From Ocean Liner to Cruise Ship Skye Jethani in a blog post this week compared the modern mega-church to churches in the middle of the 20th century.
Why am I talking about the history of the shipping industry? Well, I think it’s a helpful parallel for what’s happened in the American church over the last 40 years. Around the same time that jetliners were causing waves for the shipping industry, cultural changes were also rocking the church. Prior to the 1960s most churches in America were small with a very utilitarian function–they transported people into communion with God by providing the basic necessities for living a Christian life.
But by the 60s and 70s the Baby Boomers grew up and many stopped going to church. The culture had changed–secular values, youth culture, and entertainment had taken root and the church could no longer compete. Traditional churches, built for utility, struggled. But like some ship owners at the time, entrepreneurial pastors began tinkering to see if a new purpose for the church could be found.
While I think this is a clever and insightful comparison, like all analogies it covers over some other things.
Prayer for Owen Meany I’m almost finished listening to John Irving’s novel A Prayer for Owen Meany. Most of the story is told in America during the Cold War which is when statistics for American church attendance reached its peak. One of the things I noticed within the context of the novel was the lost world of mainline American Christianity. People went to church not necessarily because they believed that strongly in God or Christianity but because it was simply something a morally upright, patriotic American would do. Americans in this period put “In God We Trust” on our money partly to contrast ourselves from the godless Communism in the USSR and China who were our threats and rivals. A number of people have noted that since the end of the Cold War the perceived threat has shifted from godless Communists to Islamic Fundamentalism the social motivation for church attendance has similarly evaporated. Maybe Skye should change his metaphor from a battleship to a cruise ship.
“Find a Need and Meet It, Find a Hurt and Heal It”
Religion and problem solving have had a long history. Robert Schuller of Crystal Cathedral fame described his philosophy of building a large church this way in an interview.
Robert Schuller, Sr.: Anybody who succeeds is helping people. The secret to success is find a need and fill it; find a hurt and heal it; find a problem and solve it.
Little: What’s the hardest lesson you’ve had to learn in 50 years?
Schuller, Sr.: The hardest lesson is to continue to stay focused on the emotional needs of the non-believers.
Little (reporting): Dr. Schuller strategically, prayerfully built a ministry that would invite cynics and skeptics to consider Christ. His pastoral experience has taught him that all people, believers or non-believers, have this in common – they have hurts. He geared his ministry to address those needs.
That philosophy helped the Crystal Cathedral grow into one of the most prominent mega-churches even before we had the term “mega-church”. What happens, however, when the church seems to under-perform on healing hurts than the competition? What happens to the church when
- Modern medicine proves more effective than prayer in curing our diseases
- Social security more reliably provides for the old and the disabled
- Therapists, medication, self-help and new age therapeutic remedies seems to more effectively give people a sense of well-being and progress in there quest for personal growth and self-fulfillment?
Bringing Heaven to Earth
Bethel Church in Redding California is both famous and infamous for its healing ministry. Bill Johnson, the senior pastor has written a couple of books about his theology and his method. The heart of his approach is the assertion that in the church heaven comes to earth and the Lord’s prayer “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” becomes reality. The only reason why this isn’t actually taking place among us is because we don’t really believe it or take it seriously.
The will of God is simply this: “On earth as it is in heaven.” Isn’t that basic? Isn’t it refreshing? When we pray, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done,” we’re praying for the King’s dominion and will to be realized right here, right now. That is a life-transforming, paradigm-shattering way to “do” normal Christianity.
God has not kept His desires secret: He wants the reality of heaven to invade this rebel-torn world, to transform it, to bring it under His headship. What is free to operate in heaven— joy, peace, wisdom, health, wholeness, and all the other good promises we read about in the Bible— should be free to operate here on this planet, in your home, your church , your business, and your school . What is not free to operate there—sickness, disease, spiritual bondage, and sin— should not be free to operate here, period. That, in a nutshell, is our assignment as believers on earth, and that is what my church and certainly many others in the Body of Christ are working toward with more focus and energy than ever before. We are out to destroy the works of the devil. 5
It’s an awesome way to live! When we make this our primary understanding of God’s will, the other areas that trouble us so much will seem to sort themselves out. 6 What happens when we make this our mission? Lives are set free, bodies are restored, darkness lifts from people’s minds, the rule of the enemy is pushed back in every way imaginable. Businesses grow healthy, relationships flower again, people re-connect with their calling and purpose in life, churches grow, and cities feel the effects of having the Kingdom flourishing within them. Energy is freed up for Kingdom works in ways I have never seen before. Things happen regularly that are so extraordinary it’s like stepping into the pages of a good novel. But it’s not a made-up lifestyle; it’s the lifestyle for which we were made.
