James MacDonald pulled an unusual rabbit out of his Easter hat this year. The megachurch pastor preached his Sunday morning sermon on money.
You can view the sermon video here. Start at 2:00 in.
Whatever you think of MacDonald's logic (Easter = freedom, bad money management = bondage, therefore, good money management = good idea for an Easter sermon), is the day the church celebrates resurrection the time to talk finances?
What do you think of MacDonald's connection between resources and resurrection? Appropriate? Absurd? Discuss.
Becoming a Church that confronts, rather than embraces, brand identities.
by David Swanson
It turns out that boycotts are great for business. Last Wednesday Chick-fil-A broke previous sales records as costumers came out it droves to purchase chicken sandwiches and waffle fries in support of the fast food joint. Speaking his mind about marriage may have been the savviest accidental business move CEO Dan Cathy ever made.
Some of the comments on my first post questioned whether there is a connection between the threatened boycott of Chick-fil-A and the power of brands. I appreciate the pushback, but the massive outpouring of solidarity (and dollars) on Chick-fil-A Day makes me think I’m on to something. To recap: when our personal identities become enmeshed with that of a company whose product we love but whose values we come to question, we may experience a crisis of identity. At this point many choose to boycott. Or, in the case of Chick-fil-A Day, others come to the rescue of a corporation they feel represents their values. Either way, the chosen response says a lot about where we find out identities.
More than one comment made the case that supporting Chick-fil-A had nothing to do with identity or branding; rather, it was an opportunity to affirm besieged Christian values. As one person put it, “I don't think we have to find any thing sinister or unhealthy in the Christians who take offense at the attack and react by going to get a sandwich. They are not being commercially ‘branded,’ they are simply expressing themselves in a concrete way on a conviction of deep concern.” Many of Chick-fil-A’s supporters probably share this sentiment but it’s not the whole story.
How a chicken sandwich came to symbolize so much more, and why it's a problem.
by David Swanson
It’s been about two weeks since Dan Cathy, president of Chick-fil-A, made his now infamous comments about marriage during a radio interview. "I pray,” he said, “God's mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we have the audacity to define what marriage is about.” Whatever one thinks of Cathy’s original comments, it’s clear that his words set off a storm of hot air and lightening-fast judgments. My own mayor – rather ridiculously in my opinion – jumped quickly into the fray suggesting that no more Chick-fil-A franchises be allowed in Chicago until the restaurant “reflect Chicago values.”
The Chick-fil-A craziness has reminded me of a summer during college when I interned at a Southern Baptist church in the suburbs of Washington DC. This remains my closest association with the Southern Baptists and it’s one I remember happily despite being regularly reminded that I was a visitor to the SBC culture. This crystallized when I learned of the congregation’s discussion about participating in their denomination’s boycott of the Walt Disney Company. My denominationally unaffiliated self had been unaware of the possibility of a boycott and the reasons behind it.
With the Disney and Chick-fil-A boycotts there are two ideologically opposite groups calling for boycotts on companies that don’t share their values. I’m sympathetic. Abstaining from certain companies or national regimes for dehumanizing and exploitative practices seems a legitimate option. It’s unclear to me whether any participant in a globalized world can rest easy in her ethically pure purchases, but that doesn’t take away from the conscious decision to do less harm.
This market-driven cycle of megachurches, conferences, and publishers results in an echo chamber where the same voices, espousing the same values, create an atmosphere where ministry success becomes equated with audience aggregation. (Thankfully there are outliers like the Epic Fail Conference and the Q Gathering that defy these trends by platforming important, non-celebrity voices.) But there’s a reason you won’t see a flashy conference for the house church movement. And there’s a reason a brilliant, godly, wise, 50-year-old pastor with a gift for communicating, carrying a timely message, and leading a church of 200 in Montana is highly unlikely to get a publishing contract. And even if he does, good luck getting the stage at a conference or any marketing energy from the publisher; their efforts will be poured into the handful of megachurch pastors in their lineup whose book sales pay their salaries. It is exceedingly difficult to break into the club without a large customer base (a.k.a. a megachurch).
Are the publishers evil for focusing on sales potential more than quality? Of course not. They’re businesses that have to sustain themselves. They are simply reacting to the realities of the market. But sometimes they fail to see how they also shape the market by their decisions. And am I saying all megachurch pastors’ books are subpar? Not at all. Some of them are my friends and I’ve deeply appreciated their writings (Dave Gibbons and Tim Keller immediately come to mind.) But we mustn’t be naive--the system is rigged to favor a writer/speaker’s market platform rather than his/her content, maturity, or message.
Behind the rise of today’s pastoral pantheon is a systemic economic force.
by Skye Jethani
Last week Bob Hyatt wrote about the temptations created by the celebrity pastor culture we live in and the harm it causes to our souls. He's not the only one talking about the issue. Both Relevant Magazine and the Together for the Gospel conference are talking about it. The issue I’m referring to is celebrity pastors. Rachel Held Evans’ recent article in Relevant, “When Jesus Meets TMZ,” seeks to explain the rise of celebrity pastors within evangelicalism. (A panel at the T4G conference will address the same topic in April.) Evans’ article does a good job of outlining our corrupt human tendency to make our leaders into idols--a temptation evident from Christianity’s earliest days (see 1 Corinthians 3:21), and which has marked every era of the Church. Before Osteen, Warren, and Driscoll, there were Moody, Spurgeon, and Whitefield. Celebrity pastors are not new.
But what is new is the number of celebrity pastors and the speed with which they are being created/coronated. This is what Evans’ article doesn’t address. Every generation has had a handful of well known pastors, but why are there now so many? What explains the creation of an entire celebrity-class within the evangelical world?
Can spiritual bondage apply to social institutions as well as people?
by Shane Claiborne
There was an occasion in the 60s where a bunch of hippies surrounded the Pentagon and tried to exorcise the demons. It didn’t work. Despite their valiant effort, not much happened that day.
Nevertheless, I am one of those Christians who believes in angels and demons. But I think the traditional Christian understanding of these things needs a major makeover. Seems to me the Tempter comes in many forms, and is just as likely to don a three-piece-suit and wingtips as he is to have horns and a pitchfork. And perhaps the angels look more like the bums in the alley than the feathered white babies on Hallmark cards.
