Is This Message For You?

I couldn’t stay another minute at Catalyst. There are great speakers, of course, and some good, original music. In some ways it feels like the best (and worst) contemporary evangelical Christian culture has to offer, a giant pep rally and motivational time for church leaders. But after just a short while I felt God calling me elsewhere.

Part of it was that I could lip-sync to the event. I’ve heard the speakers before, and I’ve recently had training up to my eyeballs. I was very conscious of time slipping through my fingers.

But the other part was being made very aware that what they were selling isn’t for me. While I would very much like to buy into the idea that we’re all Christians and all on the same team, it’s difficult to do so when people’s language continually reinforces the idea that they are the team captains and you are the last picked.

Maybe that’s just my childhood insecurity coming out.

Anyway, Andy Stanley talked about leading as parents, and I enjoyed what he had to say about following our fear, and allowing our vulnerability and hurts to shape us for leadership in ministry. In one story, he even gave a shout out to St. Mark UMC in Atlanta, and I appreciated his recognition of the unconditional inclusiveness of St. Mark and his honesty about the problematic relationship conservative evangelicals have not just to homosexuality, but sexuality in general. It still had a “love the sinner, hate the sin” vibe, but you know, whatever. At least he’s helping conservative evangelicals wake up to their own issues.

During one part of his closing prayer, I actually held my breath. The line was something like, “God, strengthen these people who you are calling to ministry. Lord, I know there are some women here who are afraid…” This is where I nearly gasped. Was he about to say something really powerful and controversial about women in ministry? “…of what God is calling…” Oh my goodness. He’s about to do it! “…their husbands to do…”

I don’t know why I let myself expect otherwise. I guess I just got caught up in his message. He is an excellent speaker.

He was followed by a band who had a retro folk-rock, Mumford & Sons vibe going on. This is the kind of thing I *should* love, because I’m always asking “Why can’t contemporary Christian music sound like this? Or this? Or this?” But in their enthusiastic, foot-stomping lyrics I couldn’t get past one line. As they implored God to set the church on fire, and send us out to do good work, and so on, they also sang “win this nation back.”

Now, this could mean all kinds of things. Bringing a nation back to God is certainly a prophetic theme of the Hebrew Bible. It also happens to be code among the religious right for defeating Obama, repealing Roe v. Wade and putting non-straight persons back in the closet. And instantly I went from thinking, “I’d like this kind of music in my church” to thinking, “I could never have this music in my church.”

Now, it’s entirely possible that they didn’t mean anything by it. But the nature of privilege is that you don’t hear how you sound to other people. It’s also possible that I’m hyper-sensitive to coded messages.

On the break, I wandered around the exhibits and looked at the materials promoting awareness of human trafficking. While I am very glad that there are stronger voices within conservative evangelical culture calling on Christians to be involved in doing justice, I couldn’t help feeling a bit cynical after what I’d just experienced. Church leaders know that many folks are hostile to the church because of a perception that it has been hypocritical and unconcerned with justice. We want to counter this perception, but we are too politically polarized to do anything about climate change, or women’s rights / abortion, or predatory lending, or drone attacks in Pakistan, or gay rights, or militarism, so we need a “safe” cause we can all agree on. Nobody is FOR human trafficking. Like Joseph Kony’s practice of using child soldiers, it’s something we can all agree is bad.

Before anyone begins angrily composing a reply about me being dismissive of human trafficking, please hear me: I am glad we can agree. I am intensely practical about such things, and I don’t particularly care why someone is motivated to do justice. Nobody has to meet an ideological litmus test before they can do good, or be passionate about a certain social issue before it is cool to be so.

But this is yet another way that the experience felt like God telling me, “This message isn’t for you.”

I am aware that there are cool hunters who serve conservative evangelical culture trying to keep their fingers on the pulse of what’s hip. They want to be able to reach more people, and so I do not resent their appropriation of what’s cool (like DIY trends). As I said, I’m intensely practical about such things. But for me and, I suspect, the people I’m trying to reach, you can’t just take the same message and wrap it in skinny jeans and hipster glasses and expect it to work. It will come off as fake, even if you self-deprecatingly talk about how uncool you are.

Now, for some people, it isn’t fakeThis is because we’re dealing with social discourses, those ways of talking, dressing, and presenting yourself that mark you as belonging to a certain group of people. We all “pull off” being a certain kind of person. If we succeed, we are “authentic,” and if we do not succeed, we are “fake.” But Christians often seem to have this idea that they can opt out of such discourses. They profess that they follow their faith, that they are neither conservative nor liberal, that their God transcends mere politics, or bandwagons, or economic ideologies, or brand loyalties. It’s charming, in a way, like Holden Caufield complaining about “the phonies” in The Catcher in the Rye,  even while he can’t keep himself from lying.

