First Church of Authenticity and Trends

neon church…is it just me, or is this title hopelessly contradictory? And yet, this is the message that countless congregations endeavor to send to our culture. “We’re the genuine article, bona-fide disciples of Jesus, and we’re just like you, so you’ll fit right in!” Mercy.

So my wife and I recently visited a local festival associated with the harvest of some plant that makes delicious pies (and they were!). It was hosted by a local congregation associated with a (non LCMS) historic Protestant tradition who, though the denominational acronym had not been completely removed from their signage, had transitioned to the “Community Church” name and image. As a part of a nation-wide initiative, they were aggressively advertising “National Back to Church Sunday,” which I thought sounded just plain lovely, almost like “back to school,” but without all the corresponding sales. I said to my wife, “I didn’t know the Methodists took off Christianity for the summer!”

All snark aside, a few of the promotional materials, pamphlets, and fliers wound up in our hands, and as we read through them, a few paragraphs jumped out at me.

“You’re invited to church this Sunday at ______ Community Church! At ___CC, you will find friendly people striving for a better life, varying music styles, upbeat worship, relevant messages, and a focus on living life with a purpose. Come see what church has to offer for your life.”

If I were an unbeliever and the least bit skeptical, I think my initial response to that last sentence might be something along the lines of “Apparently, absolutely nothing.”

“Special coffee hour to follow. Casual Atmosphere, Real People, Active Mission, Mid-week Bible Studies, Fun Children’s Program, New Youth Programs.”

Now, if that isn’t cheesy or cliche, is it at least missing something rather critical that ought to have some prominence in a church advertising campaign? There is no Jesus in the equation. Does He have anything to offer my life? Or more importantly, does He have any life to offer me? From the pamphlets we received, you might indeed assume He was anything but high up on their list of priorities, most of which reflected the first world desire of consumer culture for historically unprecedented comfortability.

But the crass concept of church advertising aside, as if we were entrepreneurial businessmen trying to attract a clientele to our new product, consider the potential negative implications of such marketing phrases. Whatever you advertise yourself as will say something significant about what you wish to be seen as not. For example, when you advertise yourself as a church of “friendly people,” there is an implicit suggestion that other churches may be somewhat less than friendly. Otherwise, why would you advertise it if, in your mind, everybody expects every church to be full of friendliness?

Well of course, there are unfriendly churches. I don’t think they are a majority, or that being friendly makes you stand out. But the message seems to clearly imply, “We’re not like those indifferent congregations that you wouldn’t like to be a part of.” So maybe your people are friendly. You may even rightly consider that an asset. And by no means is it over the line to include that fact on your promotional materials. But let’s take a closer look at some of the other claims: Striving for a better life, varying music styles, upbeat worship, relevant messages, a focus on living life with a Purpose (TM), casual atmosphere, etc….

It kind of sounds like many other churches are probably irrelevant and purposeless. I’m reminded of Matt Chandler’s adage that trying to make the Gospel relevant is like trying to make water wet. So… do these other churches not preach the Gospel, or is this saving proclamation not enough? Is the purpose of church really to provide a relaxed, peppy environment for the pursuit of self-improvement? I don’t see that anywhere in the teaching of, you know, Jesus. Further, if your church is full of “real people,” do the rest of ours contain imaginary parishioners? No, this is a subtle, inverse way of playing the pharisee card: We’re real, which is different, because elsewhere you will probably find phony.

When a church says “you should join us because we’re friendly, upwardly mobile, creative, upbeat, relevant, purposeful, casual, real, active, fun, and new,” at what point have they crossed the line of being pretentious? They might as well just come out and say “We’re totally awesome in every way you could possibly dream of, and you really want to hang out with us so it can rub off on you!” I didn’t realize I was missing so many of these things from my life. It’s all quite intimidating, really, I’d want to ask if they have more of an introductory step or recovery group for my purpose-less excuse for an irrelevant life.

At the end of the day, it appeared to base a marketing image 100% on knocking over a straw man caricature of their own creation. These blurbs so attempted to define the congregation by how much it is not like the religious boogeyman that they failed to define themselves by that which actually makes one a Christian! Campaigns like this do not seem designed with the religious skeptic or uninformed in mind. Rather, it appears to target the comfortable Evangelical religious consumer; those who have lost interest in another congregation they either quit attending or are frustrated with its inabilities to meet their “felt needs.” Like it or not, shuffling the deck chairs and inflating conversion statistics is big business. Or at least, it used to be. It will be MySpace by the time the LCMS learns the ropes.