One of my favorite demon stories from the Bible is about a guy named “Legion.” As the story goes, Jesus is walking through an area near the sea of Galilee and meets a dude who is in chains, violently possessed by demons. When asked his name the fellow says, “My name is Legion, for we are many.” Jesus drives the demons from the man into a bunch of nearby pigs that charge into the water and die. And the man is free.
How Christians went from opposing over-consumption at Christmas to demanding it be done in Christ's name alone.
by Skye Jethani
A few years ago I was walking through Woodfield Mall, the largest one in Illinois, just before Christmas. I was disappointed to see that Santa’s grotto, where children waited in line for a brief one-on-one consultation with Mr. Claus, had been transformed into an enormous promotional display for the upcoming movie, Happy Feet.
Apparently the mall’s managers were not bothered that Santa was difficult to see among the huge images of computer generated penguins, and clearly nobody was disturbed by the geographic discrepancy–penguins only live at the South Pole and Santa resides at the North Pole. Sadder to me was the absence of the enormous Christmas tree that had stood at the center of the mall since my childhood. It appeared that Santa had sold his season, and his soul, to Warner Brothers Studios. I was, however, comforted by the irony of the scene–the character that had commercialized Christmas a century ago had fallen victim to his own devices.
Christians have always had a strained relationship with Saint Nick. Although his origins are rooted deeply in church lore, his association with the secularization of Christmas has made him a persona non grata in many churches and Christian communities. But many of us forget that Christmas itself is a holiday of dubious origin. For example, the Puritans were stridently opposed to the celebration of Christmas. They could find no biblical support for the holiday, and they believed (correctly) that it was originally a pagan festival now masquerading as Christian one. This view was widely held in America throughout the 19th Century. In 1855, newspapers in New York reported that Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian churches would be closed on Christmas Day because “they do not accept the day as a Holy One.” And by the 1860s only 18 states officially recognized the holiday.
Consider who is celebrated in most churches. Typically it is the person who is engaged in “full time Christian work”--the pastor or missionary, or people who pursue social causes that result in a big and measurable impact. (Who isn’t talking about William Wilberforce these days?) Similarly, those who behave like pastors or missionaries periodically in their workplace, neighborhood, or perhaps on a short-term trip overseas are praised for these actions. But a church will rarely, if ever, celebrate a person’s “ordinary” life and work.
For example, Andy Crouch tells about a pastor he met in Boston. The pastor recounted the story of a woman in his congregation who was a lawyer for the Environmental Protection Agency. She played a vital role in the clean up of Boston Harbor--one of the most polluted waterways in the country. But the pastor said, “The only time we have ever recognized her in church was for her role in teaching second grade Sunday school. And of course we absolutely should celebrate Sunday school teachers, but why did we never celebrate her incredible contribution to our whole city as a Christian, taking care of God's creation?”
Here’s the problem--when we call people to radical Christian activism, we tend to define what qualifies as “radical” very narrowly. Radical is moving overseas to rescue orphans. Radical is not being an attorney for the EPA. Radical is leaving your medical practice to vaccinate refugees in Sudan. Radical is not taking care of young children at home in the suburbs. Radical is planting a church in Detroit. Radical is not working on an assembly line.
What we communicate, either explicitly or implicitly, by this call to radical activism is that experiencing the fullness of the Christian life depends upon one’s circumstances and actions. Sure, the man working on an assembly line for 50 years can be a faithful Christian, but he’s not going to experience the same sense of fulfillment and significance as the one who does something extreme--who cashes in his 401k and relocates to Madagascar to rescue slaves.
Why the call to radical mission is not the solution to consumer Christianity.
by Skye Jethani
“How radical do I have to be?” the suburban mom asked. She had recently read a number of Christian books decrying the self-centered nature of much of the American church. The authors had apparently had enough of the consumer orientation of their congregations. As a remedy, each of the books calls readers to live a counter-cultural life of radical sacrifice and mission. The books, while inspiring, left this woman feeling “exhausted.”
“I totally agree with the their assessment of the church. We are too self- centered,” she explained. “But how radical is enough? Should I sell my house and car? It is wrong for my kids to be attending a private school? Do I need to move oversees and work with orphans? I want to really experience the Christian life, but now I’m wondering if that’s even possible here in the suburbs.” She was looking for my pastoral advice. What I told her is not what I would have said 5 years ago.
I agreed with her that consumer culture has impacted the way many Christians view their faith. As sociologist Christian Smith has remarked, many Americans view God as a combination divine butler and cosmic therapist. And the church is often seen as a dispenser of religious goods and services for the enjoyment of those who put money in the offering plate. My unease about Consumer Christianity reached a crescendo a few years ago, so I actually wrote a whole book about the epidemic.
But what exactly are we to do about consumer Christians? The solution I hear in many ministry settings, and the one I would have given 5 years ago, is to transform people from consumer Christians into activist Christians.
Shane Claiborne calls for "revolutionary subordination" on tax day.
by Shane Claiborne
Imagine what would happen if a massive popular movement of ordinary Americans decided to voice their concern about military spending – by withholding $10.40 from their 1040 tax forms this year? A simple, small, symbolic, but concrete gesture of protest to the $200,000 dollars a minute being spent on militarism while programs that support life go bankrupt.
A few months ago I gathered in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, with hundreds and hundreds of church leaders to ponder such a thing, and to launch a little project called 1040 For Peace. Many of the folks in attendance were from the Anabaptist “peace church” tradition of Christianity. Mennonites and Brethren, like the Amish, come from the Anabaptist movement, tracing back to the radical reformation of the 16th century. They, along with the Quakers, are known for their commitment to peace, a simple way of life, and for their suspicion of power. They also have a history of war-tax resistance.
Money has power. And so withholding money has power too, especially when a bunch of people do it together. If one percent of U.S. taxpayers held back $10.40 as an act of respectful protest, that’s nearly 1.5 million folks. Movements are like snowballs, they start small but get big pretty fast (as we can see by recent events in Wisconsin and Egypt). And movements grow even faster in an age of Facebook. That's why even the Mennonites are using the internet these days, albeit with a fair amount of caution.
As Christians, we have a particularly subversive example when it comes to economic imagination: Jesus himself.
