The Sunset of Christian Kitsch

Like many Christians around the world, I take time at the turn of the New Year to reflect on the past and hope for the future. Some of my hopes are bound up with my own life as I reflect on the many practical steps I want to take to be more like Christ in 2015. But, I also have some hopes which are really massive and transcend the horizons of my own life and work. I know that I can only play a tiny part in the unfolding of these hopes, but I have them nonetheless.

One of these hopes is my hope for the renewal of Christian vitality. The church, especially in the West, is currently at a spiritual nadir which I cautiously hope has finally reached rock bottom. We would all quietly prefer to live in better times. It must have been breathtaking to see the Red Sea part, or Goliath fall to the ground, or the Temple dedicated, or wise King Solomon sitting on the throne. Those are great days to be numbered among the “people of God.” It is a different story when you are being chained up by the Assyrians, thrown into a well like Jeremiah, or seeing your children ripped out of your arms and sold into Babylonian slavery. “How shall we sing the LORD’S song in a foreign land?” is the anguish cry of the Psalmist which once seemed like a distant cry, but is gradually moving to our own horizon.

We know, looking back, that the exile was a time of cleansing and purging, creating new spaces for holiness and, ultimately, preparing the people of God for the Messiah. Living in exile can actually be wonderful days of remembering the gospel, growing in holiness and renewing a life of earnest prayer. In fact, there are many lessons which can only be taught by those three sturdy tutors known as hardship, pain and suffering.

Living in exile also marks the end of what I call “Christian kitsch.” Kitsch, of course, refers to all the gaudy, tacky, sentimental stuff which dominates popular culture. Cracker Barrel makes a living selling it. It is the plastic pink flamingo which someone buys and sticks in their yard and actually believes it connects them with nature. It is the little miniature statue of the Eiffel tower which sits on your shelf so people will think you are well traveled. Popular American Christianity has its own version of this. I don’t just mean the “precious moments” angel display at your local Christian bookstore or the Jesus is the Reason for the Season magnet on your refrigerator. It is found in the face of a smiling pastor promising a packed house of suburban Christians that God has promised to give you all the desires of your heart today. It is found in the darkened “contemporary” church service where everyone sits around tables and drinks coffee while they watch people sing on stage and file out an hour later saying they were “in church.” It’s found in the latest Christian blog which enthusiastically gives seven ways every pastor can help make the gospel “relevant” for this generation.

The church has a lot of pink flamingos stuck in the ground. The good news is, help is on the way! Exile strikes the death knell to all the “pink flamingos” in the life of the church. When the house is set on fire, and you and your children are being taken into exile, people generally leave the pink flamingos behind.

Gospel Clarity vs. “The Fog”

By God’s grace I have enjoyed decades of involvement with the church on four different continents.  It has been a means of grace for me, because I gradually gained a deeper understanding of why some church movements are in decline and are dying, and others are vibrant and full of life.   I have had first-hand experience with the whole spectrum.  For example, we lived as a family in Scotland in the context of the moribund Church of Scotland, observing how they managed to find a new way year after year to hasten their descent and decline.  We have also lived in India where new churches were preaching the gospel, discipling believers and planting new churches as a natural expression of their life in Christ.  Each year, they seemed to find new ways to reach people for Christ and to bring the gospel with fresh power to their context and setting.  I could give many examples of churches all along the spectrum.  The United Methodist church here in the USA has been in decline for decades and yet cannot seem to pull out of the death spiral.  I have lost count of the number of self-inflicted wounds I observed the church give herself.  Yet, right in the USA, in the same towns and cities where the United Methodist churches are dying, the ACNA (Anglican Church of North America) is thriving, having planted nearly 1,000 churches just since 2009.  This is just one example.  Many more come to mind.  However, the deeper questions are: Why is this?  Are there any common factors which contribute to vibrancy in a church, or common factors which seem to contribute to decline?  The answer is, YES!  This blog will focus on just one of my observations:  Gospel Clarity vs. “The Fog.”

When you walk into a vibrant church, you can immediately sense the difference.  At every point, you meet gospel clarity.  The church exudes confidence in the unique work of Jesus Christ.  They understand the power and authority of God’s Word.  They feel the lostness of the world and the urgency to bring the good news to everyone.   At every point, you observe gospel clarity.  When the pastor preaches, you know exactly what he or she is exhorting you to do or to be.  When you chat with people during the fellowship time, they are telling you about things they have read in Scripture, or what they learned in their small group that week.  The clarity is palatable.  It is infectious.  You can actually sense the presence of Christ in your midst.

In contrast, when you walk into the churches in decline you are immediately brought into “the Fog.”  What is the fog?  It is the inability to be clear about anything.  There is no clarity about who Jesus Christ is and what He has done.  There is no clarity about the Scriptures as the authoritative Word of God.  There is no clarity about the urgency to reach the lost.   When you listen to a sermon, you go away shaking your head, saying, “what exactly did he or she actually say?”  It almost seems like sermons or church pronouncements are carefully crafted to say as little as possible, or to be as vague as possible, so that the fewest number of people will be offended.  In the “fog,” Jesus Christ is just one of many noble teachers in the world.  In the “fog,” the Bible is filled with contradictions and outdated commands.  In the “fog,” the pastor has learned through years of experience to spend 20 to 30 minutes talking, and say absolutely nothing of consequence about anything.  In the fog, the talk in the hallways and fellowship halls is about the latest sports teams, or the weather, or problems in the school system, etc.  In other words, the “chat” is no different from anything you would hear at the local Starbucks, or in the break room at work.

