Tag Archives: Culture

Relevance Kills: Rob Bell and Pyrrhic Victory

Me and Rob in 2010 at Duke.
Me and Rob in 2010 at Duke.

Relevance destroys.  You can sell a lot of burgers, but that makes you McDonalds.  Your album went triple platinum? The Spice Girls have you beat.  I fear that the once-respected evangelical pastor Rob Bell is becoming a spiritual McDonalds, a pop shadow of his former self.  Will he serve billions and billions more? Likely. But a burger made for the masses is neither tasty nor nutritious (nor a burger).

First things first.  I genuinely have affection for Bell.  I showed Nooma videos to my young adults.  I defended him when those with no sense of doctrinal history condemned him for age-old questions asked in Love Wins.  I saw him speak live at Duke and even got my picture taken with him. (He’s much taller than me.)

But I was saddened to read a recent interview with him by RNS.  I can live with controversial, envelope-pushing popular Christian reflection. I can tolerate the hipster glasses and skinny jeans.  But getting in league with Oprah and her army of overhyped pseudo-experts? This is a bridge too far.

Think about the other personalities under Oprah’s corporate umbrella:

  • Dr. Phil McGraw, a straight-talking Texan who dispenses counseling mints to millions of homes a week, making the frightening and deep inner work of therapy look as simple as talking to your local rodeo clown.  While McGraw does have a legitimate doctorate in clinical psychology, he has not been licensed to practice in any state since 1989.  (Imagine me offering advice on the church, pastoral care, and theology if my denomination had severed ties with me over 20 years ago!)
  • Dr. Mehmet Oz, a leading surgeon whose television success came at the expense of putting  his stamp on all kinds of snake oil backed by psuedo-science.  Some of his claims about phony weight loss products were so egregious that the US Senate got involved (because priorities).

In both instances, their relevance to mass audiences have taken legitimate concerns (physical and mental health) and commodified them to the point of tragicomedy.

A few years ago, I would have thought Bell a poor fit for such company, but now I am less certain.  Perhaps burned from the (admittedly ridiculous) backlash following Love Wins, Bell has essentially abandoned the church:

Now resettled near Los Angeles, the couple no longer belongs to a traditional church.  “We have a little tribe of friends,” Bell said. “We have a group that we are journeying with. There’s no building. We’re churching all the time. It’s more of a verb for us.”

I wonder what the thousands of people who came to faith under Bell’s ministry at Mars Hill think of this? Personally, I would feel as if I’d been sold a bag of magic beans.  To think of it another way: the guy who so smoothly and confidently convinced you to buy a Honda is now driving a Fiat.

Rob Bell’s obsession with relevance – the desire to “matter” to the concerns and questions of contemporary culture – turns out to have been an invitation to entropy.  Bell is now so relevant that he seems to have little interest in Christianity.  Last year, in a speech at Vanderbilt University, he introduced himself as everything but a pastor, and didn’t mention his former calling until about 20 minutes in.  Moreover, when asked by RNS about working with Oprah, a notorious consumer from and promoter of the buffet of quasi-spiritualities, he responded:

“Is she a Christian? That word has so much baggage, I wouldn’t want to answer for someone. When Jesus talks about the full divine life, you think, this is what he’s talking about.”

I have no idea when Jesus talked about “the full divine life,” except when speaking about himself.  If the price of cultural relevance is that the “baggage” of a basic descriptor like ‘Christian’ is too much to palate or the particularity of the Son of God is an embarrassment, then it is time to stop making a fool’s bargain.

Rob spent a church building a career career building a church that was “relevant.”  The threshold for entry was low; it didn’t look, talk, or feel like “church,” and people responded in droves. Bell, in turn, built his brand on identifying with the non-religious and skeptic folks who were turned off by anything too obviously Christian.  But now, it appears, he has gone native.

dr philA pyrrhic victory is one which is too costly to be considered a legitimate win.  Bell’s trajectory shows clearly that the cost of cultural acceptance – the cost of relevance – is too high to pay.  The relevant pastor and the relevant congregation will find much success, as the world defines it.  But in earning that victory, it appears that one becomes so co-opted that the costs outweigh the benefits.  Looking back to the Civil War, we might consider the example of Confederate General Robert E. Lee constantly defeating Ulysses Grant’s attacks with superior tactics, but unable to sustain the campaign in the face of the superior resources of the North, who could afford the losses.  Likewise, pastors and churches who win the battle for relevance soon realize the long-term costs are far higher than first anticipated, and will then often find themselves co-opted beyond all restoration by the world they were trying to reach.  Playing to consumerism ends up consuming you.

Rob Bell is our next Dr. Phil, an expert whose expertise has been twisted to relevant, market-driven agenda.  He has gone from a pastor, a guide of souls, a preacher of the gospel, to just another space filler in Oprah’s cubby of spiritual shills.

A pyrrhic victory, if ever there was one.

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Everyone Doesn’t Get a Trophy

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If you aren’t old enough to spell “graduation,” you probably don’t need to get dressed up.

I’ve been seeing an onslaught of graduation pictures.  It seems like there is no stage of life nowadays that doesn’t get a diploma, robe, and funny hat.  My Facebook has been blowing up with this stuff lately.  Other than my own silly annoyance, why does this matter?