In light of all the exciting movements addressing world hunger and peace, many with Christians in the forefront, I really believe Christian stores should be pioneers and innovators, rather than chameleons. Selling fair trade coffee is a good start. But we have a long way to go. I just saw an iPod shaped like a cross. Ugh.
Right after I left the bookstore with the military flags, I dropped by an old-school general store (I was in my Tennessee homeland). It was charming to see the vintage lunch-boxes and wooden games, but what struck me aside from the nostalgia was how relevant some of the item at the general store are today. There were books on sustainable living and permaculture, books on urban farming and guides for identifying edible plants. There were books and how-to kits on the Appalachian arts –woodcraft, beekeeping, canning, quilting and pottery – arts that are in danger of extinction. I’m not one to buy lots of stuff at Christmas, but man I was tempted.
I guess that’s also why it’s so fun to go to Amish country for gifts – they seem pure and innocent in contrast to the plastic clutter of the malls. No doubt there are great Christian stores like Ten Thousand Villages, committed to selling stuff that matters, and in ways that reflect the values of Jesus and the dignity of people. But we have a long way to go… and I say “we,” because most of these Christian bookstores sell my books, so my lament is not at them but with them. But I am convinced that if the Christian bookstores continue to go bankrupt, it will not be a matter of accounting but a matter of imagination.
Are Christian bookstores challenging the values of our culture or just copying them?
by Shane Claiborne
I went into a Christian bookstore the other day and was surprised to see some of the most prominent display space given over to military flags for the US Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines. These flags, and a vast assortment of Americana merchandise, were on sale for the holidays.
A part of me ached because I know how difficult it must be to run a little Christian bookstore these days. But I winced as I heard the manager fatalistically confess that he resorted to selling military merchandise to “make it.” It is a sad day when we sell our military banners next to Jesus’ enemy-loving cross to make it in a financial recession. (Before long we’ll be pushing posters of scantily-clad women accompanied by a verse from Song of Solomon).
It’s true that my Christian faith gives me a passion for peace and sets me at odds with militarism. But I think I’d feel a similar dissatisfaction if the last resort for economic survival at our bookstores was selling Home Depot or Wal-Mart gift cards. I just have higher hopes for a distinctive Christian witness in the world today, even in a recession… especially in a recession.
When did ministry simply become a tool for marketing?
by Url Scaramanga
On September 21-22, Steven Furtick preached for 24 hours for an online audience of thousands. The senior pastor of Elevation Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, focused his hermeneutic marathon on the topic of “audacious faith.” And it’s not a coincidence that audacious faith is also the theme of his new book, Sun Stand Still: What Happens When You Dare to Ask God for the Impossible, which debuted the same day.
In a report at The Christian Post Furtick initially stressed that the online preaching marathon was not a gimmick. “he acknowledged he wasn’t a TV preacher or ‘the LaBron James of pastors.’” But the report’s next paragraph says:
Responding to criticisms that he was merely "pimping" his book all day, Furtick admitted he was. But he said he was doing it because he truly believes the message – God's message – in the book will change people's lives.
Are consumer Christians engaging justice and racial reconciliation because they're trendy?
by Dr. Paul Louis Metzger
You can learn a lot about Evangelical Christianity by going into a typical Christian bookstore in a shopping mall. You’ll find scores of how-to, self-help, and church growth books. I doubt you will find many books on reconciliation.
While the church definitely needs good, practical literature on helping individuals and churches grow, we must guard against replacing the gospel of reconciliation with a gospel primarily or exclusively focused on quantitative church growth. In fact, Dr. John M. Perkins prophetically confronted the Evangelical church as far back as 1982, saying that “We have substituted a gospel of church growth for a gospel of reconciliation” (See Perkins, With Justice for All, pp. 107-108). Perkins was speaking primarily of the need for churches to break down racial barriers between people of different ethnicities. With this in mind, it is a welcome sight to find churches like Willow Creek being intentional about welcoming diverse ethnicities (See “Can Megachurches Bridge the Racial Divide?” Time, January 11, 2010). There are vital signs of hope.
The gospel of reconciliation calls us out from affinity groupings based on cliques that intentionally or unintentionally exclude those who are different from us according to race, class, gender, generation, etc. Unfortunately, people don’t just shop in bookstores. Many people inside and outside the church in North America view the church as “a vendor of religious services and goods” (Hunsberger, in Missional Church, p. 84); they look for churches that will “sell” them the religious goods and services that they as individuals and as individual nuclear families want, not what they ultimately need relationally as citizens of God’s communal (and not commodity-) kingdom. We need to be expanded relationally, moved beyond hanging out simply with our “own kind of people,” moving toward being enriched by Jesus’ people from diverse backgrounds, and moving into the realization of God’s kingdom.
Urbanites answer, "What is Consumer Christianity?"
Last month we invited Urbanites to answer this question: What is Consumer Christianity? Your response has been surprising and creative. Some submitted definitions, others sent in pictures that made us laugh and grieve. A few even composed songs and lyrics. Thanks to everyone who participated.
Ur participates in the blog tour for The Divine Commodity with an exclusive excerpt.
Today over twenty blogs are participating in a book tour for Skye Jethani's The Divine Commodity. The fact that Jethani is a card-carrying Urthling is why we felt the Ur audience should participate in the blog tour as well. Below is an excerpt from Chapter 9 of The Divine Commodity where Jethani addresses the assumption that Christ's enormous mission is best accomplished by equally enormous strategies, and how this mindset is rooted in consumer sensibilities. A longer excerpt from the book is also featured in the spring issue of Leadership.
In the coming days we will be announcing a contest in which 50 Urbanites can win a free copy of Jethani's book. Until then, you can click here for a list of the other 23 blogs participating in The Divine Commodity tour today.
The pattern is predictable. A few thousand young church leaders gather at a warm climate resort for two and a half days to have a "life changing ministry experience." They shuffle into the hotel's main ballroom, bags of complementary goodies in hand, where their internal organs are realigned by the worship band's bass-thumping remix of How Great Thou Art. After which the marquee speaker will fire up the audience with a call to "change the world for Christ," "impact a generation with the Gospel," or "spark a revival in the church." Throughout the stump speech, the presenter will wax eloquent about the fate he or she foresees for the new generation of church leaders in the audience. "Your generation will do what mine could not." "You will be the generation to change the world." Convinced of their manifest destiny, the twenty-somethings will head off to breakout sessions where they will learn the skills to impact the world - usually from other twenty-somethings.
