Monday, December 22, 2008

The Madison Avenue Captivity of the Church - part 1

In 1520 Martin Luther published a substantial tract entitled: Prelude on the Babylonian Captivity of the Church. Now, I am no Martin Luther, although I did pastor a Martin Luther in the mid-80's (as I recall, he was no Martin Luther either)... but I too have a rather famous name (or infamous of late, given the other Michael Jackson's shenanigans)... Believe it or not, there is also a John Lennon in my family, so our reunions are an eclectic blend of the musical dynamos of the 60's, 70's, 80's, and 90's. Now, while Luther's blustery letter was addressed to the church in a different state of captivity, it is the image of captivity I focus on today to express my concerns and observations about the church in North America. 

(Sir) Walter Brueggemann (one of my primary theological mentors) wrote a book in 1997 entitled Cadences of Home: Preaching Among Exiles. In that book he uses the theme of exile to describe the North American Church setting, and says that this new social setting of the church can best be described as “decentered,” “disestablished,” and “now faced with a radically secularized society, in which the old assumptions of Christendom no longer prevail or command widespread and almost automatic acceptance” (p. 40). I agree with this analysis of the church today. We are still clinging to many modernist assumptions in a world that has become thoroughly postmodern in its thinking. We find ourselves displaced and disoriented in this culture, much as the sixth century (BCE) Jews felt displaced and disoriented in Babylon.

However, the captivity which seems to me to hold sway over the church is a much subtler, and perhaps more sinister, beast. I have thought of other names to describe it, but Madison Avenue, is the metaphor that carries the day in my mind. The church that I encounter most of the time is sold out to a Madison Avenue, corporate marketing model - and this model holds a pervasive power over the church's imagination and her activity. There are many different whipping posts this master (Madison Avenue) uses to get the church to toe the line. That will be the subject of my several posts on this topic. And I would welcome your observations, your experiences, and your corrections along the way.

For today's blog, I wish to point to a Madison Avenue model of the church that seems to saturate the church's imagination, even across denominational lines - that of the church as a business (more often than not, a big business). There are many good and respectable words that are used to make this metaphor more palatable - church administration is one that comes to mind. But behind this noble phrase lies a dangerous and deadly snare - that the church should operate according to the same principles as a successful business operates. Now this is not a diatribe against bigness or growth, per se. Some of the healthiest churches I know are big and grow, even explosively. What I do question is the model of the church as a business that holds so many churches (and denominations) captive. Where did we ever get the idea that the church is to be run like a business?

I cut my pastoral teeth on the church growth movement, and as I recently shared with a pastor friend (who is struggling with denominational expectations that are primarily shaped by this "church is a business" model), I thought church growth was the best thing since sliced bread, but now, I find that it pretty much gags me! Not that growing churches are inherently bad... the best days I have known in pastoral ministry were days of vibrant growth - numerically, missionally, relationally, and spiritually. So I am glad for a resurging emphasis on church health - because healthy, living things do grow, and it is much better to understand that growth in an organic, natural way.

Which is why, I think, Jesus loved to paint pictures of his kingdom with organic parables... parables that literally fly in the face of the business model of the church... What farmer scatters precious seed recklessly on soil that is proven to be unproductive (path, stones, weeds) when there is good, fertile soil within the same arm's throw? What shepherd leaves 99 sheep in the desert just to search for one that is lost, risking the 99 to save the 1? What business man in his right mind hires workers for 12 hours, 9, 6, 3, and 1, then pays them all the same wage (a day's wage)? What kind of business model is this kingdom business anyway?

Who loses thier life to save it? Who becomes great by becoming humble, small, taking the form of a servant? Who gives their life away for others, rather than seeking to accumulate for oneself? 

What kind of king is born in a barn? What kind of spiritual leader spends time with winos, weirdos, and whores? What kind of Lord gets stretched out on a cross and dies a tortuous death as an innocent man - and does so for the sake of his executioners?

These words of Jesus ring true today, "I know how the Gentiles (read Madison Avenue) do it... But it shall not be so among you!" Certainly there are administrative and business principles that can and do apply to our life together as the people of God. God is not the author of chaos and any community worth its salt certainly does have patterns of organization, lines of communication, and systems of implementation. But that is just true of living things in relationship. So the Bible favors other models for the church - family, body, people, flock, farm (field, vineyard, etc.), and occasionally, a building (less organic, but still a system of interconnectivity).

I remember my first reading of Avery Dulles' Models of the Church. In the revised edition, he posits six controlling metaphors:
  • Institution (including a hierarchy of ministries, to continue Christ’s mission, and reflecting a need for order, unity and consistency of teaching).
  • Mystical communion (including our mysterious and intimate spiritual union with God and each other through the Body of Christ).
  • Sacrament (including the responsibility to be, as sacraments are, the visible presence of God on earth).
  • Herald (including the mission of the People of God, the baptised, to proclaim God’s Word).
  • Servant (including dialogue with society and assisting persons in a variety of needs).
  • A Community of Disciples (including Catholics’ sense of always being learners, being formed by the scriptures, acting lovingly, sharing in Jesus’ mission and service, and being co-responsible for the Church’s mission and identity).
Of these six, only the first seems to fit the business model of North American Christianity... and to me, it is the least compelling of all. (My personal leaning is toward the sacramental model). Perhaps one of the greatest services that pastors can offer the church today is to offer an alternative script to the Madison Avenue corporate marketing model of the church - to present the church in the richness of the story of Scripture as the community of God's people who, by their very life together in and for the world proclaim and offer the visible presence of God on earth... Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Soli Deo gloria

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