Plugging Mockingbird

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In an age that too often passes off legalistic moralism as “The Gospel,” even in supposedly Gospel-centered churches, it’s refreshing to find a source of genuine Law/Gospel preaching. Add to this that the preaching in this case is young, intelligent, hip, and conservative Episcopalian (yes, shocking, I know!), well, it’s worth sharing.

Mockingbird (mbird.com) was born in 2007 in the heart of David Zahl and a couple of his friends as a way to reach disaffected, young, urban hipsters. They not only succeeded, they drew in a few old, rural charismatics too. ūüėČ The site consists of intriguing writing that covers contemporary culture, events, lit, and music, and it offers some truly excellent preaching podcasts. They even publish a slick quarterly.
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Most of all, the Mockingbird crew tackles 21st century life in a way that is astute, grace-filled, humble, and relevant‚ÄĒa combo sorely needed in the modern American church. I’ve found the preaching of Jacob Smith, in particular, to be some of the best I’ve ever heard.

Yes, the writing occasionally strays into East Coast literary journal-like esoterica, and love for certain aspects of culture sometimes exceeds its quota (if you don’t consider Seinfeld¬†genius, well…), but overall, this is a great resource. Nothing thrills me more than to hear other Christians talking about the kinds of topics I tackle here at Cerulean Sanctum. I don’t agree with their take on everything, but even when I don’t, it still gets me thinking‚ÄĒand Gospel-driven thinking in the American Church should be something we celebrate.

Russell D. Moore’s “Farewell, Cultural Christianity,” the Dones / De-Churched, and the Gospel

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A long-time reader, Robert, pointed out an excellent article in Christianity Today’s Leadership Journal, “Farewell, Cultural Christianity” by Russell D. Moore, one of the Southern Baptist Convention’s leaders and rising stars. As they say, read the whole thing.

The gist: Recent changes in American culture will¬†shake the American Church but in a positive way, forcing out nominal Christians who drain the Church’s vitality, and leaving us with an energized remnant. While this is not a new idea, the article has some good insights. Moore¬†notes¬†churches have focused too much on delivering a Gospel of self-help that appealed 20 years ago to lost people but not today, which is true. He also notes that our past political engagement and “values voting” are¬†obsoleted by an America that learned to value other ideas more. Again, worth the read.

I like Moore. He’s not afraid to say it like it is and to question sacred cows. But as much as the article makes good cases, it reveals¬†blinders representative of many leaders in the American Church.

This passage is telling:

Those who were nominally Christian are suddenly vanished from the pews. Those who wanted an almost-gospel will find that they don’t need it to thrive in American culture. As a matter of fact, cultural Christianity is herded out by natural selection. That sort of nominal religion, when bearing the burden of the embarrassment of a controversial Bible, is no more equipped to survive in a secularizing America than a declawed cat released in the wild. Who then is left behind? It will be those defined not by a Christian America but by a Christian gospel.

He’s absolutely right about nominal Christians. They’re dropping out. What he misses entirely though is that those who are leaving our churches are not all nominal Christians.Leaving, walking out of churchurch In fact, it can be argued that the exodus contains a frighteningly large percentage of those who are our most devout believers, the so-called¬†Dones or De-Churched. You can read about them all over the Web.

These are not nominal, cultural Christians. These are the folks who worked in the nursery for years, veteran Sunday School teachers, elders, the 20%, seasoned missionaries, and even pastors. It’s not that they’ve lost their faith. It’s that the present way we do church in America became too taxing, stifling, lonely, frustrating, and debilitating, and it¬†left them with no other choice than to walk away–for their own spiritual,¬†mental, and physical health.

We must ask this: Is the empty pew a result of cultural Christians fleeing genuinely Gospel-centric churches, or is it the result of Gospel-centric Christians fleeing culture-centric churches? My bet is the latter is just as big, if not a bigger, reason. And doesn’t every church leader think his/her church is¬†Gospel-centric? Who then will own up to the present exodus of Gospel-centric Christians?