I say the pattern is predictable because I've been to a fair number of ministry conferences and I've led my share of breakout sessions, and like most church leaders I've gotten use to hearing the drumbeat of revolution. I call it the Daisy Cutter Doctrine: "Change the world through massive cultural upheaval and high-impact tactics."
My brother and sister-in-law took me to a concert at the Hollywood Bowl while I was visiting Southern California recently. The renowned outdoor amphitheater is nestled into the hills of Hollywood creating a scenic environment for 18,000 people to enjoy an evening of music under the stars. As the sun was setting, the members of the orchestra began taking their seats in the white band shell. The sound of the musicians tuning their instruments was odd. Screeching strings echoed. Blasts came from the wind section. It was chaotic and unpleasant.
Finally, the conductor emerged from stage left. The audience erupted in applause as he took his position on the conductor's platform. He calmly raised his arms over his noisy orchestra. Silence. The time for tuning their instruments was over. After a few moments of quiet anticipation the conductor's arms moved and the soul-stirring music began.
Like an orchestra tuning their instruments, consumer Christianity is producing chaotic and unpleasant noise about God. The prevailing view of God as an alienated commodity has fueled endless pontificating about his ways and character. This noise reveals a failure of reverence toward the one who declared, "My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways?for as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts."
Rather than adding to the noise perhaps it is time for us to finally be silent, be still, and wait in quit anticipation for God to begin a new work. Leopold Stokowski, the composer who founded the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra in 1945, once said, "A painter paints his pictures on canvas. But musicians paint their pictures on silence." Maybe God is waiting for us to be silent long enough so he may begin painting a new picture in our imaginations; to begin transforming our image of a manageable deity into one that can truly inspire.
A video asking us to give presence rather than presents.
Our friends at Advent Conspiracy have produced a truly thought provoking video for this season. Is your church participating in this campaign? I'd love to hear about your experiences. If not, how would people react in your church if you showed this video?
Many people feel that the greatest threat to Christianity today is postmodernity. Others zero in on relativism. Some believe the enemy is secular humanism. And others believe Islamic fascism is the boogey man. I disagree. In my view the greatest challenge facing the contemporary church is consumerism. By that I do not mean consumption. It's not wrong to consume things. In fact, as contingent beings we've been designed to consume for survival. The only human that doesn't consume is one that has reached room temperature, in which case they are now being consumed. (Do I hear "The Circle of Life" in the background?)
The consumerism I'm concerned with is the one that functions as a worldview. It forms the uncontested assumptions of our lives, and when it intersects our faith our perception of worship, mission, church, community, belief, and even God is fundamentally altered. These are all subject I tackle in my forthcoming book, The Divine Commodity (Zondervan, 2009).
One aspect of consumerism that is particularly powerful is branding. (Add to it commodification and alienation and you've got the unholy trinity of consumerism.) Douglas Atkins, author of The Culting of Brands: Turn Your Customers Into True Believers, says, "Brands are the new religion...They supply our modern metaphysics, imbuing the world with significance.... Brands function as complete meaning systems."
Without question one of the most potent brands in America today is Apple, and new research has shown that Apple has achieved the same impact on the human brain as religion.
Christians on the air aren't the only ones guilty of sappy sentimentality.
It's official: I'm tuning out of Christian radio.
When some of the Christian radio stations in my area shifted their play lists from Southern gospel, country Christian and syndicated preaching, I took notice. I was thrilled to have airwave access to what I considered great Christian music. And I found myself tuning in more often.
But even my favorite stations have started losing me in recent months. What led me to reprogram my car radio and cancel my monthly $10 pledges? Three things.
First, I've noticed a growing level of - how shall I say this? - sappiness. Yeah, that's the word. It's not so much the music that's sappy (some of it is); it's the commentary, news stories, and contests that combine to present Christianity as synonymous with sentimentality. I live in a real world that's not always positive and encouraging, so Christian radio's steady diet of sugary spirituality doesn't promote sustaining faith.
In keeping the Out of Ur’s theme this December we’re happy to share with you that our friends at Faith Visuals are offering a series of free Christmas/Advent videos. These vids all focus on consumerism, priorities, and giving. You might find them useful and inspiring personally and for your congregation.
Learning to trust older leaders may protect us from the hype surrounding younger ones.
In part 1, Chad Hall questioned the emergence of popular young church leaders. Through their books, conferences, and postcasts these "new bishops" are attracting a great deal of attention. Hall wondered if their status was the result of their genuine spiritual authority, or the cleaver marketing of Christian publishers. In part 2, Hall suggests ways we can respond to these pastor celebrities without falling prey to the hype.
How can Christ-followers navigate the era of new bishops and guard against theology by marketing majority? Here are a few ideas?
First, let's not forget that faithfulness to God often does entail faithfulness to leaders. Leaders discerning God's movement and directing others toward faithfulness is Biblical. We happen to live in a world where we get to choose our leaders, and we should choose wisely. I hear some ministers today who almost seem unwilling to follow anyone other than themselves. Being your own bishop is not healthy.
Second, let's be savvy in noting the complex relationship between following and consuming.
Who has chosen the new crop of celebrity church leaders—the people or the publishers?
After reporting on Rob Bell's tour last month, Chad Hall has been wondering about the influence of young Christian leaders like Bell. Are these "new bishops" the result of a generation searching for leaders outside traditional church structures, or are they a product of publishers and slick marketing?
I’ve been thinking lately about how influential a few leaders are in evangelical Christian America – especially among younger Christ-followers. Such leaders exercise a tremendous amount of influence on the thought and practice of other church leaders. I’ve come to think of them as the real bishops of today.
Just like the earliest church fathers, today’s bishops earnestly seek to discern what faithfulness is and then dispense their discernment among followers. Oh yes, and just like the old bishops, the new ones sometimes disagree and dispute what it means to be faithful and the dispute can carry over to their followers (as an earlier post re: Rob Bell and Mark Driscoll demonstrated).
So what gave rise to these new bishops? Three primary factors…
First, denominations are waning and few church leaders look to denominational leaders as experts on how to think theologically or practice church ministry well. Even in traditions who ordain bishops, the influence of these leaders to affect the thought and practice of those they serve is diminishing.
