, abetted by the rise of the megachurch (safe and comfortable) led by charismatic pastors generally skilled in teaching and preaching but shy on theological discernment – relying a great deal on slogans, mission statements, splendid graphics, inspiring praise music, gripping dramatic presentations and “I believe what the Bible teaches.” Thus able to convince and energize their audiences, but not likely to move them along spiritually,

Mainliners themselves have little to crow about. Conservatives have hunkered down, taking refuge in their various confessions and theological traditions while liberals have jumped onto a variety political bandwagons. Neither group seems particularly interested in what the Bible truly offers in its multifaceted witness to God and what it means to be God’s people, often responding with, “But the confessions say …” or “the latest socio-psychological studies suggest….”

If the visitor from Colorado Springs is, in anyway, the face, or the mind, of American Christianity, we’re in trouble.

Though God will see us through, as God always does, in one way or the other.

But in the meantime, I hope and pray that the voices of reason and compassion, those who love Scripture and tradition, for liberals and conservatives alike, and all those who are willing to work hard at the faith, so that the faith can work hard in our souls, will not surrender the pulpit to mediocrity in the name of success, nor abandon people to the mindless slogans of religious marketeering.