Where is Christ and His Gospel? I’m near positive that somewhere in the doctrinal statements of this particular congregation they are acknowledged, among the many false beliefs Methodists also have. But in the day to day operations, it would appear that they are more assumed than actively confessed. It’s as if once they are in the doctrinal statement, they can safely be ignored most of the time.

What if a congregation defined its “brand image” solely on belief the Gospel? How would this function in terms of negative implication? To put ourselves forward as “Christ-centered, cross focused,” or “Gospel driven” simply implies that our Christianity is about being Christian, and not about what isn’t Christianity (finding purpose etc…). What if it were clear from our advertising that our message is about Jesus from start to finish, and our methods are formed around that which keeps our eyes on Him, in what the late Michael Spencer described as a “Jesus shaped spirituality?”

God bless the people of this congregation for their sincerity and strategic intentionality in reaching out to their community. From the bustle of activity occupying their facilities, you might even conclude that their efforts are successful. But I can’t help but wonder: What are they being reached with? What is being advertised and sold to them? Is it Jesus, or is it the congregation, with her leaders, methods, and new, more relevant message?

If you can indulge me a moment of satire, what if the impression we sought to give our communities for the reason our church exists looked more like this:

“Grumpy people, bored or frustrated with life, mundane diet of dirges, dull worship, droning sermons, focused on just surviving, burnt coffee, constricting atmosphere, hiding behind a mask of formalism, and little activity outside of Sunday morning. What kind of a God would want us? Join us on Sunday to hear all about the wonderful love of a crucified Savior. We might bore you to death, but you’ll be in good company!”

If we’re going to advertise what we’re selling, let it be Jesus. Not ourselves, not a wonderful life, not a purpose-driven all ages 24/7 community activity center. Nothing more than Christ crucified, for the forgiveness of sins. Is Jesus enough if He is all we have to offer?

….so what if I told you that the church we visited was an LCMS congregation? Would you be surprised? Should you?

 

BJS_MiguelRuizLargeAssociate Editor’s Note: With this post we welcome Miguel Ruiz to our regular writers here at the Brothers of John the Steadfast. Here is what Miguel has to say about himself…

Miguel Ruiz is a post-Evangelical adult convert to confessional Lutheranism and a vocational church musician. He and his wife Ei and son Seth live on Long Island in New York where he serves as an LCMS church and school as the director of parish music and secondary music teacher. Having just completed the colloquy program through Concordia, St. Paul, he is scheduled to be commissioned as a Minister of Religion on Reformation Sunday, 2014. As a former “worship leader” and “youth pastor,” he has found blogging and arguing about theology on the internet to be a therapeutic way to process his journey out of Evangelicalism, and is very grateful for the influence of online communities and media, such as this site, for their role in helping him find his home in the church.

About Miguel Ruiz

Miguel Ruiz is a post-Evangelical adult convert to confessional Lutheranism and a vocational church musician. He is a commissioned Minister of Religion in the LCMS, serving Our Savior Lutheran Church and School in Centereach, New York, as the director of parish music and music teacher. His journey down the Wittenberg trail began when he was roused from his dogmatic slumber by the writings of Michael Spencer and Robbert Webber. After a period of Cartesian doubt seeking a confessional identity, he finally found his home in the Lutheran church. When he isn’t busy running upwards of 12 rehearsals a week, he loves writing as a way to interact with other perspectives and to pontificate on his doxological agenda. He enjoys exploring the treasury of 2000 years of sacred music, and has found his life’s calling as a cantor, with a mission to “put the Gospel on the lips of the people of God through song, that the Word might dwell in their hearts through faith.”

Comments

First Church of Authenticity and Trends — 28 Comments

  1. Miguel,

    I love it! Well done and thank you for this article. Keep ’em coming. BTW, I loved your “moment of satire.”

  2. Thank you, Miguel.

    Not often enough do we find a writer who is clear, spot-on, and entertaining:

    “We’re totally awesome in every way you could possibly dream of, and you really want to hang out with us so it can rub off on you!”

    “Like it or not, shuffling the deck chairs and inflating conversion statistics is big business. Or at least, it used to be. It will be MySpace by the time the LCMS learns the ropes.”

    “MySpace” Or avocado appliances! lol

  3. Excellent, Miguel– thanks for the observations.

    It made me think that our marquee in front of our parish (should it hold enough letters, which it doesn’t,) ought to read:

    “We freely offer only what Jesus Christ freely offered us by grace through faith in Him: Forgiveness, Eternal Life, and Salvation from Sin, Death, Hell, and the Devil. Come, believe, and live.”

    I’ve always cringed at the Church attempting to sell itself… when we have nothing to sell in the first place. All we have are the declarations of Christ in His Word. The Church declares– bears witness– to Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit working through His Word. It does not sell itself or Christ, because it has nothing given to it which can be bought.

  4. @quasicelsus #4

    In the LCMS, a professional church worker, someone you can find at lcms.org in the ‘find a worker’ search function.

    Minister of Religion- Ordained are all the pastors, aka pastors for congregations, and others, like seminary professors, District and Synodical presidents, other executives at the International Center and other entities. These men have attained a Master of Divinity, or some other type of equivalent.

    Minister of Religion-Commissioned are the lesser offices. This is the classification of all men and women who are certified (bachelor degrees don’t always use the same nomenclature) as Lay Minister, Lutheran Teacher; and all the Directors of Education, Outreach, Parish Music; and combinations thereof.

  5. Miguel, that is a great post. Your question, “Where is Christ and His Gospel?” says (or asks) it all. This question should be on the mind of anyone visiting a church for the first (or second or third) time? “Where is Christ? Is He preached? Is He the center of worship? Is His Gospel proclaimed in clear unambiguous language?” All too often we hear “Christian” preached, but not Christ. We hear that “making disciples” is what it’s all about, but we are not told why.

    The phrase, “Focus on living life with a purpose” in the church’s pamphlet is all you need to know. This is the Church of Me. It is My gospel that is being preached, or as the pamphlet puts it: “At ___CC, you will find friendly people striving for a better life, varying music styles, upbeat worship, relevant messages…” Let’s all hear it for striving, folks. Striving is what these churches promote. Striving is what Rick Warren, Joyce Meyer, Joel Osteen, and Beth Moore promote.

    Sadly, this kind of stuff can be found at LCMS websites. Here’s a sample from an LCMS church I’ll call Lutheran Community Church (“LCC”):

    “We’re so glad you’re here. And we look forward to getting to know you better.
    At LCC we want to help you:
    Connect more deeply with God
    Build healthier relationships and feel like you Belong
    Thrive with a more productive, meaningful life

    Visit us any time — for weekend worship, for special events, for weekly groups or Bible studies.”
    When you arrive for a worship service at LCC, the friendly folks at our Connection Centers will be happy to greet you. So will our staff members and board members, the people walking around with official-looking nametags. And so will almost everyone in our LCC family, many who are second- and third-generation members.

    They can help direct you to a worship service…or a Bible class…or a childrens or youth class…or the pizza or doughnuts in the Gathering Room…or wherever else you need to go. “

  6. While I agree that such outreach can conform too much to the culture, I am not convinced that the narrow “one true faith” of the LCMS and others is right, either. Jesus was bigger than that.

  7. @Gloria #8

    I don’t think you’ll find many people argue for the “one true faith of the LCMS.” However, you will find people who will argue for the one true faith, once for all delivered to the saints by Jesus Christ, and communicated through His prophets and apostles in Holy Scripture. Since the Lutheran Confessors of the 16th century Reformation were faithful witnesses to Christ and His Word, those who gather with them, we recognize most clearly as members of Christ and His Church.

    Apart from Christ and His Word, there is no church, and there is no Christian, because there is no faith that can receive His saving grace. I think the discernment our author is pointing to here, and others have made regarding LCMS congregations, is that without Christ and His Word, they might be nifty social clubs, but they are not the Church of Jesus Christ. Only in the Church of Jesus Christ, founded upon and enlivened by His Word, are the gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation given.

  8. @Gloria #8
    The use of the word “narrow” has a pejorative ring to it. However, regarding salvation and saving faith, Jesus was incredibly narrow-minded. “No one comes to the Father but by me,” is pretty narrow-minded. “Enter through the narrow gate,” is pretty exclusive language. As to who may be saved, however, Jesus is incredibly broad minded–“Come unto me all who labor….”

    When Christ is marginalized, left out of the church’s message, even its websites and pamphlets, they are in effect saying they are ashamed of Him. As Brad says above (#10), “Apart from Christ and His Word, there is no church, and there is no Christian…”

    The LCMS is often accused of being “narrow,” “parochial,” and “exclusive.” Question is, does the LCMS proclaim Christ crucified, and does it administer the Sacraments faithfully? If indeed, such administration of the Means of Grace is “narrow,” then so be it. LCMS congregations that do NOT administer the Means of Grace faithfully, may not be considered “narrow,” but that is hardly a compliment.

