by Daniel Harrell
I’m not one to brag, but, I was on Good Morning America last week. If you didn’t see me, that was because I wasn’t actually on the show, but I was on their webpage, writing about this new book of mine, How To Be Perfect. They wanted an expert opinion. OK, my piece really wasn’t on their webpage, but more like on their blog. More like on one of their blogs. Their spirituality blog, located under health and leisure activities, which falls under lifestyles—near the Daisy Sour Cream ad. My publicist arranged for me to write the piece. Turns out that the keeper of the spirituality page is a friend of hers. Owed her a favor. But still, I was on their blog. And yes people read what I had to say, as of yesterday there were 21 comments. Two were from the publicist. OK, two were from me. One was from Dawn. And then there was one from my mother. The rest came from me begging Facebook friends (so feel free to add comments loyal blog readers!), and yes, I am starting to sound pretty foolish now. Which is Paul’s point here in 2 Corinthians 11.
Paul picks up from last Sunday, where in chapter 10, citing Jeremiah, he wrote “let anyone who boasts, boast in the Lord.” Paul considers it foolish to brag about one’s successes. But the problem here is that because he refuses to proudly promote himself, his opponents in Corinth have attacked him as weak and self-deprecating and lacking confidence in the gospel he preaches. As a result the Corinthians, listening to these negative ads, have started voting for a different gospel. Frustrated, Paul agrees to boast. He brags about his hard labors for the sake of Christ, his being imprisoned, flogged, and exposed to death over and over again. Paul labels his hardships for the sake of the gospel as his accomplishments—the fruit of taking up a cross to follow Jesus. Which was why so few of the Corinthians were sincerely following Jesus.
Ever since the resurrection, there’s been high demand for a less demanding gospel; one that won’t require quite so much cross carrying. This remains the case. Journalist Jeff MacDonald, in a book entitled, Thieves in the Temple: The Christian Church and the Selling of the American Soul, writes how: “American society has never before known such a competitive religious marketplace—it’s a race to offer grace at the lowest possible price. Americans find options galore on a religious landscape that’s grown exponentially more diverse over recent decades. Church hopping is now so commonplace that congregations vie to attract and retain fickle attendees. Can churches that are aiming to please still mold people of high moral caliber? The answer to that question will have implications for every part of American society, from the Little League field to the courthouse. Americans expect and need their Christian neighbors to be people who do what’s right, even when it’s difficult.”
In a review of MacDonald’s book, a pastor named Lillian Daniel related her own frustrations with customer-pleasing religion. In her church, the expectation is that she perform weddings and infant baptisms for anyone who asks, regardless of whether they have any connection to the congregation or to Jesus for that matter. The rationale is based on the assumption that offering hospitality to couples and parents might later return them to church as a result of that hospitality. But none of these couples ever returned. None of these families kept their baptismal promises. Treating her like the rent-a-reverend she was, they would order her around like any other service provider they had contracted. They would bore her with rants about their disdain for organized religion. And why couldn’t the videographer stand in the pulpit in front of the cross to get a better angle of the adorable little ring bearer walking down the aisle? Can’t you see how cute this kid is? You think Jesus can compete with that?
In addition to rent-a-reverends, MacDonald’s book takes on short-term missionaries whom he describes as “vacationaries.” Apparently there’s a neighborhood in Tijuana where children pretend they’ve never heard the gospel so that whenever a new short term missions team shows up, they can convert to Jesus and get showered with treats and attention all over again. From vacationaries, MacDonald moves on to prosperity preachers, guys like Joel Osteen and Creflo Dollar, both pastors of two of the largest and fastest growing churches in the world.
I hesitate being too critical of these guys since their best-selling books are published by the same publisher who published mine. Talking negatively about their theology falls under the category of biting the hand that feeds me. But it is some curious theology. Rev. Dollar (that’s his real name) argues how too many believers settle for less than God’s best. “God knows where the money is, and He knows how to get the money to you.” Dollar says, “It’s amazing the number of people who say they read the Bible, and I think, ‘What are you reading?’ The Bible makes it so very clear: Preach the Gospel to the poor. What’s the Gospel to the poor? You don’t have to be poor anymore! The Bible says in Psalms 35 and 37 that God takes pleasure in the prosperity of his servants. … One of the things that I want to do is make sure that I am practicing what I preach. My church gave me a Rolls-Royce. I would never spend that much money on a Rolls-Royce. But when your congregation comes to you and says, ‘Pastor, we want you to drive the best,’ I’m not going to turn that down.” (Do I hear an “amen”?)