Johnson, Bill (2014-06-17). The Supernatural Power of a Transformed Mind Expanded Edition: Access to a Life of Miracles (Kindle Locations 256-262). Destiny Image, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
Johnson’s ministry has been dramatic. Thousands of people attend his church. Many thousands more attend seminars and return to their churches to practice what they do there. What we need is to believe this more and walk in it more and then it will all come to pass, or so the books say.
Medicine or the Church?
While I do believe the power of God is present among his people for healing I have yet to see a Christian empty a hospital or nursing home simply through prayer. Jesus did do this.
Matthew 4:23–25 (NET)
23 Jesus went throughout all of Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all kinds of disease and sickness among the people. 24 So a report about him spread throughout Syria. People brought to him all who suffered with various illnesses and afflictions, those who had seizures, paralytics, and those possessed by demons, and he healed them. 25 And large crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and beyond the Jordan River.
Jerusalem, however, always seems to follow the outbreak of the Galilean.
Not New in the New Testament
An open secret about the Bible is that much of what you find in the New Testament you can find in the Old. A close reading of the books of Exodus through Deuteronomy reveal the most audacious promises of God’s promised intervention into the life of Israel.
Exodus 22:22–27 (NIV)
22 “Do not take advantage of the widow or the fatherless. 23 If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry. 24 My anger will be aroused, and I will kill you with the sword; your wives will become widows and your children fatherless. 25 “If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not treat it like a business deal; charge no interest. 26 If you take your neighbor’s cloak as a pledge, return it by sunset, 27 because that cloak is the only covering your neighbor has. What else can they sleep in? When they cry out to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate.
Isn’t this the interventionist God that many cry out for? The God who hears our cry and acts on our behalf? He not only stipulates how we should behave towards one another but enforces it as well.
I regularly hear people complain about “that angry God of the Old Testament”. If you read a passage like this you might have to modify your assumptions. This God is compassionate, looking out for the weak, the poor, the disadvantage and he’s making threats to back up his law!
The Short End of the Stick
Doesn’t this, however, open us up to the same kind of skepticism I have about Bill Johnson’s assertions?
In one of my favorite scenes from a favorite movie is Steve Martin plays a fake evangelist named Jack Newton. After a real miracle happens he has a talk with a crucifix.
Got a question for ya, why did you make so many suckers.
You say “love never endeth” well I say “love never starts”.
You say “the meek will inherit the earth” but I say “the only thing the meek can count on is the getting short end of the stick!”.
You say “Is there one among you who is pure of heart” and I say “NOT ONE!”
Bill Johnson doesn’t clear out the hospitals and nursing homes of Redding.
The widow and the fatherless around the world cry out and too often no one hears. The meek do keep getting the short end of the stick.
Are the skeptics right? Is the church just snake oil replaced by medicine, politics and therapy?
A More Complicated Story
- We have medicine so does that mean that we don’t get sick and die?
- We have politics so does that mean that the poor and weak are cared for?
- We have therapy so does that mean that unhappiness and melancholy have been banished from our experience?
Or maybe you believe that we’re simply on the way and that given enough power, time and money that death will be abolished, poverty and weakness put away and unhappiness banished from the kingdom. I would suggest that if this is your position you have your own faith in a god of the gaps. You have your own never coming kingdom that although you and everyone you know will perish in the age of decay you hold out for some future utopia where all will be well, except you of course.
The Abraham story of the book of Genesis is famous. God promises childless Abraham and his wife Sarah that they will have a son, even though Sarah is well beyond her childbearing years.
Abraham and Sarah employ the best contemporary technology for overcoming such a problem, slavery. Hagar the slave that Sarah likely acquired in Egypt in a previous failure of faith by her husband will be employed to offer the couple a son. Ismael is born, but this doesn’t bring the anticipated happiness.
When God finally and miraculously gives Abraham and Sarah a son Isaac, Sarah commands that her previous attempt at securing well-being be killed by desert.
8 The child grew and was weaned, and on the day Isaac was weaned Abraham held a great feast. 9 But Sarah saw that the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham was mocking, 10 and she said to Abraham, “Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.” 11 The matter distressed Abraham greatly because it concerned his son.
What will this God of compassion and justice say and do?
12 But God said to him, “Do not be so distressed about the boy and your slave woman. Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned. 13 I will make the son of the slave into a nation also, because he is your offspring.” 14 Early the next morning Abraham took some food and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar. He set them on her shoulders and then sent her off with the boy. She went on her way and wandered in the Desert of Beersheba. 15 When the water in the skin was gone, she put the boy under one of the bushes. 16 Then she went off and sat down about a bowshot away, for she thought, “I cannot watch the boy die.” And as she sat there, she began to sob.
