Friday, November 24, 2006

They smile in your face, all the time they wanna take your place, the back stabbers...(falstetto: Back Stabbers!). The Gospel according to the O'Jay's

An article in the December online issue of Christianity Today reveals some big changes at the Purpose Driven Life organization, the adjunct ministry started a couple of years ago by Rick Warren, senior pastor of Saddleback Church, as an extension to his best-selling book. While the sale of the book that started the popular wave of teaching on church health, personal growth, evangelism, and outreach remains strong, evidently the corporate entity itself has had trouble sustaining its function of support and implementation to churches. In the last few months it has been compelled to cut staff by 35%, downscale efforts, and consolidate its leadership under the church’s oversight. While the reportage in the CT article seems, to me, balanced and nonjudgmental, predictably, some of the response around the blogosphere is decidedly less so.

Rick Warren, like every outspoken pastor before him, has never suffered from a lack of critics among the faithful. While a man may be blameless before God with Christ as his Savior, if he finds his efforts in the realm of ministry blessed by the Lord to any significant degree, it is a fact as sure as Jesus is coming again that he will be pulling arrows out of his back. It would seem obvious that there is no man or church in possession of perfect theology, in either doctrine or practice, but yet, since Christian theologians thrive on sputtering about the distinctives of their traditions of belief rather than focusing on the overarching commonalities, it is not surprising that there are many who find fault, even grevious errors, in Warren’s writing. And I do not doubt that some errors likely exist. But does that explain or give justification to the self-righteous tone that pervades in the wake of what, for the dedicated workers at PDL, is likely a disheartening turn? Why do we exult, even quietly, in this kind of misfortune?

The Purpose Driven Life, by even the most cynical estimates, has had a significant transforming impact on contemporary culture. There are hundreds of churches and many thousands of individuals who will testify to the positive impact this book has had on their spiritual life. I am one of those people and my church is one of those churches. Has it been 100% effective everywhere for everyone? What do you think?

I am always surprised and dismayed at what I see in the Christian community when a successful or prominent ministry suffers what seems to be a reversal of influence or a change of direction. Inevitably, the sniping begins in earnest, with assumptions and insinuations of impropriety or bad theology as the root cause for such a “downfall”. As the influence of Promise Keepers, another high profile, effective, and culturally engaging evangelical outreach, began to fade several years ago, the media earnestly tracked its “downfall” as it condensed in size, scope, and impact. Within many Christian circles there was dismay and disappointment and, sadly, a smug satisfaction among others.

In the secular business world, downsizing and loss of market penetration is truly a bad sign. It is intuitively obvious that negative growth in commerce ultimately spells doom for a company that can’t change or reorganize itself in time. And when they are successful, they are lauded, are they not? To some extent, this model may apply to churches and ministries, too, at least in the sense that as resources decrease so does impact. Yet the prevailing attitude of many towards ministries is the notion, completely unsupportable from scripture as far as I can tell, that simply because a ministry is large, or has a plan for growing large, it must be, ipso facto, theologically flawed. Then, if and when this suspect ministry wanes, suffers a setback, or repurposes itself, the critics point to this fading as “proof” of defect. Could it not be, instead, that like individual believers, a ministry is called by God to be effective for a season, to fill a specific and focused purpose, to meet a certain need, and then to fade or recede into a less visible role? It is hypocritical and illogical when these exulting critics point to both the “success” and the “failure”, dubious terminology at best, as proof that the target ministry was truly worthy of their holy disdain.

By way of further example, witness, too, the criticism that has been aimed at Willow Creek Community Church or Lakewood Church whose principal sins appear to be that they are too large and too effective at reaching out to their communities. In recent decades past, the targets have been the Calvary Chapel and Vineyard Church movements. And, oh yes, their theology is bad, too. Billy Graham, John Maxwell, Max Lucado, and John MacArthur have all been criticized for, in effect, being too popular and, of course, having bad theology. And what of a truly controversial ministry like Trinity Broadcasting Network? TBN is the world’s largest religious network and America’s most watched faith-based channel. They offer commercial-free inspirational programming 24 hours a day with shows aimed to appeal to people in a variety of Protestant, Catholic, and even Messianic Jewish denominations. You know that is bound to piss some people off, right? Sure, a lot of it isn’t great television and you can definitely find some questionable individuals espousing bad theology. But what about the thousands of people who have reportedly come to know Jesus through the efforts of TBN and all of these other aforementioned high profile ministries?

Where are the measures of charity and love to balance this pathetic urgency to denigrate and belittle other believers because you are right and they are wrong? Is it simply envy or professional jealousy? Is it some delusion of denominational superiority, some misguided notion that you are the recipient or repository of doctrinal purity? Honestly, I don’t even care where this hateful spewage comes from. There is something sick and perverse, something truly sinful, at work in us when we find ourselves either indifferent to or secretly relishing the distress of others or the demise of a ministry simply because it is not of our preference.

It begs the convicting question posed by yet another oft-criticized youth-oriented evangelical movement…WWJD?


jeff said...

I can't speak for everyone, but I can speak for me on this issue.

The Bible constantly maintains that a major sign of false teaching is the desire for excessive amounts of money. When any of these Christian places start making lots of money, I do think the Church needs to be on guard. It doesn't mean they are necessarily being flase teachers, but the temptation is closer.

I do enjoy seeing major ministries fall apart. At best it wakes people up and keeps em honest. At worst, it results in Paul and Barnabas, where after they fought their missionary team doubled.

Barry Pike said...

Thanks for your comments, Jeff. As you know I read your blog daily and am a fan.

In terms of churches and ministries, if the relationship between size and integrity (doctrinal, financial, etc.) is reflexive, or somehow inversely proportional, then how big is too big?

What scriptural guidance can you offer that will tell Willow Creek that, when it comes to their ministry of equipping smaller churches, they have reached their biblical limit and that the Lord really wants them to scale it back?

Honestly, though, as my post mentions, what gripes me the most is the way many Christians just can't wait to line up to throw their twig onto the pyre. It is that very same self-centered small-mindedness that shows up in the cynical gossip of congregants when the church on the other side of town hires a new minister, has a revival, and all of a sudden starts baptizing folks as though they thought Jesus was serious in Matthew 28:16-20. Imagine that.

jeff said...

OH I hear ya. I don't know how big is too big. I imagine it's somewhere close to the time when you begin marketing your own line of jewelry!

What I do know is that money ruins everything. When these places get so big and begin forcing their stuff down people's throats, it's inevitable that people will resent them and also inevitable that they will fall. It's life in this world.

I don't know that we can win at any point or know when the right time to judge ourselves is. I know Christ was more upset with religious people than He was with the sinful world. I think we should be too. I don't go for this stuff that because they claim Christ we should all shut up and cheer each other. It's not that simple. I desperately wish it were. But the letters to Corinth clearly show there is a time for jeering and a time for cheering.