Yesterday, I promised that the last few posts here before I go on break for a month would be incendiary. Thus begins the fire…
Those familiar with Cerulean Sanctum know that one of my pet peeves is making Christianity into a set of “either/or” dichotomies. One of my favorites to skewer is the classic “Doctrine or Good Works” silliness that seems to be the hallmark of great swatches of the Godblogosphere. In fact, I would say that “Doctrine or _______” is the classic formula for most of these false dichotomies.
But as I get older, one true “either/or” emerges as so unyieldingly true that it functions as the bellweather of what we in America consider right and good. Unfortunately, I believe we fall on the wrong side of the either/or.
In recent days, there have been two great posts over at The Thinklings, one of the first blogs I linked to here at Cerulean Sanctum. The first includes a quote from Soren Kierkegaard on Christian scholarship:
The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world? Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.
The second post discusses all the “young dudes” and quotes a well-known pastor on how the Church in America can’t live without them:
The problem in the church today is just a bunch of nice, soft, tender, chickafied church boys. 60% of Christians are chicks and the 40% that are dudes are still sort of…chicks. It’s just sad.
We’re looking around going, How come we’re not innovative? Cause all the innovative dudes are home watching football or they’re out making money or climbing a mountain or shooting a gun or working on their truck. They look at the church like that’s a nice thing for women and children. So the question is if you want to be innovative: How do you get young men? All this nonsense on how to grow the church. One issue: young men. That’s it. That’s the whole thing. They’re going to get married, make money, make babies, build companies, buy real estate. They’re going to make the culture of the future. If you get the young men you win the war, you get everything. You get the families, the women, the children, the money, the business, you get everything. If you don’t get the young men you get nothing.
At first glance, they seem unrelated. But that’s only because we’re missing the true “either/or” here.
Jesus makes that dichotomy clearer:
Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you.
—John 6:27a ESV
The “either/or” I’m talking about here is money or ministry.
When we wonder why the Church in America is so ineffective compared with the Church in other nations of the world, the reason can be summed up simply: we chose money over ministry.
Many Christian writers have lamented the increasing loss of men in our churches. We’ve got books seeking to explain why men are bored with church. Great minds wrestle with the malaise that’s settled over the typical Christian male in America. Not that I’m a “great mind,” but I’ve talked about this in great detail, too. (See the post category “Men” in the sidebar.)
This is where Kierkegaard comes in. We talk and talk and talk about ministry, but we don’t do any (at least not much that amounts to anything like what you see in China or South America right now), for no other reason than it forces us to decide the question of money or ministry. So we numb ourselves to the reality of what the Bible repeatedly says on this issue because if we come to the conclusion that ministry comes first, our neat little Christian American world straight out of a Thomas Kinkade painting MUST come to a crashing end. Or as Soren so ably notes: “My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world?”
To the “dude” mentioned in the other quote above, choosing ministry first means an end to the fast track to the corporate boardroom. It means obscurity and lack of earthly success and worldly power. It means no bestselling book on how it was done MY WAY. It means no pneumatic, bleach-blonde trophy wife; no McMansion; no 401k; no vacation home in the Bahamas; no outrageously fast sports car or freeway-churning, Mini-Cooper-consuming, 4×4 SUV; and it means a whole lot less of everything that America has come to stand for in the beginning of this new millennium.
Choosing ministry scrambles everything that “prominent pastor” wants to leverage. The hotshot young men he claims he wants so badly will be boat anchors in his church because they already made the choice and money came up the winner. Sure, these young dudes may conjure up some business-variant church program that will look good for a couple years in the church before it sinks, fruitless, into oblivion, but then what?
The real men who chose ministry? Few limelighters want them. Ministry isn’t sexy. It looks bad on a résumé. The world considers Christian ministry and thinks, What a massive waste of time.
Sadly, that’s what 99.9 percent of Christian men in America think, too. And it’s one of the reasons they’re bored, and why the Church is so ineffective.
The man who chooses money first MUST spend all his waking moments doing everything he can to ensure the steady supply of money comes in. What ministry can he possibly do? Something’s gotta give and it’s the ministry.
It’s not all the men’s fault, either. The juxtaposition of Christianity and shopping that seems so natural in the lives of so many Christian women has much to explain why Christian men chose money first. You can’t read a blog by Christian women and not stumble upon the criteria they use to judge a man to be a proper Christian husband, the first being—always—that he be a good provider.
But when did being a provider get the “good” modifier? And what determines “good”? Is that the difference between a no-name handbag from WalMart versus one from Saks with a Versace label on it? To butcher the title of a famous novel, the devil may wear Prada, but so do a lot of Christian women.
It’s hard to avoid the strange Evangelical definition of manhood we’ve developed. Evangelicals affirm that men are called to be the prophets, priests and kings of their household, but a lot of Christian women have tended to de-emphasize the prophet aspect of it to focus on the king—or perhaps that should be “captain of industry,” instead. Yet what soul-stirring, repentance-laden prophetic message can be expected from a man who’s always thinking, How can I make more money so my wife can buy more of the stuff that makes her happy?
The best blog entry of 2006 goes to Michael Spencer over at Internet Monk. In fact, I would go so far as to say that his post “American Idolatry: The Good Life” is the single best blog post I’ve read in five years of blog reading. There is NO HOPE for the Church in America if we don’t start saying yes to ministry and no to money. God’s taken His Spirit elsewhere, and not only do we not realize it, we simply substituted Him for whatever our money could buy. (Although that’s been tried before—unsuccessfully: Acts 8:18-24.)
Now you might find this odd in light of last week’s posts, but honestly, I’m not immune to this problem. I freely admit that I’m trapped in the middle of this either/or. It eats at me day and night. What scares me is that for all those Christians who choose ministry over money, they won’t find support from other American Christians because other Christians can’t understand their rejection of money. That’s primarily because those others don’t have their hearts and minds focused on eternity. They’re focused on the moment because, in their own view, Christ simply isn’t compelling enough to warrant so extreme a response.
But the response is EXTREME. It means death. The cross says, Now here you die, here and now. All your desires, all your hopes, all of you. It also means real life. Have we tasted it?
We talk about counting the cost. It’s great talk. Everyone feels good talking about it because it sounds spiritual, makes us look devout, and smacks of ministry. But then, as Kierkegaard so ably notes, we go back to our cushy, monied lives, look in the mirror, and then immediately forget what we look like.
But God knows.
God help us.