Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Madison Avenue Captivity of the Church - part 2

One of Madison Avenue's insidious strategies with the American consumer is to make us believe that "anything worth having at all is worth having NOW." The recent economic crisis was precipitated, by and large, not only by our insatiable desire for more, but also by our impatient unwillingness to delay gratification. One of the recent news reporters, commenting on the sales figures for Black Friday this year, noted that while sales were up, 75% of the purchases made were manufactured outside the US. We are a nation of consumers rather than producers... and that shift is a reflection of the success of Madison Avenue's message of instant gratification - production takes time, consumption rewards us instantly - even as it cripples us by making us complacent as producers (note the auto industry crisis) and/or paralyzes us with indebtedness (note the mortgage and credit crisis). 

"We want it all...and we want it now." That is one of Madison Avenue's mantras that has taken the church's imagination captive as well, producing a people who are now known not as a kingdom of priests, nor a communion of saints, but rather a collection of religious consumers.

That attitude wrecks havoc in the North American church. Holiness is not a commodity. Growth in grace and maturity in love are not goods we can buy on credit. Life transformation does not happen in a moment, or a trip or two to the altar (the tense of the participle in Romans 12:2 is present passive which denotes ongoing, continual transformation). Disciple-making does not happen by using either a cookie cutter or a production line. Preaching the gospel to the nations is (at least) a 2,000 year project that remains unfinished (are we really any closer to achieving that goal, considering the explosive growth rate of the world population?)

If a product does not sell, we pull it from the shelves. If the ratings are not good after 5 episodes, the show is canceled. If the store doesn't turn a quick profit, bankruptcy and liquidation follow. If you don't find immediate gratification in your job, it is time to update the resume. And if the church isn't growing (i.e., more bodies, more budgets, more buildings) it is time to get a new pastor (or find a church that is "successful" and can meet my needs). Not only has the North American church sold out to Madison Avenue, she has herself become bankrupt.

I now have opportunity (as professor and ambassador of preaching for Trevecca and as a recently released pastor with no political clout in the church I serve) to speak with other pastors who are frustrated "to the nines" over this growing impatience of the church. It is a sign of our spiritual immaturity, but also a sign of the Madison Avenue mentality that pervades the market-driven church. Not only do congregations want it all (I will speak to this adulterous infatuation with bigness in another post) but congregations also want it now - and when it does not happen according to their timetable, churches are quick to grow impatient with pastors and vice versa.

Again, perhaps the greatest gift that those in leadership can offer our impatient churches is an alternative script of the nature of the church as an organic community. Organic imagery for the church resonates throughout the New Testament, and is central to the kingdom parables of Jesus. Organic things (like crops, or children) take time to grow and mature - to reach their desired end (or telos). I have a little experience with gardening - and you just don't expect to get tomatoes off a freshly planted vine... you have to wait a while. I definitely have some experience in parenting... and after 25 years, you can still be waiting for children to take responsibility and become less dependent on you (and it's a great relief on your mind and your checkbook when it does happen). Organic things, like the church, take time, require patience - and waiting.

One of Jesus' organic kingdom parables addresses this directly - telling of a farmer who scatters seed, then rises and sleeps day after day while the seed sprouts and grows without the farmer's full knowledge of how it works (the earth produces "automatically" so says the Greek) and then comes the harvest. I can still remember a sermon from Pastor Millard Reed years ago on this parable, where he noted that the planting and harvest seasons are both fast and furious with a flurry of activity for us "farmers", but the long season of waiting is a time when we cannot do a whole lot that actually makes a difference. We simply have to trust the power of the seed and the automatic processes woven into the fabric of creation - and wait for the harvest. This is what kingdom work is like, says the Lord of the harvest, and impatience has no place in the farmer's thinking. Yet, for many churches, and pastors, waiting wears on our impatient souls.

Just this week I had a conversation with a pastor friend who expressed this anxious "antsiness" that "nothing  seems to be happening." Yet in the same conversation he narrated some wonderful stories of transformation that have happened among his flock - works of grace that happen not overnight, but over time. I invited him to open his eyes and see, even in the waiting season, that the seeds he has faithfully planted are sprouting and growing (though he knows not how) and God's kingdom work is advancing "automatically", moving toward an abundant and certain harvest, so long as he does "not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up" (Galatians 6:9). 

This is a fitting verse for the church held captive to the Madison Avenue, church marketing, instant gratification model. Pastors and people, certainly we are meant to enjoy the planting and harvest seasons with their flurry of energy and excitement. But we must also not grow weary in the waiting season. Be patient with God and with each other. The worst thing you can do is dig up and replant, or fire the farmer for lack of labor (or results, or success). According to Jesus and Paul, waiting is part of the process, and we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. 

Cometo think of it, this is not a bad message for Advent, a season of hopeful anticipation that beckons us to watch, to wait, and be ready for the coming of our Lord. Maranatha, Come, Lord Jesus.

Soli Deo gloria

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