Tuesday, March 18, 2008

A Case Study in the Power of Language

Over the weekend, Seattle's Mars Hill Church opened up their newest location, in a former downtown bar. Personally, I think that's kind of cool. There's a huge metaphor here. This bar was notorious for the violence and mayhem it attracted. Many in the community were fed up with all the antics going on there. The Seattle Police Department was regularly called to break up fights among the drunken patrons.

Now, that place of darkness has been transformed into an outpost for the Kingdom of God. The Light has shined in the darkness, and the darkness has fled. This is what the Kingdom is supposed to look like: ground once held by the darkness taken and restored for the Kingdom of Light. I wish we would see more of this happening all over the city, all over the world.

However, that's not the purpose of today's post. I simply wanted to begin with some kudos so you don't think this is another Bash Mars Hill post. You can find those all over the internet, and I don't particularly want to join in. (That's not to say I don't have my own disagreements with the MH way of doing ministry, which I have blogged about in the past; just that I don't want you to think I'm a hater or anything). (By the By - if you have the stomach for it, and want to understand the way many people up here in the NW view MH and Christianity in general, just follow the link to the article, and then read the comments at the end. It's. . .frightening)

Here's what I want to focus on today. Tim Gaydos, the pastor of this particular branch, had this to say about the newest MH edition:

"We're all about Jesus," said Gaydos, a 33-year-old Seattle native. "We're not about religion. Religion sucks. ... And this is not your mom's or grandma's church."

This is a theme you hear quite often from a certain segment of Christianity. People who have decided that the Church has become irrelevant and musty and a little, well, nerdy. People who think we need to reshape and reframe the church in order to reach a new generation for Christ. People who have read Donald Miller and Erwin McManus and Brian McLaren and Rob Bell (note: I don't think any of those men would necessarily be represented by where I am about to go with this blog; they just ask some questions that then allow a second contingent to make less-than-profound statements such as the one above). The last time I picked up Relevant Magazine, I read this statement and many variations on it: "We're the NEW Church! We're Cool! We're Hip! We're Relevant! We're not like that old person's church anymore!"

I think there are at least three reasons why we need to cut this kind of language out of any conversation regarding the Church.

1) This language, and the thought behind it, is stolen directly from the Marketing Machine that drives American Consumerism. And the primary tool of that Marketing Machine is the Divide-and Conquer approach. Divide society up into niche markets, then sell your product to that niche market. And make it painfully obvious that anybody who doesn't identify with that niche is a nerd, a loser, an old person (horrors!), somebody to be laughed at and avoided at all costs. Come Be Like Us! Be Cool! Be Appreciated! Show Everybody How Cool You Are For Buying Our Product! Show Everybody That You Aren't A Loser Like Those Other People!

2) Which makes the next obvious point: the product is always sold over and against something else. We're cool because we're Not Like Them! Or we used to be like them, but now we're cool because we've discovered this new product. I used to be a loser; now I shave with Afta and all the hot girls pay attention to me. I used to be a loser, but then I bought the new Nicky Hilton line of clothing, and now I'm cool. The Church used to be a bunch of losers, but now we've rebranded, dumped that boring religion of all those Old People, and now we're cool. Come check us out!

3) All of which goes against the Biblical Call for the Unity of the Body. You see, one of The Primary biblical messages is that there is one church, and that we only reflect Christ when we live out that Unity in the Church. Jesus said the world would know we are his disciples by the way we love each other. Paul spoke powerfully of Christ tearing down dividing walls to create One New Humanity. Paul blasted Peter when Peter chose to stop dining with Gentiles. The Church is the Bride of Christ, and it is beautiful. Derek Webb attempts to speak for Jesus in singing "And you cannot care for me if you've no regard for her/If you love me, you will love the Church."

Therefore, it is wrong bordering on sinful to define ourselves over and against other churches, especially against the saints that have gone on before us. It is a cheap shot to make ourselves more attractive by demeaning our "mom's or grandma's" church. This kind of statement is demeaning, divisive, and the exact WRONG way to attract people into the Kingdom. In fact, we should be doing all we can to portray to the world that we are lovers, that we cherish our ancestors, that we honor those who have gone before; if anything, we honor all outposts of the Kingdom of God, regardless if they are "cool" or not. Sara Miles, in her "Take This Bread," states that one of the tougher things about becoming a Christian was realizing she had to be in the same family as a bunch of people she vehemently disagrees with. Yet, she says, it's God's family, so she'll do her part to get along and honor those who, outside of the Body, she would never have befriended. In other words, because we are all One in Christ, we respect one another, even if we don't particularly like, say, the music somebody else listens to.

I should say that I do admire the missional aspect of MH; I understand the crowd they are trying to reach and I love that they reach people my church probably never will. I applaud them for taking the Kingdom of God out onto the Highways and Byways, and that they get into the broken, stained, sinful lives of hurting people. They have faced a lot of opposition, and continue to thrive. May they continue to do so.

But it is time we all recognize that we dare not market the Church, nor even speak about the Body, in the divisive and destructive terms laid down by Madison Avenue. The strongest message we can send to the world is We're not like you - in fact, the message we bring is a lot better than anything you'll get out there. All that stuff being sold to you will only leave you empty. But here, life is different. We get along with people who aren't like us. Old people are actually kind of popular around here. And so are young people. But God loves us all, so we pretty much all love each other. And isn't that better than the empty loneliness you're trying to fill with aftershave?


Anonymous said...

Nicky Hilton has a clothing line? Where have I been? (Susan)

Randall said...

Dang, that was very well said.

Thanks Dan.