On October 31st, 2017 I sat alone at the bar having a pint quietly ringing in the 500th anniversary of the Reformation by reading, The History of the Reformation in Scotland by John Knox. I purchased this book as a souvenir at his house in Edinburgh shortly after I left my last pastoral position. I was a part time associate pastor that mainly headed up the children’s ministry and occasionally taught on Sunday mornings for a semi-viable congregation in a church that was over 70 years old. I had put enough years in by this point that my next church I would have worked at would have been a full time position, and I would have continued to climb the Evangelical “corporate ladder.”
When I started working (volunteering full time) at a church, it was the one that really valued the American corporate culture, and honestly, it favored American values. This was really backed up by the giant building we had, that we couldn’t afford, and the uproar that came when we took the American flag out of the sanctuary. This is the place that taught me that the Church was like every other corporation, if you work there long enough, sacrifice enough volunteers, eventually you’ll rise up to the position where you’re paid just below the poverty line while the main guy makes almost $80,000 more than you do. This was the type of institution where everyone sucked at breast of a leadership summit headed by a guy that put up a fairly good front from afar. Where the congregants were as married to the conservative right as a a guy that put a gun range at his non profit Christian university. This is where the death of evangelism has been for decades. Welcome to the American Church.
When I left my position, I knew that something was wrong and I honestly thought that it was with me. And while that was partly true, it couldn’t have been further from the whole truth. This particular church had bordered on unhealthy for a number of years, but took a full swan dive into the dark as I was coming on staff there. This caused my jaded and hurt heart to hold the congregation to an unfair standard allowing them to share in my vulnerability. When I look at the church, I tend to forget about 1700 years of history where it seized control of the world, and turned it into, “the way the world works” instead of being the, “subversion of how the world works.” The Church is the place where the second born receives an inheritance. The Church is the place where people are fed. The Church is the light that shines on injustice. But as my friend Adam reminded me a few months ago of an Augustine attributed quote, “the Church may be a whore but she is also my mother.” So what does all of this have to do with sitting in a bar alone toasting the reformations 500th anniversary?
The Church is in the middle of changing, for better and worse.
Now, before I get into this section, I want to point out a few disclaimers. I am a liberal. I started off life knowing that George W. Bush was G-d’s pick for president over that wimp Al Gore because of 9/11. I enlisted in the Navy partially because of that, forgot to grab an absentee ballot to vote for McCain against Obama, wrote in Ron Paul over Romney because I was a hard Libertarian at the time, all while trying to live out the radical teachings of Jesus and became more liberal over time. Today I proudly wear the title of Democratic Socialist. I lost faith in American evangelicalism when I saw my brothers and sisters latching on to the Trump train because the Religious Right back in the day taught us that the GOP was the party of G-d. That being said, let’s get into this.
The Church has a history of aligning with power. Since the day a caesar declared Christianity the religion of the world, things have gone down hill for those on the margins. Any evangelical will tell you that the Church thrives in oppression (stories of Chinese missionaries come to mind) and so the pendulum must be that where the church is prevalent and in power, the church must not actually be doing as well as we think. For example, look at the west. One can (and many have) argued that the Church’s primary function is to bring justice to the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner.
This all being done through the teachings of Jesus. To bring salvation to those that do not have it through serving one another and welcoming all into the active kingdom of heaven Jesus and John the Baptist claimed to be at hand. Because of that, wherever you fall on the evangelical line, Jerry Falwell Jr and Franklin Graham’s rhetoric about Trump should scare the shit out of you. The constant support and defense of a guy that wouldn’t have thought twice about crucifying Jesus and trying to stomp out everything he believes in. But, because we (evangelicals) are so thirsty for representation, we are willing to settle for lip service and not the dirt and blood of the gospel. This is why evangelicalism is dying.
There is a former pastor in the Chicagoland area that founded a large church. This guy loved leadership and his version of the church so much, he tricked people into thinking that his conferences for leadership were the best around, and the plumb line for how leadership should be. It was fitting evangelical ideals into the current mold and working within it. I remember going to one of these and thinking how genius it was, only to realize the substance was as real as the color of Rick Warren’s goatee. This “leader” made the gold standard of evangelicalism bigger buildings, and, “get on the bus” speeches. When the news broke that the guy that founded all of this was power hungry and consummate suppressor/abuser of women. When you hold power for decades and write the narrative that others must ascribe to, things and people are lost. Bill Hybels, and men like him are why evangelicalism is dying.
So what is next for the Church?
How do we move forward from not only these people, but this narrowed view of a religion where one politician from one political party is supposed to represent all of our beliefs no matter how (un)perfect they are?
This my friends is where reconstruction comes in.
It is not enough to demolish what is there, but to shift through the rubble like a prospector searching for gold. Over the next four weeks I’ll be going over various ways of figuring out what to keep, what to get rid of, and how to move forward with this wonderful thing we call the Church.