This particular theology is called word of faith or simply, word. It’s sort of like “ask and you shall receive” on steroids. It’s not just about money. Word teaches that all material realities respond positively to positive attitude and positive language in prayer. Some years ago I caught a ride home late one night from a fellow Christian who lived near me in Boston. Street parking at night in the city is hard to come by, so as we drove into the neighborhood, my friend let out a positive prayer for a parking space. Now while I do think that prayer applies to all parts of life, I was always intrigued by the number of urban Christians for whom answered street parking prayers provide the incontrovertible validation of their faith. Easy for me to say, I know, since now I have a two-car garage. But, in this instance it wasn’t so much my friend’s parking prayer that intrigued me as the fact that he prayed it while running a red light. I brought up this apparent incongruity, but then as we rounded the corner, lo and behold a large pick-up was pulling out of a space.
“See,” my friend said.
We pulled ahead of the truck to let him get out so we could back in, but instead of pulling out and around us, the truck driver, not seeing our compact car, plowed right into us, compacting the car even further to the tune of $1500 in damages.
“See?” I said.
I did criticize Rev. Dollar in a sermon once, after which a woman from the congregation chastised me for calling him out. “He has the anointing, you know” she said. Why? I thought. Because he’s a persuasive speaker? Because he’s got a mammoth following? Because he’s tremendously wealthy and successful and on TV and his books sell millions? Because he preaches what you want to hear? “You happily put up with whatever anyone tells you,” Paul warns, “even if they preach a different Jesus than the one we preach, or a different kind of Spirit than the one you received, or a different kind of gospel than the one you believed.”
Rev. Dollar is right that Psalms 35 and 37 both mention God taking pleasure in the prosperity of his servants. But the word translated prosperity is the familiar Hebrew word shalom (which in your pew Bible is ironically translated as welfare). Shalom has never had much to do with your income, the kind of car you drive or the availability of street parking. Psalm 35 is actually a lament in the face of severe enemy persecution—the kind of persecution which Paul himself suffered. In Psalm 35 the Psalmist wonders why God is so seemingly silent and dormant. And then there’s this from Psalm 37: “Better the little that the righteous have than the wealth of the wicked.”
Paul denounces false Christianity, but the real danger is partial Christianity. The gospel does preach an abundance of riches in Christ, but those riches are never construed in monetary terms. For Paul his riches took the paradoxical shape of poverty and persecution. He lists lashings and beatings and hunger and imprisonment among his assets; rejoicing in them all because he had been counted worthy to suffer for his faith. Yet Paul suffers humiliation and poverty not so that he might be humble and poor—suffering for the gospel is not some ascetic badge of honor. No, Paul’s suffering for the gospel is for the sake of the Corinthians, whom he loves. The gospel of Jesus urges sacrifice like Jesus, self-forgetting, trusting in God to supply your needs—all so that you may be freed to supply the needs of others. Paul makes it a point to refuse monetary support from the Corinthians on the grounds that to receive money for his message would have obscured its very meaning. He allows the Macedonians to support his ministry so that he can offer grace to the Corinthians free of charge. Salvation cannot be purchased. By contrast, the gospel of Paul’s rivals promoted self-enrichment, self-determination, worldly success and personal power, which to Paul only exposed their fraudulence.
The late Catholic mystic Henri Nouwen once wrote, “It is easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life. … Ever since the snake said, ‘The day you eat this tree your eyes will open and you will be like gods…’, we have been tempted to choose power over love, control over the cross,” profit over sacrifice.
Paul cites the snake too. He writes, “I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by its cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you submit to it readily enough.” Paul goes on to call his opponents snakes too, disguised “angels of light,” just like Satan himself. They flash their self-serving righteousness and worldly success as rewards for proper faith. Paul worries for the Corinthians with the worry of a concerned father-of-the-bride. Throughout the Old Testament, God is depicted as betrothed to his people. Paul applies this Old Testament imagery to the church, depicting himself as the jealous father, ferociously protective of the Corinthians’ purity so that they might be suitable for Christ, their husband. Their dalliances with cuter, less demanding and customer-friendly Jesuses put their whole relationship with God at risk.