A prophetic documentary preaches a message that should be coming from the church.
Last winter Pastor Dave Swanson was Out or Ur's man on the street at the Sundance Film Festival. His reports sparked an excellent discussion about the impact of films on culture and theology. Swanson is back with a review of a new documentary about the evils of consumerism, and he wonders - why isn't the church preaching about this?
I don't remember when or how I first stumbled onto the website for Reverend Billy's Church of Stop Shopping. After watching video clips online of the reverend preaching his anti-consumerism gospel, I wasn't sure what to make of this secular evangelist. The confusion was cleared up last Friday evening after watching the new documentary about Reverend Billy, What Would Jesus Buy?
The film raises important questions, but first a bit of context. Bill Talen was born into a Dutch Calvinist family in the Midwest. After moving to the west coast to pursue acting, Talen developed the Reverend Billy character before relocating to New York City where the character would reach maturity. While other street preachers were condemning the sex shops in Times Square, the Reverend Billy was using his pulpit to preach against consumerism.
Eventually his combination of street performance, activism, and evangelistic zeal attracted enough of a following to loosely form the Church of Stop Shopping complete with an energetic gospel choir. This is where the film picks up the story.
How is your church combating the busyness and materialism of the season?
Last week my wife and I got all of our Christmas shopping done - in one day. This blitzkrieg approach has become a tradition for us. It's like pulling a tooth; better to have the whole thing out at once. In the evening we treated ourselves to a victory dinner at a restaurant. While savoring my accomplishment and my meal, I watched A Charlie Brown Christmas on the television above the bar. Ah, Christmas in America - spend all day battling the crowds at the mall and have Luke chapter 2 recited to you by a cartoon character at night.
Many have lamented the way our culture has "taken Christ out of Christmas," and in recent years we've heard conservative pundits freak out when retailers wish customers a "Happy Holiday" rather than "Merry Christmas." But even for those of us in the church, aware of the season's spiritual significance, and determined to celebrate the advent of the Messiah, this month still poses many challenges. Let's face it, focusing on God in our society is always difficult and the added stress of the holidays only makes things harder.
Four years ago we decided to shift the way our church engaged Advent. We came to see that December posed unique challenges for our people, and if these obstacles were left unchecked they would significantly interrupt our mission to be formed into the image of Christ. For this reason our church is taking some intentional steps to help people commune with God this Christmas in a counter-cultural way.
"The American church as a whole needs to move from selfish consumerism to unselfish contribution. Those are poles apart. To start with a woman who's most interested in how many diamonds she's got in her tennis bracelet, and move her to sit under a banyan tree holding an AIDS baby- that's a giant leap. People in this culture are trained to think about me, me, me; I've got to do what's best for me. Even when we go to church we have this consumer mentality."
-Rick Warren serves as pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California. Taken from "It's Not About Rick" in the Summer 2007 issue of Leadership journal. To see the quote IN context, you'll need to see the print version of Leadership. To subscribe, click on the cover of Leadership on this page.
"I believe certain technologies preclude incarnational ministry. And the reason I believe that is because God became embodied in Jesus. And embodiment means human physical touch; presence. And there are certain technologies that disembody us, like video."
-Shane Hipps serves as the Lead Pastor of Trinity Mennonite Church in Phoenix, Arizona, and the author of The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture: How Media Shapes Faith, The Gospel, And Church (Zondervan, 2006). Taken from the Summer 2007 issue of Leadership journal. To see the quote IN context, you'll need to see the print version of Leadership. To subscribe, click on the cover of Leadership on this page.
Dan Kimball on the history and impact of consumer Christianity.
We caught up with Dan Kimball, pastor of Vintage Faith Church in Santa Cruz, California, and author of They Like Jesus but Not the Church (Zondervan, 2007), at a conference where he was talking to other leaders about consumerism and the church. Kimball says the size of a church isn't what makes it consumer driven, but how the leaders define success.
You've been talking to other pastors about consumerism in the church and the impact it's had on our theology. How do you begin to recognize that impact?
You hear a lot of the complaints and valid criticism about the church being "a provider of religious goods and services," as Darrell Guder says in the Missional Church. I started thinking about my own church and asking could the leadership be the ones who are really guilty of this? How did that happen?
I began to think about our meeting spaces. The early church met in homes where it is easier to participate, people can contribute, can be more vocal, make a meal, whatever. And then worship moved to the Roman basilicas and the format changed. People became more passive, but they still walked around and engaged. After the Reformation pews were brought in and people began to understand church different because they become passive. Expectations of a pastor and a leader become different. People expected us to do things for them.
So how has that translated into the church today?
We've been taught that this is how church goes. This is what you're supposed to do. But now we're making it better and bigger - better seating, better lighting, better sermons, better parking, better children's ministry, better youth ministry. We're simply fueling the whole thing.
The pros and cons of Hollywood marketing more movies at Christians.
Films have been a popular subject on Out of Ur. That might seem odd for a blog devoted to issues facing church leaders. But in recent years films have become a testing ground for evangelical engagement with popular culture - a topic ripe with implications for our philosophy of ministry and approach to mission.
Our colleagues at Christianity Today Movies have a thought provoking article about the lucrative niche market for Christian films. Some of Hollywood's evangelical insiders gathered for a conference in Los Angeles recently to discuss the trend, and CT's Jeffery Overstreet was there. His full report can be read on the CT Movies site, but we've included a few excerpts below.
It is a complicated, difficult, exciting time for Christians involved in movies, TV, and digital media. As Hollywood rushes to capitalize on money to be made in the "faith market," each of the panel's experts has been caught up in the action.
The panelists agreed that Christians must overcome many challenges in order to make faith an acceptable topic in American art and entertainment again. But how should Christians go about that? And are these new "faith-based entertainment" divisions at major studios going to help us?
Shane Hipps on moving toward, against, and away from the culture.
Url: You moved from a career in advertising to pastor a Mennonite church. Is that reflective of a generation that's reacting against consumerism? Do you see a trend of younger people preferring smaller, less market driven, ministries?
