Photo Courtesy of Calvary Chapel
Megachurches are considered by some Christian leaders to be examples of how Christianity has bowed down to American consumer culture.
Between 1910 and 1915, the Bible Institute of Los Angeles published a twelve-volume series of essays entitled The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth, which would become the basis for the fundamentalist Christian movement. These essays were published in a polemical context in which Christians battled the scientism and historical critical Bible scholarship that seemed to threaten the very existence of our faith.
Today’s polemical context is different. Today’s Christianity has turned into a triumphalist political voting bloc that enshrines middle-class social propriety as the entire content of Christian morality. Today’s Christianity uses megachurches to smother smaller churches the way that Walmart did twenty years ago to the mom and pop general stores that used to exist.
Today’s Christianity has uncritically embraced celebrity culture and become just another niche market defined by the same capitalist forces as the secular world. Today’s Christianity takes the side of those who crucify over those who are being crucified. Today’s Christianity does not think in terms of bearing witness, but protecting its own interests. So it’s against these and other heresies of our day that I define my twelve fundamentals, which I hope to develop into full-length essays of their own and refine according to your critique and feedback. So please read and tell me what redundancies and heresies you see.
1) Mercy, not sacrifice
In two places in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus quotes Hosea 6:6 to the Pharisees: “I desire mercy not sacrifice.” To me, this simple verse is paradigmatic of the whole gospel. Sacrifice is the approach to religion in which I seek to justify myself before God whether it’s through slaughtering a bull, faithfully observing a set of rituals, agreeing with the right set of doctrinal propositions, or, most recently, voting for the right set of issues. American Christianity has become largely a religion of self-justification. This creates an army of self-righteous, nasty people. Mercy, on the other hand, is what happens to me when, instead of justifying myself, I accept God’s merciful justification through Christ’s sacrifice on my behalf. When God’s mercy reigns over me, I renounce the need to be right that is the basic slavery of the human condition. I show mercy to others with the hope that eventually God’s mercy would reign over all humanity so that none of us would seek our justification within ourselves.
2) Trust, not opinion
One of the basic tenets of Protestant Christianity is that our faith in Jesus Christ is what saves us. However, there is a lot of confusion about what this means. Because faith and belief are similar words, many Christians have come to assume that we are saved by having the right set of opinions about Jesus (He was born of a virgin, He died for my sins, He rose from the dead, etc). But the Greek word pistis which we translate as faith is much more about trust than it is about agreeing with a set of propositional statements. Trusting Jesus with our salvation precludes trusting our opinions about Him to do the work of saving us.
3) Mystery, not certitude
The basic difference between God and an idol is that God is infinite while an idol is finite. As human beings with finite minds, the best we can hope for in comprehending God is to remove the obstacles that keep us from fully beholding His beautiful mystery. If we seek to have complete certitude in our knowledge about God, then the object we know everything about is not God, but an idol we have created. The reason we prefer certitude over mystery is because our certitude gives us power over the “god” that it creates.
4) Gift, not reward
It’s pretty incredible how many Christians talk catechistically about God’s grace being an unmerited gift but then act as if what they have received from God is a reward they earned by believing correctly. The way you can tell whether people actually live under grace or not is whether they talk about pulling themselves up by their bootstraps and expect others to do the same. People who see their lives as a perpetual gift from God want for others to also receive gifts that they don’t deserve. It’s impossible for someone truly living under grace to compartmentalize this grace as a purely “spiritual” matter of eternal destiny while the rest of life is supposed to follow a completely different set of rules based on meritocracy.
5) Deliverance, not punishment
I haven’t fleshed this out fully yet, but Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross is the satisfaction ofour need to have peace with God, not the satisfaction of God’s need to punish us. God needs nothing. He is perfect and holy and thus a terror to sinners like us without the assurance that Christ’s atonement provides. The fact of Christ’s punishment on our behalf serves the purpose of our deliverance from fear and the defensiveness of self-justification. God does not need to punish us, but facing His presence will be eternal punishment to us without the gracious means of reconciliation that He has provided. God loves us with infinite intensity, and He provides Jesus’ cross to make His love safe and eternally bearable for us.
