Many local churches have a quiet habit I love. I call it, “throwing kindling on someone else’s fire.” They give seed money and life-on-life support to organizations solving problems in their cities.
For example, one church I served launched a daycare for single working moms. Such partnerships brought me alongside amazing people directing great organizations. They appreciated our support and listening posture, and we appreciated their work in the trenches. They helped us mobilize volunteers to serve with them.
Once, at a gathering of community leaders, someone stepped to the mic to endorse the daycare we developed. He was unaware of my church’s connection. For some reason he singled us out as distant and aloof from people on the margins. Most others in that room knew of our role, and I figured he would find out soon enough. Besides, much of our ability to be effective cross-culturally stemmed from efforts to remain under the radar.
As Truman said, “It’s amazing what you can do when you don’t care who gets the credit.”
Loud giving can embarrass the receiver. It emphasizes social hierarchy over relationship and dignity. So, wise local churches downplay their efforts. Hundreds of thousands of churches and ministry leaders across the country understand this.
So I have to shake my head over the new Christianity Today podcast, “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill.” It talks about hyped personalities and movements as the gravitational center of the Christian conscience. Most of what goes on does not go on—online. The more compelling drama is through a movement called the local church.
I give the producers credit for writing in the tradition of Carl Henry, probing their uneasy conscience. But I am dismayed by the sad lack of context of the real movement of Christianity. That movement is under the radar. That movement calls attention to the needs of the human condition–profound and practical–rather than to itself.
This is not “evangelical”
Many recent episodes stamped “evangelical” have been mislabeled. I propose a different term. Pop-Culture Christianity would serve us better than continuing to destroy a word that means “good news.” If you’re going to fixate on the sound bite, the sensational, and the celebrated, then call it what it is. Otherwise you give onlookers a skewed view of Christian faith. Even some insiders are disillusioned. They confuse a large following with gravitas, and then when the house of cards falls, they ask, “What did we miss?”
But again, I do tip my hat to the producers of this CT podcast for operating on the premise of shared responsibility. They question the tolerance of self-promotion, consumerism, and abuse. The intent of the podcast is indeed to self-reflect rather than merely to torch Mark Driscoll, the rascal at the center of this exposé. But will they see the wisdom of being accountable to a confessional tradition and structure rather than equating innovation with the next big movement of God?
Countless churches initiate and sacrifice locally with a long obedience in the same direction. So the bigger drama of this Mars Hill Church coverage is how disproportionate the hand-wringing is, considering the larger context of healthy churches. It’s a feeding frenzy that reads to me like despair, as our appetite for infotainment distracts us from the burden of long, slow, local investment.
Exposing Blindspots, not just bad actors
In his book Seven Habits, Stephen Covey explains why we have so much trouble recognizing our own blind spots. He illustrates his point with a vulnerable, personal critique of his own parenting. It’s a point about how difficult it is to see around your lens. Sometimes, as Covey says, you have to look at the lens itself.
If the producers of this podcast could look at the lens through which they view “evangelical,” they might distinguish more between the appetites of pop culture and genuine Christian movements. So I suggest we consider the following occlusions in their lens creating serious blindspots. I will just name three.
- The center of Christianity as a movement is not in the U.S.
- The spectacular, organic effort of local churches after crises like Hurricane Katrina exposes the movement under the radar.
- This quotation from the end of the George Eliot; novel, Middlemarch:
“…for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
Now, go throw kindling on someone else’s fire.