Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Sex and the City of God

As the Church Growth industry has become more aggressive, as secular marketing models have become more and more embraced by mainstream Christianity, we should have seen this coming.

We have moved away from the Gospel being communion - physical and spiritual - with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit through the incarnation of Jesus Christ via his Word and Sacraments to something else. That something else is the Gospel as merely a "message."

Messages are forced to compete with a lot of other messages - which is why companies are willing to spend millions of dollars to create commercials, why corporations agonize over seemingly minor details of colors and designs of logos, why entire careers are dedicated to marketing. If you want your message to stand out over and against the other messages, you need psychology, gimmickry, and/or a consumer-driven methodology.

The Gospel-as-message has reduced the Christian faith to a jingle, a bumper sticker, or a tee shirt. The demotion of the Gospel as a commodity to be marketed and "sold" has turned Christianity into a crass commercial endeavor.

I once heard a retired pastor earnestly explain that seminarians should be required to sell Fuller Brushes door-to-door for a year - since we pastors are "salesmen for Jesus."

Of course, as our culture has degenerated, so have our marketing methodologies. If you want to sell something these days, it must be entertainment driven (especially when it comes to the ever-changing entertainment world of the "youth culture"), and sexual (we all know "sex sells").

Sex sells everything: beer, cars, music, clothing, TV shows, movies, hamburgers... so how long before Christians start using sex to sell Jesus?

It's already happening.

It's bad enough that Christian parents allow their young daughters to wear skimpy clothing with suggestive words written on their buttocks and hand out condoms to their young sons with a wink and a nod. But now the marketing power of sexuality is being unleashed as an "evangelism tool."

Here are a couple of blogsites that have linked to a couple of the latest trends: one from a Lutheran perspective, another from a Reformed point of view.

The idea seems to be that we need to bait "consumers" into listening to our pitch, and then swap the "commodity" from something sexual to something spiritual. In other words, hook them with something lurid, and then somehow trick them into chastity.

This is kind of like a book Mrs. Hollywood recently ran across by Jessica Seinfeld, the wife of the comedian. It is a very clever way for mothers to get their kids to eat their vegetables. Basically, it is a recipe book of tasty foods children love, but made with added vegetable juice that has been extracted by a food processor that doesn't change the flavor of the food. Thus kids can eat stuff they like, and yet get all the vitamins and minerals they need without having to taste flavors they don't like.

I personally think this is a great idea. It would be better for young children to develop a taste for broccoli and spinach, but isn't it better that they get the vitamins of these foods even before they develop a taste for such foods?

I do think some people honestly believe this can be done with Christianity. If you accept the premise that the Gospel is merely information, and if you believe that style does not effect substance, it follows that the Gospel can be "packaged" and "marketed" in a way that people will eat it up lustily, while inadvertently consuming the "nutrition."

Dan Kimball, an "emerging church" pastor and leader (who was recently invited as the keynote speaker to a Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod youth ministry conference) is one example. I believe that he is a genuinely devout believer. I don't think he is a huckster or a flimflam man by any means (we have commented on one another's blogs, and though we disagree, I found him to be a gentleman). His book on the "emerging generation" makes the point that young people are culturally very different than their ancestors. They are open to, and accepting of, things which the Church (and Scripture) condemn - especially sexual matters like: homosexuality, cohabitation, female ordination, as well as displaying an ambivalence to claims of absolute truth. Young people are also so wedded to their entertainment media that many of them can only relate to church music that is the same style they listen to in their secular lives.

Kimball argues (along with many others) that the Church needs to repackage the Gospel to appeal to the younger generation. This means a more democratic model of polity that blurs the line between the clergy and the laity. This means a shift away from traditional hymnody to more pop music in worship. This means far less liturgical rigidity. This means somehow proclaiming the Gospel in a way that will not come across as judgmental or "fundamentalist" (though Kimball has explained his own faith as being very conservative and even "fundamentalist" at times). This means not offending gay and cohabitating couples, but rather finding a way to make them feel welcome in our churches.

So, we need conservative doctrine marketed in a non-traditional way.

This is a major source of conflict in my own church body - the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod. Mirroring what is going on elsewhere in the American Church, there seem to be two streams of thought.

First, there is a resurging traditionalism: seminarians and pastors wearing cassocks and traditional vestments, praying the ancient liturgy of the hours, singing Gregorian chant, making use of traditional Latin texts, studying the church fathers and the confessional writings of the Reformation, using things like bells, icons, statues, and incense in worship, etc. This movement is also found among Traditionalist Roman Catholics (bolstered by Pope Benedict and the return of the Tridentine Mass), as well as among liturgically-minded Reformed and Evangelical Christians who have rediscovered the church year and the creeds, the liturgy and chanting. Even some of the "emerging churches" have stumbled upon the spiritual richness of these ancient traditions. This Traditionalism is undergirded by a belief that the Gospel is incarnational, rooted in a deeper communion than simply having information. This kind of Christianity cannot be mass marketed with gaudy gimmicks or sold with shallow slogans.

Second, there is a concurrent wave of anti-traditionalism. There is a fear that young people will abandon the Church unless the Church changes. In the 1960s, traditional texts were set to folksy tunes. God's might was de-emphasized while His accessibility was stressed. Thus Churches began to look less like churches, and more like friendly secular spaces for the exchange of information.

As time went by, the music changed with the pop trends. The production of church services became more sophisticated. Technology was incorporated. Attention spans became shorter and shorter. Sermons became "messages" and teaching became coaching. Doctrine and sacraments became less important, while feelings became paramount. The churches became community centers, and then, almost shopping malls. These "mega-churches" then had to compete with one another, offering bigger and greater perks for members. The "emerging churches" began to chafe against the phoniness of the mega-church, groping for something different, while still clinging to the need to "market" the Gospel in "new" ways.