Hipps: We are a consumer culture. I am a consumer. I understand that it's insidious and dangerous, but I am still a consumer. That's just how we're shaped. That's the cultural currency. And so mega-churches will thrive. They will always thrive. The emerging church used to say mega-churches are going away. They're not going away. They're predicated on the metaphor of consumerism. And as long as consumerism is the dominant mode of our culture mega-churches will always thrive. Some are saying that this next generation hates that. They don't. They love it.
So if the younger generation is not reacting against consumer church, what are they reacting to?
I make a distinction between three different kinds of consumerism. One is mainstream consumerism; the dominant hegemony that happens in our culture. Mainstream consumerism is mega. Walmart exemplifies this kind of consumerism, as does the mega-church. Boomer consumerism is mainstream consumerism.
Then you have counter consumerism, which is savviness. They are aware that Walmart and [Microsoft] Windows are trying to dominate, and they resist just like they resist mega-churches. But the odd thing is they're no less consumers. They're just counter consumers. A counter consumer buys Apple. It is absolutely consumer driven. They are consuming an identity that says we're different; an alternative from the rest of you.
History reveals the hidden dangers of always seeking relevancy.
To my knowledge this blog hasn't tackled too many issues of church history, so this post may be more "Out of Place" than "Out of Ur." Still, I have found that the past often illuminates my understanding of my faith and the times we all inhabit. In fact, I often use historical illustrations in my sermons. Not long ago, while doing some sermon prep, I was researching Christianity in 16th century Japan (stop yawning). The story of a small group of underground believers caught my attention.
In 1549 the Jesuit missionary Xavier introduced Christianity to Japan. As the church grew rapidly to 300,000 the shoguns became uneasy with the European influence over their country. In 1641, the missionaries were expelled from Japan and Christians were required to register as Buddhists or Shintoists. Those who refused were pursued and executed. The brutal persecution cleansed Japan from virtually all Western influence.
Unknown to the shoguns, however, some continued to hold to their Christian faith. Known as Crypto-Christians, or Kakure, their external lives were indistinguishable from other Japanese. They adopted the practices, forms, and appearances of non-Christians to ensure survival. The Crypto-Christians even constructed Buddhist shrines in their homes with secret compartments where Christian icons and statues were hidden and prayers were offered to the "closet god."
The strategy of adopting Japanese cultural forms to mask their Christian faith continued for 240 years, but this survival plan backfired.
Secular corporations have discovered churches are heaven sent, but can pastors serve both God and marketers?
The Wharton School of Business has posted an article on their online journal, Knowledge@Wharton, about the growing trend of marketing products through churches. In part 2 of the article we hear from some critics of linking business practices and ministry including Jim Collins, author of the business best-seller Good to Great.
The overlap between commerce and Christianity also leaves some churches vulnerable to purely commercial marketing, says Moore, director of the American Studies program at Cornell University. "When you have churches thinking along business lines, receptiveness to sales pitches is just the direction that things go." Megachurches are particularly vulnerable because they are so intent on growth. "Religious organizations actively seeking to grow and expand - raise money, reach new members - do things that are as much secular as religious," Moore notes. "When you have megachurches with huge auditoriums, and lots of stores and schools and gymnasiums inside, it begins to look less and less like a religious place."
Growth is key to megachurch success because large, enthusiastic congregations are what megachurches "sell" to potential members, according to James Twitchell, author of the forthcoming Shopping for God: How Christianity Went from In Your Heart to In Your Face.
Secular companies want to market their products through your church. Will you let them?
A reoccurring issue on Out of Ur has been the effort of secular corporations to market to and through the church. But Leadership hasn't been the only one to notice the trend. The Wharton School of Business recently published an article outlining why companies are adding churches to their marketing strategies. Wharton's online journal, Knowledge@Wharton, was kind enough to allow us to repost the article for church leaders to discuss.
Church pastors last year had a chance to win a free trip to London and $1,000 cash - if they mentioned Disney's film "The Chronicles of Narnia" in their sermons. Chrysler, hoping to target affluent African Americans with its new luxury SUV, is currently sponsoring a Patti LaBelle gospel music tour through African-American megachurches nationwide.
Advertising has begun to seep into churches, and the phenomenon shows no signs of slowing down, say academic, religious and marketing experts. Among the wave of early adopters: the Republican Party, which successfully sold its platform to church-goers in the 2000 and 2004 elections; Hollywood, which discovered the economic power of faith when Mel Gibson's church-marketed film "The Passion of the Christ" became a blockbuster; and publishing, with Rick Warren's best-selling The Purpose-Driven Life, heavily marketed by a Christian publishing house.
Megachurches offer a particularly tantalizing opportunity for those intent on network or "word-of-mouth" marketing, a strategy that capitalizes on social relationships to spread product information and influence purchasing, according to Wharton marketing professor Patti Williams. "Megachurch members are drawn together by a strong common bond. Networks that exist naturally facilitate word-of-mouth marketing, because people tend to share information with those they are close to," she says.
Wal-Mart announced this week they will return the word "Christmas" to their seasonal greetings. Good move, especially given their faithful hick-hop constituency. No more generic salutations that so many of us carped about last year, when many merchants dropped Christ from his own holy day so as not to offend non-believers.
We still have a way to go. The nearby nursery is advertising "Holiday Trees" and the local school is staging a "Winter Pageant" with small children singing, "We wish you a Merry Sparkle Season!" But before we restart the campaign to reChristianize Christmas, would someone please save Thanksgiving?
I thought we had made some progress a couple of years ago when retailer Macy's repented of renaming their annual streetside festival "The Macy's Day Parade," abandoning thanks altogether. But now, it seems to me the beachhead is slipping. This year the radio station in my city that plays wall-to-wall Christmas music plugged in Rudolph earlier than ever. The station manager saw two snowflakes outside his office window at 10 a.m. on November 2 and by noon had switched the format to 24-hour Christmas tunes. True story. Chalk one up for Santa. And the advertising department.
Chrysler has announced it will be showcasing their new cars and SUVs at mega-churches in a strategy to reach more African-American consumers. Chevy used a similar marketing ploy back in 2002 with their trucks. Remember "Chevrolet presents the Come Together and Worship Tour"? What's next, Hyundais at Korean Presbyterian churches? Hybrids at Episcopal churches? BMWs at Joel Osteen's church?
