26 February 2006

Snake oil

OK, one brief blog post before The Continuing Conversion of the Church. I've been waffling on whether or not I should post on this subject, but it's been on my mind a lot lately, so here goes. My Rector at Holy Comforter, Fr. Rick Lord, put it really well on his blog:

We realize the gentle but persistent work needed to move from a "membership culture" to a "discipleship culture."

This, I think, cuts to the core of the challenge of the institutional church today. But how do we balance necessary "persistence" with loving "gentleness"? Here's a quote from Anglican scholar Eddie Gibbs, via Ross's blog, which puts the matter a little more bluntly:

Eighty percent of those in the church serve no other function than to help the church meet its budget.

One more quote, this time from Shane Claiborne's disturbing book, The Irresistible Revolution. (By the way, I mentioned that I suspected that The Continuing Conversion of the Church might be the one book I've read that every thinking Christian should read. Well, The Irresistible Revolution may be the one book that every feeling Christian should read. It's made me rethink the meaning of Christian commitment. You should read it.)

Anyway, Shane wrote the following (pp. 104-105):

I am the first to say that we need more safe places, especially in the church, where folks can ask tough questions and seek truth together in humility and grace. I long for people to fall in love with God and each other, and I'm a big fan of being radically inclusive, whether that means not turning off transsexuals or folks who drive SUVs. But I also became aware of how delicate that venture can prove to be. The temptation we face is to compromise the cost of discipleship, and in the process, the Christian identity can get lost. We don't want folks to walk away. We're driven by a sincere longing for others to know God's love and grace and to experience Christian community. And yet we can end up merely cheapening the very thing we want folks to experience. This is the "cheap grace" that spiritual writer and fellow revolutionary Dietrich Bonhoeffer called "the most deadly enemy of the church." And he knew all too well the cost of discipleship: after all, it led to his execution in 1945 for his participation in the Protestant resistance against Hitler.

I was discussing this issue with my lovely wife the other day, and, in concert with these diverse other insights, something hit me (and I think Shane was saying this). "Cheap grace", nominal, membership-based Christianity isn't a problem because it creates burnout among the committed core of disciples who are trying to serve the consuming majority (although it does). It's not a problem because is greatly limits the potential work the church can do on behalf of the Kingdom of God (although it does).

It's a problem because, by promoting nominal Christianity as an authentic option, we (the Church) are no better than snake oil-selling hucksters. We're taking people's money and selling them a product that's a complete and utter sham. By letting folks believe that by showing up for worship once a week (or much less) and dropping something in the collection plate, they're getting "Christianity", we are lying to them and cheating them in a most despicable manner. It would be one thing if we were just ignorant, but we know where they can get the real thing. We can't sell it to them, but we can hook them up. And if we fail to do this because we think it would be unloving, or because we're afraid they'll go away and reduce our membership numbers, then we fail very gravely indeed. We fail in faithfulness, and we fail in love. We do need to be gentle, but we must not fail to be persistent in enabling this transformation from membership to discipleship culture. We must not.

So, sorry, I had to get that off my chest. Now I'll see if I can get the CCotC post done before I sleep tonight. :-)


Mike Stavlund said...

Breathtaking and brilliant post, Michael. Amazing insight.

Anonymous said...

"It's a problem because, by promoting nominal Christianity as an authentic option, we (the Church) are no better than snake oil-selling hucksters."

Exactly! The metaphor is perfect.

Aj Schwanz said...

Ouch: so true.

So how do snake oil hucksters get out of the business? I guess they need to learn a true/honest trade? And the only way they'd succeed in the town they previously worked in is if they apologize for their sham: own up to their falsehoods and repent. So how does that happen? (I have some ideas, but would love to hear yours).

Mike Croghan said...

Hi Aj!

Hoo boy, that is the $20,000 question, isn't it? My rector, Fr. Rick, and I are both trying to figure it out. Because, as Rick+ said (and I quoted), gentleness *is* required. One has to have some compassion for the way folks would feel if you just said abruptly, "Sorry, it's all been a sham. I took your money (and I'm not giving it back), but all you got was some sweet-tasting syrupy stuff, not a bit of real medicine. But now, have I got a deal for you..." It's not just fear and shame that holds us back from that (though those are there); it's also real concern that a) saying this would cause real suffering, and b) folks would be pretty dang unlikely to try the real stuff any time soon.

Rick (I think) is trying to motivate a core group of committed disciples and encourage discipleship culture to leaven the congregation like yeast, salt it like salt. That's a bit different from public apology and repentence, but it might be the right approach for our congregation. I think Rick is being skillful and graceful in his efforts. Frankly, I admit to cluelessness. For my own part, I'm hoping to learn a thing or two from folks like Darrell Guder and Shane Claiborne (whom I'm reading) and the wonderful disciples of my little coffeehouse church (whom I'm in community with). I'm hoping to get some ideas which, working with Rick and Fr. Lou and the committed core at Holy Comforter, we can take back and help turn our Spirited, thriving, very much alive - yet very institutional and membership-oriented - church into a more missional community of disciples. (Mars Hill folks, please don't take that the wrong way - y'all are so unspeakably much more than a lab experiment to me - but this is one of my dreams for this both/and church life I'm attempting to lead - that I might be a bridge for the two communities to learn and grow from one another. "Grow" spiritually, not numerically-!)

I'm not ready to give up on the so-called institutional church; at least, I'm not ready to give up on my beloved church! And I would love to be a part of moving segments of the Episcopal church out of its morbid left vs. right downward spiral and in a more missional/emerging direction. But for now, I am a bear of very little clue.

So what are your ideas? (I'll continue to tune into your blog - I've gotten lots of good stuff from it already!)