Friday, April 4, 2008

Eugene Peterson (and me) on the North American church

Those of you who really know me, are aware that God has been leading me on a wonderful and frustrating journey over the last two years. It’s wonderful because I’ve learned so much and it’s frustrating because my learning has made me increasingly aware of how far I have to go to represent Jesus well. I’ve also not been shy about expressing my consternation over the many ways I feel the church in America is missing the point.

Initially, I observed this myself. There are many things about the way the American church operates that don’t make much sense to me, nor do they line up with what the New Testament writers regarded as a healthy and vibrant church. Then, I began to pick up books and articles where others were expressing the same thing. These were works by people who might be categorized as pop Christianity authors (even if they, themselves, would despise being labeled as such). Some of those authors include: Brian McLaren, Neil Cole, Shane Claiborne, Donald Miller, Rob Bell and Erwin McManus. Statistician and author, George Barna, has joined with these voices, taking the results of his research and showing the church that its current methods are NOT producing kingdom fruit, but instead are leading the church in a devastating direction. I’m indebted to these guys for making their ideas accessible to me and keeping me moving where I believe God is leading.

But, as I’ve gone deeper in my study—moving beyond pop literature to more “scholarly” works—I’ve learned that some of the brightest Christian minds of our day are really the ones creating the prophetic spark and fueling the flames of much-needed rebuke for the American church. Additionally, they are offering alternatives, if only we’ll listen. Lesslie Newbigin, Dallas Willard, N.T. Wright, Eddie Gibbs, Charles Van Engen, G.K. Chesterton and so many other brilliant scholars and pastors are calling the church out on the idolatry of consumerism and cultural conformity. Sadly, few are listening.

Why am I bringing all of this up? It’s always on my heart, but from time to time I read something that reminds me just how misaligned the trajectory of the American church is. Eugene Peterson (the accomplished scholar who wrote The Message) has a book called, Under the Unpredictable Plant. I can’t put it down. Here’s a quote:

“North American religion is basically a consumer religion. Americans see God as a product that will help them to live well, or to live better. Having seen that, they do what consumers do, shop for the best deal. Pastors, hardly realizing what we are doing, start making deals, packaging the God-product so that people will be attracted to it and then presenting it in ways that will beat out the competition. Religion has never been so taken up with public relations, image building, salesmanship, marketing techniques, and the competitive spirit. Pastors who grow up in this atmosphere have no awareness that there is anything out of the way in such practices. It is the good old free enterprise system that works so well for everyone except the poor and a few minorities.

Far from being radical and dynamic, most religion is a lethargic rubber stamp on worldly wisdom, leading us not to freedom but, in Chesterton’s words, to ‘the degrading slavery of being a child of [this] age.’

It is interesting to listen to the comments that outsiders, particularly those from Third World countries, make on the religion they observe in North America. What they notice mostly is the greed, the silliness, the narcissism. They appreciate the size and prosperity of our churches, the energy and the technology, but they wonder at the conspicuous absence of the cross, the phobic avoidance of suffering, the puzzling indifference to community and relationships of intimacy." (Peterson, Eugene H. Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992.)

In conclusion, I’ll ask the questions so many of these brilliant scholars continue to ask the American church: how long will you continue to play the church game? When will you become the humble, serving, Calvary-like love representations of Jesus to your communities? When will you count the cost and call your disciples to “obey everything that I [Jesus] have commanded”? God has given us the tools we need. Lord, help us also find the courage.

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