Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Evangelical Capitalism: How the “bottom-line” determines our action…

Matt Powell, over at Wheat & Chaff, has an insightful post titled, This Earth. In it, he describes how our earthly standards of success may sometimes, if not always, be invalid when assessing so-called blessings from God. He tells of a conversation with a member from a local Calvary Chapel who says,
God has really blessed us. We started with 75 people and now we have about 4000.
Matt quotes from Ecclesiastes and then says,
Only by casting my eyes out farther than the temporal horizon which is visible to me can I have any hope of seeing purpose in this life. It is only in God's eternal plan for my life that things can make any ultimate sense. Because whatever happens in this life, we all go to the same grave, where all our works are forgotten by this cursed and mad world.
I’ve thought about this same issue for some time. What is it about seeing a church overflowing with congregants that causes us to consider it blessed? Are we justified in concluding that a church which is losing members is not being blessed by God? Do we measure the success of a church by tabulating how many souls have “given their lives to Christ” each Sunday? The entrepreneur is interested in keeping the numbers at the bottom-line in the black. Profits equal success. Have we let capitalism so shape our worldview that it has also shaped our understanding of what it means to follow Jesus? Critics may raise the point that the early church, as found in the Book of Acts, experienced tremendous growth under the blessing of God. In my opinion, though, such comparisons fall flat. While we see examples of growth in Acts we also see that the dispersion of Christianity was mainly due to persecution. Being a Christian in the first century was costly. We see nothing of that sort in the 21st century West. Yet, somehow, we feel justified in considering ourselves blessed. We think that if we’re growing, then we must be in the black, and if we’re in the black, then we must be in “God’s Will” and… blessed. In A Stunted Ecclesiology?, an article for Touchstone Magazine, J. I. Packer posits that the modern evangelical mindset, as found in the West, has wavered from the Biblical teaching in which the church is declared to be the fullness of Christ, the beloved bride for whom he laid down his life. He lists, as the primary factor in this departure, “evangelical salvation-centeredness.” He writes,
No one should fault evangelicals for their loving attention to the task of unpacking the gospel message that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15). Nothing is more important than that the gospel is fully grasped, and exploring it and emphasizing it is a thoroughly churchly activity. But it has led to a habit of man-centered theologizing, which sets needy human beings at center stage, as it were, brings in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit just for their saving roles, and fails to cast anchor in doxology, as Paul’s expositions of the gospel lead him to do (see Rom. 11:33–36; 16:25–27; Eph. 3:20–21; 1 Tim. 6:13–16; cf. Rev. 5:9–14). Too often we evangelicals relegate the truth of the Trinity to the lumber-room of the mind, to be put on display only when deniers of it appear, rather than being made the frame and focus of all adoration. The church then comes to be thought of as an organization for spiritual life support rather than as an organism of perpetual praise; doxology is subordinated to ministry, rather than ministry embodying and expressing doxology; and church life is thought out and set forth in terms of furthering people’s salvation rather than of worshiping and glorifying God. The antithesis is improper and false, to be sure, but the man-centered mindset is real, and is one facet of a stunted churchliness.
Mother Teresa once said, “I do not pray for success. I ask for faithfulness.” Matt closes his post with,
Only the context of eternity can teach me the truth of what happens on earth. Trying to understand the events of this world without an eternal perspective is like using a tape measure with no numbers on it. You might know which dash the end of the board falls on, but you don't know what the dash means, or how it relates to anything else. When we measure the world without the eternal perspective, all we're left with is the judgments of man, and so we think a church with 4000 people in it is more blessed than the one with 75.
Let us pray to be faithful.


Constance said...

In some ways a larger congregation would add more than monetary success. Special projects and activities could be organized and financed. I agree that such distinctions shouldn't and probably don't effect spirituality in normal circumstances, but as a community effort I'ld also call it progress.

welcometotheplanet said...

Good thoughts Rusty-

In a previous life, I worked at two of these so called "blessed" churches. Both of them were machines that ended up spitting me out. I don't think that the "church growth" movement has done much good for the church except to create rick warren/bill hybels (fill in your own pastor of the now)wannabes.

Those who live in america has bought the whole idea that bigger is better, we want to supersize everything: house, checking account, meals, cars, even churches. Large=success. I remember interviewing at a large church in Oceanside CA, and the Sr Pastor flat out told me he had a numbers bias. I was asked what I was going to do to increase the numbers in the student ministry department. That was the straw that broke the perverbial camels back for me. I walked away from that feeling slightly dirty. It wasn't about Christ, it was about the bottom line, disguised as concern for the lost. My job would have been on the line if I didn't produce the numbers needed to satisfy the SP. Since that day, I got off the roller-coaster, and now care more about being faithful, then being the most charasmatic person who can bring in the numbers. If the minstry I lead now grows numerically, then so be it, but it will only do so out of depth and authenticity, not from flashy programs or charasmatic personalities.

Rusty said...

It is truly enlightening to sit back and read about the problems, real problems, that Christians in other parts of the world have to deal with.

We in the West not only have the freedom, but the time (if you really stop and upack all the discretionary time you have available) to devote to God. We also have access to probably the best understanding of scriptures since the early Church... yet we remain ignorant to the truths of the Bible.

Roger D. McKinney said...

If God did not consider numerical growth important, why did He mention it several times in the early chapters of Acts?

That said, we should also consider that God caused the growth in Acts. In the US, the growth of individual churches usually occurs in fast growing suburbs where believers are relocating and looking for a new church to join. The Southern Baptist Convention, my affiliation, has several fast growing mega-churches, such as Saddleback in CA. But nationwide, membership is shrinking. Inner city and rural churches are dying. This indicates that the growth in mega-churches is little more than shuffling chairs on a sinking ship, rather than God-directed growth similar to that in Acts.