And then God does intervene
17 God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. 18 Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.” 19 Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. So she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink. 20 God was with the boy as he grew up. He lived in the desert and became an archer. 21 While he was living in the Desert of Paran, his mother got a wife for him from Egypt.
OK, so let’s say we buy the story of this interventionist god. Why all the drama?
- Couldn’t God have saved Hagar and Ismael a considerable amount of mental anguish simply by telling Sarah to chill and having Abraham send a detachment of servants with them directly to Egypt? Why didn’t God punish Abraham and Sarah like he said he would in Exodus 22?
- So if we imagine that God’s power is present to heal, why can’t we pray for people BEFORE they get sick to prevent illness? Why can’t we have prayer inoculation like we have vaccines? Why can’t I stand up in church and wave my arms over the people and pray that they NOT get cancer or heart disease?
- All the people that are referred to as being healed by Jesus in Matthew 4 died. Lazarus who Jesus raised from the dead died.
We stand with Mary and Martha saying to God like they said to Jesus “why didn’t you come sooner…”
“Take Your Son, Your Only Son…”
Readers of the Bible and students of math will know that Genesis 21 is followed by Genesis 22.
Genesis 22:1–3 (NIV)
1 Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” “Here I am,” he replied. 2 Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.” 3 Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about.
- Why would a rescuing God set up a world we need to be rescued from?
- Why would God call Isaac “your only son”?
The promise God gave to Abraham concerning the future of Ismael required the same kind of faith his promise of Isaac required of him earlier, and we all know how that went. Abraham was probably haunted by images of dogs and vultures cleaning the meat from the bones of Hagar, who had shared his bed, and Ishmael, his first born son, in the wilderness.
God’s judgment on slave owners and traffickers of women and jealous wives who seek to use the desert to murder their rivals would fall on Isaac by Abraham’s hand.
Christians of course read this story and see Jesus, the Son of God in Isaac’s place, only in Jesus’ case the killing hand is not stayed and the son is sacrificed.
God’s Agenda Requires A Cruciform Intervention
While so many times I desperately wish God would intervene in all the ways I want. So many times I myself try to posture the church to be entertaining and helpful for our material and political needs.
While we may argue that medicine has outperformed prayer, and Social security has outperformed the church benevolence fund, and therapy with medicine more effectively banishes depression that listening to one of my sermons, can we declare that the combination of all of these remedies has created even in our own society a place where people are more capable of love and freed from fear and open to sacrificial service than at other times and places?
The truth is that despite the progress we have made at banishing our rivals and addressing our hurts we continue to be fearful and selfish and ready to ostracize, exile, repress or even kill any and all who threaten our way of life. The rise in our power, amusements and ability have in no way diminished the fact that we live our lives under the creed “my well-being at your expense” and if God simply improved the tools by which we acquire what our hearts desire we would in no way begin to desire truly better things.
Give a human being more power and they will simply continue to do what they have always done on a larger and more costly scale. If we need to be saved from ourselves simply fixing our problems won’t do the job.
The greatest gift which God wishes to give us is his own ability to love and you don’t learn to love by just having less pain, more entertainment, more power, and more money to spend. Love is living “your well-being at my expense” and we shudder at the invitation of what his will cost us.
If is for this reason that when his kingdom coming on earth as it is in heaven is not simply healing and justice and wealth, it is not just receiving love but actually learning how to love. This is the great gift he intends to give us and this gift can only be given in a cruciform way.
Misery, Deliverance, Gratitude
Our misery is not finally addressed by meeting our needs, amusing ourselves or destroying our enemies. We don’t need the church for any of these things. Our misery is finally only addressed be not only knowing that we are loved but by actually becoming lovers.
To many the description of love is beautiful, but we beg it off because it absolutely looks too costly.
1 Corinthians 13:4–7 (NIV)
4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
When Jesus goes from Galilee to Jerusalem, from being popular to abandoned, from healing the masses to dying on the cross because God refuses to rescue him, we begin to see the beauty of God’s way of life, of the rule of heaven, which is not “get what you want” but rather “your well-being at my expense.”
When we see the audacity of the resurrection, we begin to believe that we can in fact be healers of this world who carry his stripes. We can be lovers of a world that does not love us. We can be rich towards our neighbor while other are taking from us.
What Is Your Church Trying to Accomplish?
- Is your church trying to compete against Hollywood and the cruise ships in attracting people by amusing them?
- Is your church trying to compete against the medical establishment by out-healing people?
- Is your church trying to fight a culture war by denouncing and cursing your political adversaries?
- Will you bear witness to the cruciform invasion of earth fueled by gratitude and comforted by the resurrection?
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