I have been a part of the Church for over 30 years now. I love the Church because, like my family, my nation and the town I live in, the Church is my home. Now I love my family and I am grateful for it, but that does not mean that I approve of everything that my family does. In order to grow, both individually and corporately, we must learn to practice the art of reform, for to “reform” is to form again that which has become deformed. Not surprisingly, in the first line of Luther’s 95 Thesis, the German reformer says that the life of the Christian is one of ongoing repentance (re-thinking our views and re-directing our actions).
With this in mind, it is in the spirit of solidarity and a love for the Church, a love which includes a love for the truth, that I offer the following holiday reflection.
When will the Church realize that the gig is up and that the world has called her bluff? Like the story of the naked emperor, the Church appears to be the last to know what everyone else has known for some time. We wonder why the world refuses to believe us when we tell them that we are committed to healing and reconciliation. Perhaps it is because they have rightly detected that we are secretly more concerned with being right and being in charge than we are with being humble ambassadors of Jesus. Or perhaps they are turned off by our marketing schemes – they see how we desperately want people to “like” the Church? Sadly, in this post-Christian era, the Church has become like that boyfriend who refuses to acknowledge the break up. Unfortunately, rather than do the update, the Church has turned to marketing gimmicks to try and boost her dwindling approval rating.
These days where we are constantly being bombarded with sales pitches and infomercial gospels, here comes the Church, hawking her religious goods and services just like all the other peddlers. Here’s a sample of church junk mail I have collected over the years. One post-card invitation with an image of smiling, happy people clapping while seated in a movie theater reads, “Comfy seats, Free coffee, Great message”; another half page card with the caption, “GET PURPOSE”, has a picture of a “Toshiba flat screen TV” along with a picture of a “Cyberhome DVD Player” and reads, “Join a 40 Days Group by April 15th and you will be eligible to win one of our grand prizes!” Unfortunately, there are consequences to this kind of communication, for in turning to marketing gimmicks and public image make-overs, the Church is trading her image and identity as a living body and a loving family to the image of the religious service industry.
In my lifetime I have watched as the Church has increasingly adopted the values of corporate America along with the marketing methods of Madison Avenue and the results have been devastating. We have conflated and confused Christ’s teaching of dependency, intimacy, and humility with the message of Tony Robins, complete with spiritual self-help principles and winning formulas that hold out the promise of personal success and self-improvement! We assumed that we could simply adopt the language and values of the marketplace, without suffering from any of its ill-effects. Did we honestly believe that the spirit of the age could be sanctified by simply dressing it up in religious clothing? Sadly, as the Church clings to her need to be needed, evidenced by her recent obsession with being “relevant”, she continues to forfeit her birthright as those who humbly serve and bear witness to their Lord.
The Church’s ‘new and improved’ make-over identity is, “church as religious service industry.” Church as religious service industry, means that the Church is now in the business of supplying spiritual goods and services to religious consumers. But those who “live by the market” will certainly “die by the market”, and with rare exception, fewer and fewer people are interested in “buying” what the Church is “selling.” And while there is certainly a time and place for marketing and shopping, when Jesus talks about what is most essential in life, he doesn’t use the language of marketing and shopping, but instead he uses the language of the farm and the garden. For example when Jesus tells us, “I am the the true Vine” or when Paul writes about the “fruit of the spirit”, they want us to understand that the life that Christ offers is living and organic. The gift of God is not manufactured, or “genetically” modified!
So this Advent season, rather than rehearse the old saw about how Christmas has become commercialized, I would like to make a Christmas confession. My confession is that I am a recovering religious consumer and a church marketer. As a consumer, I learned how to shop for the best deal on my goods, services and experiences, be they religious or secular. And as a church marketer, I have watched as the world continues to vote with its feet, letting us know that they are no longer interested in what we are selling. I have watched the Church’s influence in society dwindle and I have groused. I once believed that there is no salvation outside of the Church, but I have come to believe that there is certainly salvation outside the Church, just not outside of Christ. When the Church loses sight of this crucial distinction, she ceases to be a faithful witness to her Lord and becomes a hindrance and a stumbling block.
The word “Christmas” is a shortened form of Old English, “Christ’s mass” (meaning, Christ is formed). The word advent means, “the arrival of a notable person, thing, or event”, thus the Advent season is marked by weeks of preparation, where we prepare our hearts and our homes to welcome the arrival of our special visitors. The Advent season is not simply a countdown to December 25th, for as I shared last week in “A Weary World Waits”, Advent is a four week period where we practice the discipline of prayerful waiting, “O, Come, O’ Come Emanuel and ransom captive Israel.” I was surprised, however, to discover that Advent is the celebration of not one, but three arrivals or “comings”: 1. there is the coming of the promised Messiah, the child born to Mary and Joseph 2.there is the coming of Christ into our hearts, and 3. there is the future coming of the Christ, when he will reign as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
With all the above in mind, I am offering this simple prayer, a prayer inspired from that great Christmas hymn, “Joy to the World.” Now, may the Jesus who came that first Christmas as a babe in the manager, come again this Christmas to each of our hearts. Let every heart, prepare him room! Merry Christmas!