Because celebrating achievements that are expected sets a bad precedent. Because if you do something every other year it becomes less and less important, thereby downplaying the real academic achievements that come later.  Such graduations seem to function much like children’s moments in many churches: it’s more for the parents than the kids, and serves no real purpose given the time and resources expended.

In life, everyone doesn’t get a trophy.  Yes, all children are special and precious and made in the image of God.  But excellence is not built on easy victories, and celebrating such faux milestones does no one any favors.

Parents and educators out there, am I way off base? I’d love to be shown how I am wrong.  In the meantime I will dread, once I do have children, sitting through such ceremonies.

The Entitlement Plague in the Church

From Bishop Grant Hagiya’s brand-spankin’-new book:

“This leads to another deep-seated systematic constraint of The United Methodist Church, and perhaps other denominations: namely, the culture of entitlement over service in ministry.  With the professionalization of ministry in North America and the setting aside of full-time vocationally compensated clergy members, a culture of entitlement over service has crept into our clergy orders.  It works in two ways, one for the clergy and one for the laity of local churches.  As it plays out for clergy, there is a built-in expectation of a livable salary and accompanying benefits for full-time ministry.  Because The United Methodist Church currently has a guarantee of full-time ministry employment for life in its polity, there is the expectation of that entitlement by the clergy.  As it applies to the laity, there is the built-in expectation that they will receive a full-time minister, even if they cannot sustain the cost of that minister.” (pp. 64-65)

It would not be difficult to twist this into a screed about a culture of entitlement writ large over 21st century Western life, but that is not my purpose here.  Rather, it is to name what is a great part of our problem in the church: entitlement.  While the above quote hints at the entitlement mentality of churches (and he does develop it somewhat), as a pastor I want to focus on the clergy.

General Conference 2012 was disappointing in many respects.  I remain hopeful that some lessons will be learned and that meaningful changes can grow from the seeds planted last year.  What we know is that the one meaningful thing that passed – ending the (yes, admittedly, “so-called”) guarantee of appointment – was later rejected by the Judicial Council.

As Bishop Hagiya concludes, “entitlement has become embedded in the fabric of the church culture itself.”  Culture doesn’t change overnight, and evidence suggests it may not change from the top down.  It starts with me and with you, it starts with a focus on the responsibilities of the gospel and not just the benefits of the church.  Changing the culture of entitlement means focusing more on my duties and my God-given call as a pastoral leader than my rights as a member of the clergy; it means thinking more about what I owe (and to Whom I owe it) than what I am owed.

One person, one church, one conference at a time.  That is how the entitlement plague ends.  As the old hymn goes, “Let it begin with me.”

Can a pastor commit adultery with culture?

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A British Methodist pastor plans to tweet Holy Communion to his flock.

Social media, as Steve Thorngate points out, has its uses.  But this is ridiculous.

Pastors get defrocked for adultery, theft, and all other manner of crimes against civic order.  What about crimes against Church?  Abuse of the sacrament?  Can culture be considered a mistress?

Says the pastor:

“The perception of church is often that it is rusting away in antiquated buildings and not in touch with the world around us, but this is a statement that we’re prepared to embrace the technological revolution.”

This is offensive on a number of levels, least of all its fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the sacrament itself.  And he’s a Methodist!  Evangelical though he was, John Wesley would not stoop to the level of compromising the dignity and beauty of the sacrament to “reach” people.

May God make us all Catholic or Orthodox if we keep abusing His Church in this manner.

And tell me, would the man who penned these words condone such an abuse of the Eucharist?

As our bodies are strengthened by bread and wine, so are our souls by these tokens of the body and blood of Christ. This is the food of our souls: This gives strength to perform our duty, and leads us on to perfection. If, therefore, we have any regard for the plain command of Christ, if we desire the pardon of our sins, if we wish for strength to believe, to love and obey God, then we should neglect no opportunity of receiving the Lord’s Supper; then we must never turn our backs on the feast which our Lord has prepared for us. We must neglect no occasion which the good providence of God affords us for this purpose. This is the true rule: So often are we to receive as God gives us opportunity. Whoever, therefore, does not receive, but goes from the holy table, when all things are prepared, either does not understand his duty, or does not care for the dying command of his Saviour, the forgiveness of his sins, the strengthening of his soul, and the refreshing it with the hope of glory.

-From “The Duty of Constant Communion,” by John Wesley

Kanye: A symptom, not a disease

The outrage over Kanye’s recent antics at the MTV movie awards are largely an exercise in missing the point: the problem is not Kanye, the problem is us.  We; you; me; us; our kids; our brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews…we all allow people of Kanye’s caliber to amass millions of dollars and have a profound impact on the lives of our young people.

Contra the President, who self-reverently called us “the ones we have been waiting for,” we should be pointing the fingers at ourselves.  This is simply further evidence of a sick culture.  Many artists have problems, but traditionally even artists with problems can show a modicum of class.

Sadly, Christians are a part of all this.  Our kids buy these albums.  I’ve danced to him.  All further evidence that we are entrenched in a world of sin that we cannot extricate ourselves from entirely.  That is why the “Armor of God” is a daily excercise in humility and vigilance.  We must remember who we are – and whose we are – every day.  When we forget, we allow ourselves to fall victim to the most base aspects of our existence.  Our art, and our artists, are merely a reflection of this.