When I was a young pastor, I will never forgot my shock when I arrived at my first “district meeting.”  I was a new graduate of a strong evangelical seminary in another part of the country.  I was deeply committed to the teachings of John Wesley, but I had not really been exposed to any fellow United Methodist pastors. I arrived at my first District meeting expecting for my superintendent to share strategies for how to reach people with the gospel.  I expected to find a strong commitment to Scripture and to the necessity to reach the lost.  I expected to find support and encouragement for my new ministry assignment.  Instead, I was ushered into “the fog.”  After a year of this, I woke up one morning and realized that I was inadvertently being “discipled” into a whole new way of thinking and living.  I was being taught to be vague.  I was being taught to “embrace the fog.”   In a thousand small ways, I was being taught to not be clear on who Jesus Christ is.  There were subtle comments and jokes made in the hallways which were sending the message that those who really believed and trusted in the Bible were not really as smart or clever as my fellow “enlightened” pastors were.    I was being taught to complain about my salary, or the condition of the parsonage or endless other trivial matters.

At the depth of this crisis the Lord brought a vibrant Methodist pastor into my life named Terry Tekyl.  I am sure that Terry doesn’t even remember meeting me.  But, at the low point, my district was sponsoring a weekend retreat for continuing education credits entitled, “Lord, teach us how to play.”  Yes, “Play.”  It was focused on the need for pastors to learn to play and not be so serious about the work to which we were called.  The problem is, I had never experienced anyone being serious about the work to begin with.  I was so dismayed, I asked my District Superintendent if I could get my continuing education credits at another event.  When he agreed, I began to look around and found, to my amazement, that the very weekend that our “retreat” was planned, a United Methodist pastor from Texas named Terry Tekyl was holding a retreat nearby on the theme, “Lord, teach us how to pray.”  Yes, a retreat on prayer.  That retreat changed my whole life in many ways.  First, I met my first United Methodist pastor who had beaten back the fog.  Terry was vibrant, alive with the gospel, filled with the Spirit, and eager to roll up his sleeves and reach a lost world.  Second, I learned then and there that I could get out of the fog as well.  That weekend I stepped out of the fog and I have never looked back.  Our church grew by leaps and bounds.   By the grace of God, I have, over the last thirty years, helped dozens of other pastors to get out of the fog as well.  The only hope for any church, at any time in history and in any part of the world, to become vibrant is to escape from “the fog” and move to “gospel clarity.”  My prayer for this holy season is that we would experience a major gospel revival that would blow away the fog and bring in the fresh winds of the Holy Spirit and gospel clarity.

Advent: Remembering our Nakedness

The last verse before the biblical account of the Fall is the rather candid statement, “both the man and his wife were naked, yet felt no shame” (Gen. 2:25). I always thought that was simply stating the obvious; namely, that they did not have on any clothing. It was from John Paul II’s Theology of the Body that I was first reminded that I had, perhaps, not read the text deeply enough. To say that Adam and Eve were naked and not ashamed is about more than the lack of clothing. It is about the reason we clothe ourselves in the first place. Before the Fall we had both interior and exterior vision. In other words, before the Fall, we could see someone’s outward features and expressions, etc., but we also had interior vision: we could see someone’s heart. Adam and Eve knew each other’s hearts. They knew one another, as we would say colloquially, ‘inside and out.” That is what it meant to “know” someone. After the Fall, the first thing they did was to sew fig leaves together and make loincloths for themselves because they became aware of their nakedness (Gen. 3:7). Once sin and shame enter the world we start hiding ourselves. We do not want our interior lives to be known. Clothing is just the beginning of all the ways we mask our interior lives. We “cover ourselves” with clothing, with well-paying jobs, with nice homes, expensive cars, jewelry, and the list goes on and on.

The gospel is about re-establishing our primordial nakedness, in the biblical sense of that word. When Jesus comes he re-establishes that interior sight. He knows what we are thinking. He sees our hearts. We cannot hide from him. This is the kind of open vulnerability which God is building in His church. God showed us the way in Jesus Christ. When God came to us that first Christmas he laid aside all of his glory. He left behind His throne. He left behind the eternal worship of the cherubim, the seraphim and the four living creatures. He left behind the eternal “hallelujah chorus” which cries “holy, holy, holy.” He came as a helpless baby, lying in a manger. The amazing thing is that we discovered through the incarnation the very interior life of God himself. We saw his heart. We saw his love. We saw what we are all called to be: naked before God and one another, i.e. living a life of transparency and openness before God and others in a way which astounds the world.

May each and every reader of this blog have a blessed Advent as we remember anew the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ into the world.