Thursday, July 21, 2011

He must increase (Sunday Reflections for July 24, 2011)

Last week via Facebook another pastor directed my attention to a Huffington Post article, “Why I'm Not a 'Fan' of Jesus.” It was by a Pastor Kyle Idleman, identified as the “teaching pastor” of Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, supposedly the fifth largest in the country. The article apparently summarizes a recent book/DVD he authored.

Idleman’s basic point is a familiar one and not without value: being a “fan” of Jesus is not the same as being a follower of Jesus. He observes that while three-quarters of Americans identify themselves as Christians, it’s pretty hard to tell that from their behavior or the state of our society. With all these Christians around, he asks, why are there so many hungry, homeless, with inadequate health care, etc.

One explanation for this discrepancy Idleman found in learning about a new kind of vegetarian, called a “flexitarian.” They don’t eat meat—usually. One woman interviewed said she considers herself a vegetarian but admits she likes—and occasionally eats—bacon. In Idlemans’ view that really means she isn’t a vegetarian whatever she might think of herself. Similarly, Idleman says that people claiming to be Christian, but living in ways that hardly show it, are not followers of Jesus but fans of Jesus.

The word fan is most simply defined as, an enthusiastic admirer. And I think Jesus has a lot of fans these days. Some fans may even get dressed up for church on Sunday and make their ringtone a worship song. They like being associated with Jesus. Fans want to be close enough to Jesus to get the benefits, but not so close that it requires anything from them. They want a no-strings-attached relationship with Jesus. So a fan says, I like Jesus but don't ask me to serve the poor. I like Jesus, but I'm not going to give my money to people who are in need. I like Jesus, but don't ask me to forgive the person who hurt me. I like Jesus, but don't talk to me about money or sex that's off limits. Fans like Jesus just fine, but they don't want to give up the bacon.

I understand and in some ways share Pastor Idleman’s frustration but I think he is barking up the wrong tree. Unfortunately he is engaging in a favorite activity of clergy and other church authorities going all the way back to St Paul: blaming the victim. The über-Christians who naturally end up in the church’s hierarchy are always complaining about the lack of commitment and understanding of the folks in the pews. Why don’t they get it? Why aren’t they as faithful and devoted as I am? Whining and scolding is a fine art in the church.

I give Idleman credit that he doesn’t follow the usual path of complaining about people’s lack of support for the church and its activities: Why don’t they give more? Why don’t they worship more often? Why don’t they witness and evangelize? Jesus spoke little about such things. Rather, like Jesus, Idleman focuses on people’s social behavior. Where are the fruits of their faith and commitment?

While Idleman’s approach is truer to the teaching of Jesus it isn’t going to have any better result. The reason is because he hasn’t identified the problem, which goes all the way back to the beginning. Regardless of what was said about the Christian life, over the centuries most people have equated being a Christian with belonging to an organization. Or in the words of an admittedly oversimplified yet basically true assessment: While Jesus came proclaiming the kingdom, what we got was the church.

Jesus’ message was that the reign of God was coming into the world in a new way, right now. It may be that he expected that to include some dramatic divine intervention in world affairs. In any case, he does not seem to have made any provision for an organized movement to come after him. Any “church talk” from Jesus was almost certainly put on his lips later by the gospel writers. And while in the gospels Jesus does make radical statements about disciples needing to deny themselves and take up their crosses (as Idleman says), Jesus also tells people not to follow him but go back to their homes and live out their new experiences of God’s grace.

In any case, out of the confusion following Jesus’ death came the church. First it was small and informal as we see in Paul’s letters but it quickly became a highly structured, hierarchical and authoritarian organization. And while there was always some presentation of the gospel and the call to a new ways of life, nonetheless what most people heard as it spread throughout the Roman Empire and beyond was: Join the church and be saved.

The Reformation attempted to put a new emphasis on Christian lifestyle and personal transformation over against merely belonging to the church. Yet Protestant churches still required baptism and retained a simplified congregational structure. Thus being a Christian still meant receiving sacraments and “going” to church. Even for “born again” Evangelicals this could become as perfunctory as for any Roman Catholic.

Pastor Idleman’s push to transform Christians from being fans to followers seems like another trip around an old and well-worn track. Would he say that among the 20,000 that supposedly show up at his church each week, there are only followers and no fans? I doubt even he would make that claim.

Idleman is right, along with so many others, that we are in the midst of a religious and spiritual crisis. It is a crisis of purpose and identity, not for the church, but for Christianity. Shortly before his death Dietrich Bonheoffer, who decried the lack of commitment of German Christians, wrote enigmatically of the need for a “religionless Christianity.” He saw that the church had become an obstacle rather than the means to Germany’s spiritual renewal.

While there are exceptions like Pastor Idleman’s megachurch, overall church Christianity is in decline in the developed world. Belonging to an organization simply doesn’t meet people’s spiritual needs anymore. Yet what recent biblical scholarship has made clear is, that isn’t what Jesus was about anyway.

If people are genuinely going to become followers rather than fans of Jesus, they’re going to have to relearn who Jesus actually was. So far, as Bonheoffer, Kierkegaard, and many others concluded, the church has been mostly an obstacle to that reeducation. Encountering this ancient Jesus and a kingdom-centered Christianity, the church would be forced into the role of John the Baptist who admitted honestly, “He must increase and I must decrease.”

No comments: