Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Disappearing God

In the first chapter of Romans, the Apostle Paul writes that in Creation the "invisible attributes" of God "have been clearly perceived." That being the case, it is sadly ironic that He is so difficult to locate in many churches. Of course, the trouble is not that God is not in the churches. The Psalmist pointed out that even if he descended into Hades, that God was there, so surely He must be even in contemporary American churches. However, He has largely disappeared from the proclamation of many of those same churches, and that is a tragedy.

This musing arises from the receipt in today's mail of a glossy brochure from "Fellowship of the Parks," which seems to be a church meeting in Keller, Texas. I say "seems to be," because they never actually refer to themselves as a church. In fact, having received brochures from this entity every couple of months for some time now, I have noted the fact that these marketing pieces carefully avoid mention of anything that would identify Fellowship of the Parks as a Christian entity. They avoid any references to God, Jesus Christ, the Gospel, salvation, or the death or resurrection of Jesus. After receiving a brochure just before Valentine's Day inviting visitors to learn more about love, my wife and I had a lengthy discussion as to whether a mailing sent before Easter would manage to mention any themes related to the death or resurrection of Christ. Today, we received our answer: it did not.

Of course, a marketing brochure does not tell one everything about an organization, and one might note that the doctrinal beliefs asserted on the church's website are broadly evangelical and orthodox (though I could not subscribe to all of their beliefs). However, an organization's marketing does tell what it believes it has to offer to its customers (a word I am using both advisedly and with disapproval). Evidently, Fellowship of the Parks does not think that its beliefs about the Bible and Christian teaching represent a value to the public. While one might argue that they offer these teachings once they have hooked people in, this strikes me as an enormously dishonest bait and switch.

The current brochure does not contain any Christian content, though it does invite us to a "five part series" on a common religious, including Christian, word: disciple. However, even their introduction of that term invites us to think about discipleship in non-Christian ways. It advises us that "living the life of a disciple calls us to a relentless pursuit of something better." Really? Did not the Apostle Paul tell us (in Philippians 3) that he had given up his relentless pursuit of something better so that he might gain Christ?

No doubt, the Fellowship of the Parks would strongly disagree with the suggestion that they are legalistic, and they would be correct that they are not legalistic in the way that churches commonly were a generation ago. But read that sentence from the previous paragraph again and tell me whether it conveys a message of what one might call "legalism-lite." Some of us as children were taught to sing, "We are climbing Jacob's ladder," by adults who managed to ignore the fact that Jacob never climbed his ladder. Rather, heaven came down the ladder to him. The vague, spiritual pursuit of "something better" often ends in disappointment and burnout for those who fail to realize that we in fact must rest in the work that Christ has already finished. It is His sinless life, substitutionary death, and victorious resurrection that provides the foundation of what it means to be a disciple.

Churches that shroud biblical categories in favor of the modern rhetoric of motivation, self-help, and therapism argue that they are making themselves relevant to modern hearers. However, in their effort to be currently relevant, they all too frequently render themselves eternally irrelevant. Of course, these churches are popular. However, C.S. Lewis noted that children making mudpies in the streets sometimes cannot imagine the joys of a vacation at the beach. May God grant believers a vision of churches offering more than mudpies.

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