It’s frustrating to read the Moore piece and think he’s ignoring the Dones / De-Churched or that he’s lumping them with the nominals and saying, “Good riddance.” But the lack of mention is telling. Again, this is someone who leads America’s largest denomination. The blame instead shifts to¬†those who left, with little¬†reflection on those who once led them. Convenient.

Moore ends his article with this statement:

The shaking of American culture will get us back to the question Jesus asked his disciples at Caesarea Philippi: ‚ÄúWho do you say that I am?‚ÄĚ

I think Moore is misunderstanding again.

While Who do you say that I am?¬†was definitely a question for those who once had never heard of Jesus Christ, it’s one¬†most Christians have resolved over the past 2,000+ years. (Whether they do anything with the answer is a whole ‘nother issue.)

But the real question, the one at the heart of the church exodus, whose mis-answering has plagued the American Church for the last 100 years or so, is this: What is the Gospel?

The term moralistic, therapeutic deism defines a good chunk of the central teaching of many churches in America. It’s Old Testament Law wrapped in an American flag and the Protestant Work Ethic, then blessed by Oprah Winfrey and Sigmund Freud. But it’s not the Gospel. Some may call it the Gospel, but it’s actually anti-Gospel.

Personally, I think the exodus of devoted Christians from the American Church is as much due to a failure to have the Gospel preached to them as it is with anything else. People have had it with performance-based Christianity. Grace, the very heart of the Gospel, may be the single most lacking element in American Christianity. That dearth ultimately drives away those who need grace the most.

Sadly, even churches and leaders who claim to be Gospel-centered fall back on preaching a¬†moralistic melange when it directly benefits them. The resulting confusion further alienates¬†the most discerning, those¬†who can’t reconcile mixed messages, especially those messages proclaimed in the name of God.

If Moore wants to say farewell to the flee-ers in a way that honors God, as a denominational leader, he needs to own up to the American Church’s hand in creating not only the nominal, cultural Christian, but also the Dones / De-Churched. Until then, church leaders around this country will have no answers to stemming the exodus, continuing to preach a pseudo-Gospel to the self-justified for which they will one day answer.

Therefore, We Will Not Fear

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God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way,
though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble at its swelling. Selah
–Psalm 46:1-3

Broken mirror, fear“Therefore, we will not fear…”

I don’t know why so many Christians today live in fear. But then again, I do know.

It is American to want to be in control. Our national psyche reflects maintaining what we have accumulated for ourselves. Protecting. Guaranteeing.

You see it on days that celebrate our soldiers, both those living and those dead. We console ourslves by saying they made the sacrifice to ensure freedom. The oddity in this is that ensuring freedom is also ensuring control.

It is also true that one man’s freedom is another man’s control, and nothing drives fear into our hearts more than to see our control give way to what another man considers his freedom.

And then the mountains begin to move, and both men realize that control is an illusion. And now both fear.

I don’t know when Christians in America began to fear so much, but I think the postmillennialistic triumphalism that was the hallmark of the American Church of the 19th century was disabused by the events of World War I. That the world could descend into such madness despite all our positive work to better ourselves! We lost control and failed most inhumanly. I think that nothing has been the same for us as a Church ever since.

Here’s the thing: Christians, more than anyone, should be sober people. We understand the nature of fallen men. We understand evil. We have a Gospel that tells us that we were incapable of controlling ourselves in a way that could save us. Only God in Christ had that level of control. Our salvation, even though He looked like us, came from outside of us. We could not save ourselves. We are not in control.

There is something about the American Church of the last 50-60 years that has been loathe to admit that we are not in control, even though we should understand this better than others. The Culture Wars we waged were always more about maintaining control than they were about actual sin.

Even today, as we see God’s symbol of the rainbow co-opted by those who rail against Him, their victories portrayed as our supposed losses, we are as fearful about what this loss of control means as we are about the sin that fuels it.

Into this, God speaks to the Christian soul and reminds us that even moving mountains should not be a cause for fear. His perfect love casts out all fear. He reminds us that fear is, indeed, the opposite of love.

Christian, never fear.

I can tell you that with words, but what is true is that drawing closer to God is they only way to live without fear. Draw close and trust. God is never surprised, and He is in control. Only He remains unmoveable, and when we abide in Him, we are as well.