  9. Gloria,

    The lcms is not any wider or narrower than Jesus and his word. The lcms only says what Jesus says. What is narroe about that?

  10. @Rev Jakob Fjellander #13

    Would you give us a few examples to back up your assertion/opinion, Pastor?

    Inasmuch as BJS is not an official agency/representative of the LCMS, I think it’s important to differentiate between what the LCMS says and what is said on this blog.

    By the way, Tim Rossow is an LCMS pastor, not “mr.”

  11. @Joe Strieter #14
    Oh, yes, you’re right about pr Rossow, thank you. (I was not sure because pr Rossow usually has an icon with a nice cat, but since there was no icon and no cat at the comment I wasn’t sure it was the same person and wrote “mr”. I used my mini-Ipad and couldn’t easily check.)

    A few examples: FiveTwo, TNC, RIM, OWN and Jesus First. These movements show clearly that the LCMS is a divided church body. I didn’t mean that the BJS or the commentators were examples of deviation.
    The ACELC also lists ten errors of the LCMS.

  12. @Rev Jakob Fjellander #15

    Thanks, Pastor. I agree with you. DId you mean “TCN” not “TNC?” It is indeed an RSO. I never heard of OWN, but the others are not RSO’s so, strictly speaking, they are not “official” LCMS organizations. But, that’s picking at nits. Since the LCMS allows these mavericks to run loose, you are correct.

  13. Gloria :
    While I agree that such outreach can conform too much to the culture, I am not convinced that the narrow “one true faith” of the LCMS and others is right, either. Jesus was bigger than that.

    Gloria, has Jesus anytime said anything like “not so important what you believe as long as you’re sincere/as you love your neighbour/as whatever”? Didn’t he say: “the truth will set you free” and “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you”?
    And didn’t he also say: “For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”?
    I hope you admit that it’s important what Jesus said.

  14. Rev. Fjellander,

    When I post from my phone I am not logged in so Happy Bob gets a break from being Steadfast. 🙂

    You are right. The groups you name consist of LCMS members but as Joe has pointed out, they do not represent the LCMS and they do hold teachings and do practice contrary to some LCMS (i.e. Biblical) doctrine.

  15. Good stuff here.

    Since we are ALL basically theologians of glory (at heart)…we are greatly tempted to try “what works”.

    But we can’t go there.

    For as theologians of the Cross, we know that nothing works, in the long run.

  16. Pastor Tim Rossow :
    The groups you name consist of LCMS members but as Joe has pointed out, they do not represent the LCMS and they do hold teachings and do practice contrary to some LCMS (i.e. Biblical) doctrine.

    I admit this is somewhat off-topic, but I have to protest against this your statement, pr Rossow. Aren’t the members and pastors of those groups named above members of the LCMS fellowship? If yes, they (also) represent the LCMS!

    Do not the pastors, bulletins, websites etc. etc. of those “authentic churches” Miguel writes nicely about by their teaching represent their churches and church bodies (if they belong to one)?

  17. Miguel; really appreciate what you’ve shared here. I share your concern with this kind of ‘church’ practice. My question though is what to say to all the people who will say this kind of discernment is off-base or just plain wrong. You see, if I posted this on FB or shared this kind of thinking in my extended family or church, I can hardly think of one person who wouldn’t express something like this; This is “judging” and “God can/will use this church despite maybe this less than the best” approach or even “No, you’re absolutely wrong in calling this out and this is super what this church is doing; in fact we need more of it! (and basically shut-up you self-hating christian…mind your own relationship-with-Jesus business…”

    What do you say or what kind of questions would you say or ask to get people past this knee-jerk defensiveness whenever anyone dares self-examine evangelical/american churchianity like this?

  18. @Andrew Zook #26
    I’m actually dealing with this in something I’m working on right now, but when somebody says it’s off-base to me, I reply by asking what the Scriptural justification is for their change in direction.

    If we as Christians are people of the Word, then it is by the Word that we conduct church. What justification can be found in Scripture for jettisoning church tradition and parroting the world in the way we operate on Sunday mornings?

    I’ve yet to receive a truly authentic and contextually correct Scriptural response.

  19. Miguel,

    Glad to see you posting here. Good move Pastor Rossow!

    “Having just completed the colloquy program through Concordia, St. Paul, he is scheduled to be commissioned as a Minister of Religion on Reformation Sunday, 2014.”

    … was this basically through our online programs? Because I never saw you on campus here….

    +Nathan

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