In other news, Eagle Brook Church in Lino Lakes, Minnesota has designed their new auditorium with theater-style cup holders. "Coffee is such a part of our church culture," director of operations Scott Anderson said. "If they're gonna bring it in, they need a place to put it. It was a logistical decision." However, not everyone is excited about the new convenience. Anderson admits that to some in the local press "it doesn't seem very spiritual."
Finally, Rev. Will Bowen of Christ Church Unity in Kansas City, has challenged his congregation to go 21 days without complaining. To help overcome the urge to whine, Bowman has given out 230 purple elastic wristbands. If you complain, the band is switched to the other wrist and you try again. After two months, and to no one's surprise, only one person at the church has achieved the goal - Rev. Bowman.
One of the reoccurring debates on this blog has been whether cultural forms used in ministry are neutral, or do forms possess inherent value that may or may not be compatible with God's kingdom. For example, Andy Stanley shared his conviction that all leadership principles are created by God, and are therefore available for use in the church. I disagreed, arguing that some popular leadership models contradict biblical values. And Shane Hipps has written about the way technology and video preaching impacts the message we are seeking to convey.
Invariably, when the debate over the neutrality of cultural forms arises many people quote 1 Corinthians 9:22 ("I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some"). Well, a video game producer is poised to test your utilitarian philosophy of ministry.
The game, Left Behind: Eternal Forces, is set for release in October, and its already coming under fire from both conservative and liberal Christians. Set in present-day New York City, the game pits the army of the Antichrist against born again Christians. Players are rewarded for winning converts or killing those who ally with the Antichrist.
Christian critiques of consumerism usually focus on the dangers of idolatry - the temptation to make material goods the center of life rather than God. This, however, misses the real threat consumerism poses. My concern is not materialism, strictly speaking, or even the consumption of goods - as contingent beings, we must consume resources to survive. The problem is not consuming to live, but rather living to consume.
We find ourselves in a culture that defines our relationships and actions primarily through a matrix of consumption. As the philosopher Baudrillard explains, "Consumption is a system of meaning." We assign value to ourselves and others based on the goods we purchase. One's identity is now constructed by the clothes you wear, the vehicle you drive, and the music on your iPod. In short, you are what you consume.
This explains why shopping is the number one leisure activity of Americans. It occupies a role in society that once belonged only to religion - the power to give meaning and construct identity. Consumerism, as Pete Ward correctly concludes, "represents an alternative source of meaning to the Christian gospel." No longer merely an economic system, consumerism has become the American worldview - the framework through which we interpret everything else, including God, the gospel, and church.
Thank you Hollywood. Thank you Warner Brothers. Thank you director Brian Singer. Thank you for leaving me and my church alone!
Next week the highly anticipated film "Superman Returns" debuts in theaters. Early reviews are incredibly positive, and some are predicting the return of the original superhero to the silver screen will break box office records. But the web is also chatting about the movie's apparently overt Christian themes. That made me wonder - why didn't I receive any marketing materials at my church? Why no posters, toys for the children's ministry, or helpful super-sermon ideas? Why wasn't America's comic book messiah marketed to Christians?
CNN's entertainment page is running an article titled "Jesus Christ Superman" that discusses the film's Christian credentials. Billed as a sequel to the original movie directed by Richard Donner in 1978, "Superman Returns" has a digitally resurrected Marlon Brando playing Superman's "heavenly" father that has sent is only son to earth as a "light to show the way."
Before entering ministry, Shane Hipps had a career in advertising developing multimillion dollar communication plans for brands like Porsche. It was during his time in advertising that Hipps gained expertise in understanding the power of media, technology, and culture. He left his lucrative career abruptly when he saw it as promoting a counterfeit gospel. Today, Shane Hipps serves as the Lead Pastor of Trinity Mennonite Church in Phoenix, Arizona. His new book, The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture: How Media Shapes Faith, The Gospel, And Church (Zondervan, 2006) is the confluence of his two professions.
Whenever we in the church debate new methods of communicating the gospel, or alternative ways of doing church it ends in a predictable turn. There is a point in these conversations when a person, hoping to end the debate once and for all, says "The methods must change as long as the message stays the same." So it would seem as long as we preserve the unchanging message, any method is fair game. This serves as a kind of evangelical rally cry for methodological innovation.
If they are feeling particularly sophisticated, they may go on to explain that, "Our methods, in and of themselves, are neither good nor evil, it is how we use them that determines their value."
The upcoming issue of Leadership deals with "Consumerism and the Church It Creates." We asked Spencer Burke to write about his journey from being a megachurch pastor to spiritual guide of an online community (TheOOZE.com). Below is a brief excerpt. The full article will appear in Leadership's July issue, along with some of the best of your comments about how we live out the nature of the church today.
When I gave up being a teaching pastor at a Southern California megachurch eight years ago, people around me were perplexed. After all, as jobs in professional ministry go, working at Mariners was a dream--big building, big budget, big salary. What wasn't to like?
Maybe I was burned out, they reasoned, but I'd be back. I was bound to get over my ministry midlife crisis eventually, right? But when months turned into years and I still hadn't been added to anyone's payroll, more than a few eyebrows went up. I kept talking about this online community, TheOoze.com. Sure, it was an interesting idea, but hardly a career move.
When I was leaving Mariners, the buzzword was relevant. It's what every church was striving to be, by changing their music, their marketing, even their ministry philosophy. Today, church leaders are still pursuing relevancy in order to reach more people. When those efforts don't pan out as expected, church leaders are quick to blame "consumerism." The problem? People. They want too much, and they're never satisfied.
Two years ago, Mel Gibson's film, The Passion of the Christ, was marketed heavily to church leaders as "perhaps the best outreach opportunity in 2,000 years." Gibson stunned Hollywood naysayers by pocketing over $600 million as The Passion became the eighth highest grossing film of all time. By targeting churches The Passion may have uncovered the greatest marketing opportunity in 2000 years. But what about the film's spiritual impact - did The Passion deliver?
According to George Barna, it did not. Barna conducted an extensive survey of those who saw the film and concluded:
"Among the most startling outcomes?is the apparent absence of a direct evangelistic impact by the movie?. Less than one-tenth of one percent of those who saw the film stated that they made a profession of faith or accepted Jesus Christ as their savior in reaction to the film's content."
