Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz (2003) is a favorite book of mine. I’m teaching it to a class at church right now and posting my lesson notes as I prepare them here.
I was getting ready to try to summarize the conclusions to the “Reveal” lessons when I stopped to prepare this week’s lesson, where Miller anticipates exactly the problem Willow Creek has discovered in its survey.
As is typical of the book, Miller writes in an intensely personal style, speaking of his own preferences while, very gently and subtly, criticizing much of the way the evangelical world often does church.
In describing a conventional evangelical church he once attended, Miller writes,
I felt like people were trying to sell me Jesus. …. The bulletin read like a brochure for Amway.
They seemed to be parrots for the Republican Party. Do we have to toe the line on every single issue?
They would talk about how we’re in a battle, and I agreed with them, only they wouldn’t clarify that we were battling poverty and hate and injustice and pride and the powers of darkness. They left us thinking that our war was against liberals and homosexuals.
In short, conventional evangelical churches are too consumer oriented, too politically partisan, and too distracted by the culture war to notice the war we were actually called to fight. And I think this is all true.
This is what drove Miller out of his congregation, and I think it’s driving many others out as well.
I’ve earlier posted my thoughts on the church and state controversy.
I’m a political conservative and generally vote Republican. But I’m very unimpressed with the Republican Party and have no illusions that it speaks for the Christian church. It most certainly does not. And I’ve been trying hard to learn how to distinguish my political culture from Jesus’ wishes for my life. I’ve not arrived, but I’m getting closer.
The fact that so many churches have adopted the Republican Party platform as the 28th book of the New Testament offends the sensibilities of a lot of Christians–as well it should. Until the church repents of trying to become a secular power rather than relying solely on God’s power, we’re going to lose a lot of people.
I mean, where the Republicans are wrong, the church should stand with Jesus and criticize the party. Where the Democrats are wrong, the church should do the same. But instead we have Republican churches and Democrat churches, each ignoring the evil in their own parties and, even worse yet, letting the parties set the agenda, rather than scripture.
Today’s Tuscaloosa News has a story about churches trying to bring people in with coffee houses in the building. Now, I’m not really against this so much as against the idea that we are called to bring people to a building (or coffee pot) rather than Jesus. Let me try to explain this better (if I can).
Coffee is fine. So is church league basketball. So are all the other things we do to try to make it easy to invite friends to church. The problem arises when we get so caught up in selling Jesus that we forget to sell all of Jesus.
(Matt. 5:10-12) Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
(Luke 9:23-25) Then he said to them all: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. 25 What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self?”
Becoming a disciple of Jesus is a great way to make friends. And it’s wonderful to be with them over coffee. But if we stop there, we turn the church into a social club and deny the Jesus who saved us.
This self-denial stuff is a hard sell. And it doesn’t show up in our tracts and “how to become a Christian” handouts. And that means we’re being dishonest–thinking we are doing Jesus a favor by sugarcoating his message. He never did. I don’t know why we think we’re smarter than him.
Miller found a new church that was different. This is what he liked about it:
First, it’s spiritual. What I mean is the people pray and fast about things.
Praying is very un-modern and not very popular in many churches. We’d never admit it, because we know how awful it sounds–but just call a prayer meeting and see how attendance plummets. We are too used to having our ears tickled by a preacher and song leader and not ready to actually stand before God and ask for his blessings.
I think it’s because prayer requires us to be absolutely honest–and that scares us. Of course, admitting your faults to God is not embarrassing–he already knows them!–and so it’s really about the pain of admitting who we are to ourselves–standing in the bright light of his glory and feeling exposed.
And fasting … well, that’s as contrary to American culture as it gets. But its profoundly Biblical and not widely practiced.
Miller’s church is a big supporter of writers and painters and sculptors–the very people who often don’t fit in well at church. After all, we’ve let the left-brained, analytical people (like me) run the place, and so we’ve turned it into a community college.
Miller’s church displays art and has story readings. (Likely over coffee, but it’s okay because it’s about Jesus, rather than self-indulgence.)
Third, Community. [Pastor] Rick is very, very serious about people living together, eating together, and playing together. He encourages young single people to get houses and live with each other.
Miller admits that many churches actually do this pretty well through small groups. But his church goes a step further by encouraging single members to share houses. This helps to keep one another accountable and to help one another build each other up. It’s good to live with someone who shares your faith and understands when you need prayer, for example.
Do you see the difference? Most of think of church as a place we go to receive good instruction and be with friends. This church actually helps its members be about Jesus all the time.
Fourth, Authenticity. … I love this because by being true I am allowing people to get to know the real me, and it feels better to have people love the real me than the me I invented.
“Authenticity” has become quite the buzzword and means different things to different people. In Miller’s vocabulary, it means that the church gives permission for everyone to be open and vulnerable–honest about their failings and needs.
Many churches do this well, but some do not. Here’s a test: if you found yourself addicted to pornography, would you feel comfortable admitting that in your small group? class? or in the worship service? If the answer is no, no, no, then your church is not authentic because it requires you to pretend to be someone you’re not.
Jesus saved you well-aware of your sins and weaknesses. He is glad for you to honestly admit your sins to him. And he’ll forgive you. Without a doubt. And he’ll still love you. The church isn’t truly the body of Christ until it acts the same way.
The church can offer these wonderful blessings, but it’s also about commitment, surrender, servanthood, and a changed life. It’s about being other-focused. But we really don’t teach that. I mean, we say it. And then we run our churches on the assumption that we should cater to the selfish attitudes of our members rather than calling them to Christ-like, sacrificial service.
The real culture war
I’ve already addressed the failure of the church to concern itself with the poor. I should add that concern for the needy and vulnerable in society is the real culture war.
Our lack of concern for the poor separates us from a large part of society. We are only attractive to the affluent in society who don’t care about the poor–that is, the self-centered and insensitive. And this is serious institutional problem. Sadly, there’s still a huge market for this approach as this is very typical of much of America.
Worse yet, it’s one of the reasons that we still have black churches and white churches 40+ years after the civil rights movement. White churches tend not to care about the issues that concern the black churches. It’s a huge divide that demands repentance.
Whenever the churches become deeply involved in the hurting, lonely, desperate parts of society, they’ll find that they change, become more genuinely loving, more “authentic,” and more like Jesus. They’ll be more attractive, even if they tell potential converts that following Jesus will cost them everything.
When they go out for coffee, they’ll likely prefer to go into the community, because that’s where they’re needed, rather than telling people to leave the community to enjoy the blessings of the church.
You see, we try to make Jesus into a product that’s attractive to self-indulgent, well-to-do American whites, and we like our gyms and coffee houses. But it’s better for us to first become the people Jesus wants us to be, to live as Jesus would have us live, and then let the evangelism arise naturally from that.
(John 12:32) “But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.”