6) Kingdom, not stadium
Our purpose as witnesses of Christ is to build the kingdom of God, not to fill the seats of our stadiums. I worry that we have replaced the kingdom with pep rallies and personality cults. The kingdom is a reality that transcends each of our faith communities. As an evangelist, my hope should be not to bring others into “my” church but to help them to see and interpret their lives with kingdom eyes. God’s kingdom is so much bigger than the stadium I’m trying to fill.
7) Journey, not decision
In the 18th and 19th century, Christian conversions often happened in the context of camp meetings and revivals in which preachers had one shot at saving souls. I really think the hellfire and brimstone theology we’ve inherited is based upon the 19th century need to terrorize listeners into despairing and throwing themselves on the mercy of God since the circuit riding preacher could only come through town ever so often. The result of this one-shot approach to conversion is the idea that salvation happens at a single instant in time as the result of a decision rather than a journey of turning one’s life from slavery to sin into slavery to Christ. But if God saves me as the result of a “decision” that I make, then this calls into question whether it’s really unmerited grace or a reward that I earn through my decision. I consider it much more accurate to think of salvation as a journey of awakening into the riches of God’s mercy.
8) Restoration, not escape
This will end up being mostly a recapitulation of what NT Wright said in Surprised by Hope. For far too long, Christians have justified a nihilistic attitude about our world with the pious-sounding statement that “we’re just pilgrims with a home in a different place.” Everything in the Bible says that God’s kingdom is not an escape to somewhere else, but a reign that will be restored “on Earth as it is in heaven.” The resurrection of Jesus Christ foretells God’s re-creation of the heavens and the Earth. We are called to live in God’s new reality right here right now, not to wait for what Woody Guthrie called “pie in the sky by and by.”
9) Servanthood, not leadership
Churches today are obsessed with the concept of leadership. Every pastor is supposed to give a William Wallace speech every Sunday that casts a perfect vision that hypnotizes people into serving God and their neighbor in a way that snaps perfectly into place according to the congregation’s missional context and its pool of gifts. Do we ever worry that our emulation of the corporate world rubs against Jesus’ injunction in Mark 10 not to lord it over each other like the Gentile princes? We try to get around this problem by clipping the word “servant” onto the front of leadership, but “servant leadership” has no meaning if it is not most essentially servanthood and not leadership. The best leader I can be is one who serves the vision God has cultivated among His people so translucently that Jesus’ disciples realize they’re following Him and not me.
10) Weakness, not power
Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 10 that “God’s power is made perfect in our weakness.” And yet Christians today uncritically seek worldly power. The measure of a pastor’s legitimacy, for instance, is defined strictly according to worldly power: the size of your audience (yes, I’m a slave to this rubric like many of my peers). It’s intoxicating to have the kind of power that evangelical Christians have in our society today, but it’s also an enormous counter-witness to the gospel. The first Christians were “cut to the heart” in Acts 2 not because they were attracted to a wildly successful young singles program but because they were moved by the tragic beauty of the cross. The cross is no longer “foolishness” to today’s Christians because it has been packaged it into a Powerpoint-friendly doctrinal formula which conceals the radical weakness that is its power.
11) Vulnerability, not inerrancy
The holiest people I know often seem uncertain about whether they’re right or wrong. I don’t think they are just being disingenuously self-deprecating. It actually makes sense that the closer you get to God, the more acutely you would be aware of your inadequacies. Based on my encounter with holy people today and among the church’s historical saints, I don’t think the goal of holiness is to become perfectly unimpeachable in what we say and do. That is the pharisaic approach that only leads us to bitter, fearful self-justification. The goal is rather to become perfectly vulnerable before God and others, destroying all the insecurities that make us defensive so we can be nothing but an instrument of the Holy Spirit.
12) Emancipation, not conquest
For most of the past 500 years, Western Europeans have used the pretext of “evangelism” to justify conquering and enslaving other nations of people from Africa, Latin America, and Asia in particular. The goal of true evangelism is emancipation not conquest. As long as I need to be superior to the person I share the gospel with, what I am doing is imperialism and not evangelism. If my evangelism is truly about spreading the emancipation that Christ has provided, then it shouldn’t bother me if I am evangelized myself. God is constantly evangelizing and emancipating all of us, using believers and non-believers alike to turn us to Him.