But it made me aware of the contextual nature of the gospel. I do not think God’s “Good News” is necessarily the same news for all people. It isn’t, as many evangelists argue, a timeless truth that you wrap in a different package to reach a new generation. It’s a living truth that gets embodied, incarnated in a group of people with a particular mission. So their message wasn’t for me.

And if this blog post bothers you, or is incomprehensible, then maybe this message isn’t for you. Those with ears to hear, let them hear.

5 thoughts on “Is This Message For You?

  1. Dave–thanks for posting this, though I am probably one of the folks that would disagree with you. Not because we are that different politically or theologically (I am making some assumptions there), but because events like Catalyst have clarified for me our failure in the approach to ministry as a denomination. There are moments when Catalyst feels like a pop concert, with Andy Stanley, Perry Noble and Chris Seay being the rock stars, but there are other moments when I am reminded that the church can and still do something in the world. And while I don’t appreciate the idea that only husbands can be pastors (which I’m not sure was Andy’s intent), I think he probably knows the room well enough to know that the prayer needed to be said. It probably should have been repeated for the husbands freaking out about what their wives would do for the gospel.

    I still live in la-la-land enough to believe that Christians can disagree on secondary and third-tier issues and still take one another by the hand for larger causes. I grieve when we can’t tolerate each other’s messages, because it implies that none of us are ready for the conversion we so desire in our own hearers. I think sometimes this makes my ministry too much of a compromise, and I will probably refashion my own praxis and theology a dozen times or more before this vocation is through with me, but for right now, this feels like the right place to be.

    Thankful for your candor and honesty, and that we are of the same heart on the things that matter most.
    Brian

    • Thanks, Brian. I hear you. I might have felt similarly if I hadn’t already done the WillowCreek Leadership Summit earlier in the month, and been exposed to ARC, and mixed and mingled with a bunch of church planters recently. I’m really okay with people being who they are, and I believe I can learn from anybody, and I certainly agree that the UMC needs to learn from folks who often are being more Wesleyan than we are. It’s just that if *I* feel put off (and I’ve grown up in church), how would the people I’m trying to reach respond? For me, it just represents all the ways our social discourses communicate our tribal values without us saying anything directly, and it makes me suspicious about claims on Christian unity, especially since, by pointing this stuff out, I’m the one who comes off as divisive. Since I didn’t stay, maybe you could tell me, did anyone during the event comment from the stage about the prominent presence of Chick-Fil-A as a sponsor / vendor? It was a great opportunity for some irony. I appreciated the guy’s joke about “sit down if you’re planning to vote Republican” before the introvert-extrovert talk – just drawing attention to the tension and ambivalence people may feel about being inclusive. And if anything, it made me aware about the ways that I telegraph my own values: I avoid the phrases “loving on people” and “spending time with the Lord,” I use high-falutin’ academic language, and I don’t have any tattoos or piercings (that anyone knows about). I am sure that there is plenty in my own self-presentation that others may find objectionable.

  2. As I read your remarks, I couldn’t help but think back to when I was required to attend the Academy for Congregational Development during my probationary period. They showed us model after model of doing church that just didn’t fit who I was or what I felt God was calling me to do. I was still at Divinity School at the time and in many ways it felts so surreal. I spent my week struggling with articulating a Wesleyan understanding of the Kingdom of God and of doing church then I spent two days at Sumatanga being force fed a model that might be fine for some traditions but it didn’t seem to fit my Wesleyan understanding. (And we won’t even get into how a woman fit into their model, because that was actually secondary to the first conundrum. In all honesty, I noticed that all the staffs appeared white and middle class, they also looked like you could have cast them for extras on “Friends.” So if you weren’t white, pretty, thin, young, middle-class, fresh-faced, etc. I guess you wouldn’t get hired.)

    Nonetheless, we have come a long way since then and I’m glad to see more diversity in the faces and the voices. And if Andy Stanley can’t quite accept women in leadership, well sorry for him. However, part of his tradition is a very narrow definition of what women can do. Luckily, that’s not mine. But if you go to Catalyst you can’t expect a Wesleyan view of things (when it happens we can just celebrate!).

    Which leads to a BIG question, why can’t Wesleyans host Catalyst-like events? Why can’t (or rather don’t) we create winsome bible studies and videos that draw folks in like Beth Moore? Why do we rely on our reformed friends to train our folks?

    As always Dave, thank you for making me think . . .

    • Yeah, Sherill, I often wonder why our denominational resources are lame. I think part of it is that the tension between our evangelical and scholarly heritage have not yet found common passion (which gets played into liberal / conservative, but it’s really two different things). I’ve written enough curriculum to know how the editorial process goes, and how hamstrung we are by our desire to please every constituency. I think on of the reasons Adam Hamilton is the UMC’s biggest popular preacher-teacher is that he’s a bridge-builder between the liberal-scholarly and the evangelical-conservative.

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