Either The Passion wasn't the greatest outreach opportunity in 2000 years, or churches simply squandered the opportunity it presented.
Jesus' image can now be found on every imaginable commodity from t-shirts to poker chips. But has our material culture made Jesus' invitation to "new life" itself into a consumable product? Jonathan Yarboro, a church planter from Boone, North Carolina, explores the influence of consumerism on our understanding of the gospel and conversion.
I was standing before 200 people at church when I said it: "Salvation is not a walk down the aisle, a prayer, and wham bam, thank you ma'am, you're done." Jaws dropped; some faces turned white; some turned red. I was clueless, so I just kept teaching. It turns out that the phrase, "wham bam, thank you ma'am," meant something different to me than it did to the rest of the world. Afterward some of my listeners enlightened me. I was embarrassed. I didn't intend to equate one's conversion experience to some sort of sexual encounter in the red light district.
Over the last few years, I have pondered the statement, and despite the fact that I originally meant nothing so profound, I believe the statement to be true - we are tempted to turn conversion into something of an act of prostitution. We are the consumers, and we might as well say it - we've turned Jesus' invitation into a seductive, greasy, trick-turning lifestyle. Doesn't that make your blood boil?
I just read about the latest form of oppression: Tivo Tyranny. It's the burden of having recorded too many TV shows, and now finding there's no way you're going to be able to watch them all.
Tivo has a feature that automatically records preselected shows week after week, or day after day, and that's created for some people a backlog that they'll never get through. The convenience of easily recording something now for viewing later has produced it's own overstuffed feeling.
It's just the latest example that, yes, we live in a "consumer culture." And whenever we consume, whether goods, products, or services, we're inclined to overindulge. And each new convenience, promising new kinds of freedom, can lead to its own form of bondage.
How can preachers effectively address people who are surrounded and saturated by their consumer culture?
Advent 2005, rather than a season of peace and good will, may be remembered as a month when cantankerous Christians did battle with the culture and one another. This was the year a Florida church spread Christmas spirit with a billboard that read, "To Hell with Happy Holidays," and Christian activists went to bed with dreams of boycotts dancing in their heads.
But the story that has caused the most uproar on this blog has been the closure of megachurches on Christmas Day. Christian leaders on both sides have defended their positions with vigor and conviction. With Christmas just a few days away, I wanted the final installment of this conversation to be thoughtful, intelligent, and charitable.
Scot McKnight, professor of Religious Studies at North Park University, has insightfully addressed the Christmas closure controversy on his blog. Below are a few quotes from his post.
My suggestion is this: let's be a little more charitable in light of what the NT does and does not say. Let's permit our brothers and sisters, once every seven years, to make decisions that we might not approve of but know that they answer to God, that we answer to God, that it is about worship of God and incarnating the gospel in our world for the good of others and the world.
By now it seems everyone has formed an opinion about the decision of megachurches throughout the country to not hold services on Sunday, December 25th. Some see it as proof that the American church has surrendered to consumerism. Others believe it is simply an exercise in Christian liberty.
Jon Weece of Southland Christian Church in Lexington, Kentucky, has been one of the megachurch pastors at the center of the controversy. After being bombarded with criticism from both the media and church members, Weece preached a passionate and defensive sermon on Sunday concerning the church’s decision to not open on Christmas Day.
The media frenzy over the decision of megachurches throughout the country to close their doors on Christmas day doesn't seem to be dying down, and numerous articles are framing the action as unprecedented. But is that accurate? Although likely unaware of it, megachurches such as Willow Creek and Mars Hill may actually be more in line with church tradition by not conducting worship services on December 25th than those who choose to keep their doors open.
Few seem to remember that America's Puritan ancestors were stridently opposed to the celebration of Christmas. They saw no biblical support for the holiday, and believed the festival was a pagan ritual masquerading as Christian. Even as late as 1855, newspapers in New York reported that Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian churches would be closed on Christmas Day because "they do not accept the day as a Holy One."
Just when I thought commercialism in the church couldn't get any worse I read this from the Philadelphia Inquirer:
Attention, pastors: You have just four weeks remaining to work a lion, a witch or a wardrobe into your next sermon. Walt Disney Pictures is so eager for churches to turn out audiences for The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which opens Friday, that it's offering a free trip to London - and $1,000 cash - to the winner of its big promotional sermon contest.
It seems Disney isn't content with having Narnia merchandise, posters, and books in the church--the Mouse wants a view from the pulpit too.
The following is by Abram Book, Leadership editorial resident, who reported the nationwide Narnia promotion campaign that rolled out last month in Wheaton, Illinois, now the home of C.S. Lewis's wardrobe. OK, one of several such wardrobes. This one has a solid wood back, we're told, behind the fur coats.
The marketing machine for the big C.S. Lewis Narnia movie is just getting cranked up, and they're using all the tactics that made The Passion of the Christ a blockbuster. But as sample marketing materials for use in churches and as preacher's magazines with Narnia covers arrive in our office mailbox, and as attenders at the Catalyst conference for church leaders were treated to Narnia previews and promo tools, we have to wonder, Is the church being used? Or more precisely, How crassly is the church being used?
After a promotional stop that brought C.S. Lewis's stepson and a slew of marketers to the platform of a nearby church in October, I asked Quentin Schultze, professor of communication at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, whether the church's cooperation with Hollywood in movie marketing is a trend.
My hair stylist cancelled my appointment yesterday because of a schedule conflict, and for a few minutes afterward I searched the Internet for the Flowbee, the vacuum-attachment haircutting system that lets you give yourself a buzz cut. (I really, really need a haircut.) Very popular on the infomercials a decade ago, the Flowbee is still manufactured, and if the testimonials are to be believed, still giving great haircuts. But few people are buying them anymore. After a couple of recalls and too many jokes about the product, the Flowbee just isn't selling.
Oddly, the Flowbee reminded me of what Donald Miller said at Catalyst in Atlanta earlier this month. At the pre-conference session, Miller (of Blue Like Jazz and the Campus Confession Booth) pondered the growing consumerism in our society and in our faith. I was prepared for him to deride the consumerist nature of churches, especially megachurches, but I didn't expect this one comment:
We've turned Jesus into a product, and we've become products ourselves. (That's an indirect quote, but it's pretty close to his exact words.)