In Jeffrey MacDonald’s book, he traces the same problem in America to the deeply-rooted values of individualism and free enterprise. He writes how “The meteoric rise of customer-driven religion in recent decades explains why American churches increasingly look, sound and act like American corporations. They’ve adapted their forms and systems to be maximally efficient and responsive to shifts in the marketplace. Prominent churches in the twenty-first century function as religious businesses… producing a spiritual crisis in America.”
The good news is that there are signs of hope. MacDonald saves a few pages in the end to offer redeeming examples of church, all of which as it turns out, are in Minnesota. This was the main reason I bought his book. I wanted to see if Colonial made the list. We didn’t. CPC, Wooddale and Mt. Olivet didn’t make it either—just in case anybody was worried about that.
McDonald describes religion in the Twin Cities as a highly competitive industry. Scores of Lutheran churches compete with hungry, up-and-coming evangelical ones while still other denominations vie for the loyalists of transient churchgoers. Christians who opt for more challenging forms of discipleship do so despite an abundance of cushier alternatives. Among the more challenging forms of discipleship are those found at Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul. Members of Woodland Hills are not expected to provide unconditional moral support for each other. Instead, leaders encourage members to weigh in on each others’ big decisions—especially the discretionary consumer choices—before they’re a done deal. In one small group a guy was thinking of buying a $50K car (not as expensive as Rev. Dollar’s but still…). Group members challenged him on that, encouraging the purchase of a $20K car instead, with the balance going to help provide clean water in Haiti. As pastor Greg Boyd puts it, “We want to give people shopping for a church less and less of what they’re looking for.” As a result, Woodland Hills has watched its attendance drop by almost half.
At Eagle Brook Church, with 11,000 people spread across numerous campuses around Spring Lake, there’s been a public acknowledgment of the hollowness of consumer Christianity, despite its numerical success. Eagle Brook is emphasizing new opportunities for genuine spiritual growth through disciplines such as solitude and mentoring—though not too uncomfortably, admits one pastor. “Otherwise people will go to another church that makes it more comfortable for them.”
At the other end of the spectrum is Abbey Way Covenant Church, sixty people strong and meeting in northeast Minneapolis. Borrowing from the disciplines of ancient Christianity, this church operates according to three core principles: stability (the willingness to be still), transformation (the willingness to change), and obedience (the willingness to listen). Abbey Way sets expectations high by looking to monks and nuns and role models. Because members must commit for a year at a time and revisit their commitments annually, quitting the community after a conflict is not an option. To become a member is to forfeit the freedom to run away. MacDonald writes that “churchgoers need to muster the maturity, courage and humility to work out their differences and remain on intimate terms.”
At Augsburg College, as some of you probably know, every student must pass a two-semester course on meaning and vocation where the intent is to help students figure out how their life choices, understood as a divine calling whatever the work, can address the deeper needs of the world. MacDonald concludes that people “who reached new heights in these congregations were those willing to take personal risks in order to be transformed by the gospel. They were willing to let themselves be changed by the unlikely relationships that flow from following Jesus, relationships such as those that occur when you decide to help the neediest, live among the loneliest, or reach out in forgiveness to love your enemy.”
Surely we want this for our own church, and for every church. If the gospel we preach only makes us feel good about the choices we were going to make anyway, it’s not much of a gospel. We should just set up an Edina Wedding Chapel and be done with it. Having performed plenty of rent-a-reverend weddings myself, I empathize with the frustration of feeling like just another service provider. In Boston, I got so tired of feeling like a hood ornament, that I stopped writing new wedding homilies. For 12 years I said the same thing over and over again. And just to see if anybody was listening, I talked about marriage as synonymous with death. “Marriage will kill you,” I’d grouse, as the bride obliviously grinned her pasted-on smile, “Jesus was clear that following him meant denying yourself and taking up a cross. Marriage provides a God-ordained crash course in both. Marriage will teach you sacrifice, it will teach you to die to your selfishness for the sake of another person, even when that person is driving you absolutely crazy. It will teach you what real love looks like.” Grrr.
Of course I said these things fully expecting none of those couples to ever come back. And most of them didn’t. But on a few occasions, one I specifically remember, a couple did return, remarking how my hardnosed homily really hit home. I still don’t like rent-a-reverend weddings. But thankfully, the Holy Spirit has lower standards than I do.