It has gotten to the point now where Bibles are sold as fashion magazines filled with sexuality, and church services are little more than celebrations of various lifestyles and showcases of every kind of pop music and performance. In many of these churches (which are often held up as the "models of success" due to their wealth and numbers), it's all about the "sizzle" (the noise) and not about the "meat" (which, in Latin, is "caro" - from where we get the word "incarnation").

In many church bodies, the Traditionalists are either condescendingly tolerated with a pat on the head, or they are denounced as "speed bumps" and impediments to the "progress" of the "Gospel message."

I'm concerned that the people who are brought into the Church with the sizzle of sex never get to the meat of the incarnation. Furthermore, the embrace of the kingdom of this world changes the proclamation of the Kingdom of God (the howls of protest of the anti-traditionalists notwithstanding). Style does change substance.

This is because the way we do things in our churches speaks as loudly as what we say. There simply is a different doctrine of the Lord's Supper being taught and confessed if we bow reverently as the pastor is consecrating the bread and wine on the altar vs. if we're cutting up and swilling a cappuccino. There is a different doctrine of the sixth commandment being articulated if the pastor is vested in traditional garb and preaching from a pulpit with profound reverence for the Word of God vs. dressed casually and showing suggestive pictures on the video screen while cracking people up with innuendos and double entendres.

To put the best construction on it, the teen-girl Bible and these various emphases on sexuality by churches are an attempt to seek "relevance" and trying to successfully communicate the Gospel (which, again, they see as information). However, there are two major problems: first of all, they are sending a mixed message that muddies the waters of their own intended message. Second of all, the Gospel isn't just a message. I believe that for these two reasons, I believe "bait and switch" is doomed to fail as an "evangelism model" (and certainly our Blessed Lord's Parable of the Sower stands in stark contrast to such gimmickry).

I believe Satan is wily and audacious, and seeks to strike at the very heart of the very tools given to the Church to carry out her mission: Word and Sacrament. The devil distorts the proclaimed Word by reducing the Gospel to a message, a mere data stream, and then twisting it into a marketing model focused on fickle secular "relevance" instead of the constant, eternal, and unchanging Truth. The devil distorts the sacraments (the incarnational Presence of Christ under physical elements sanctified by His Word) by mocking our Lord's bodily and fleshly incarnation by denigrating the carnal body into something to be lusted after in the sinful flesh, an object to be used for selfish physical gratification. Sadly, many in the Church - even those in positions of power and authority - see no danger in toying with both diabolical distortions of our Lord's mandates of preaching and presiding.

However, I honestly believe that when it comes to the proclamation of the Gospel and living a life of holy communion with the Holy Trinity, reverence trumps relevance.


B.S. Collins said...

I greatly appreciate your discerning eye when it comes to those who are doing damage to the Word of God and the Gospel itself.

However, I would challenge you to present biblical support for your dogmatic statements. Things like, "Style does change substance," and "the Gospel isn't just a message."

You give practical examples of style changing substance, but I they are extreme. I could present more moderate examples that would be much harder to come to conclusions about.

Ultimately, my question is this: when it comes to authority in our lives, which has more, the bible or our own traditions and customs? This questions pits God's revealed Word against man's opinions and ideas. I think it's important to answer this before embarking on a discussion such as this.

A friend of mine has written an article I think you should read:

Tell me what you think.

Rev. Larry Beane said...

Dear Mr. Collins:

When I say "the Gospel isn't just a message" - what I mean is that when God wanted to give mankind the Good News, He didn't simply tell us something good to hear, rather He took on a body (Luke 1:31) and was made man. And when our Lord Jesus "handed over" (tradidi, traditio - where "tradition" comes from) the Gospel to us, He didn't merely provide data, He provided His flesh (Matt 26:26-29, John 6:51). The Christian faith worships a flesh-and-blood God, not a data-stream. We are to "preach Christ crucified" (1 Cor 1:23) not merely talk about Jesus or give out information.

When He told us to make disciples and evangelize, He did not say: "Go out and talk about me," rather He said: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, *baptizing... and teaching*" (Matt 28:19-20).

Do you disagree with the statement that "the Gospel isn't just a message"? If so, can you site Scripture that "the Gospel is only a message"?

"Style does change substance" is a rephrasing of the ancient dictum "lex orandi, lex credendi" - the law of prayer is the law of belief. In other words, *how* we worship effects *what* we believe - and vice versa.

God is concerned about style as well as substance. He did not tell the children of Israel: "Worship any way you want, whatever floats your boat and rocks your world, just make sure to say the right doctrine." Rather, He mandates style that *He* likes: priestly vestments (e.g. Ex 28), incense (e.g. Lev 16:12), gold (e.g. Ex 38:24), beautiful art (e.g. 1 Kings 7:29), bells (e.g. Ex 39:25), etc. These are all matters of style. According to Scripture, even the fine details of style are important to God.

This is not only biblical, but also sanctified common sense. If you are having guests, you show your love and esteem of them by bringing out fine china - which is very different than handing them a paper plate and a styrofoam cup. Style itself makes a statement. Style is in itself a confession. If you don't believe me, try offering a girl a plastic ring when you propose to her. By offering something beautiful, you are telling her she is beautiful and valued. It is a confession of what is in your heart.

The children of Israel proclaimed the majesty of God through the use of precious metals and beautiful craftsmanship - all because that's what God told them to do.

Did God *need* all of this style to tell the people that their sins were forgiven if style had nothing to do with substance? Not at all. But He chose to. Why? Because style is not a throw-away matter. If it is important to God, it should be important to us as well.

We need to submit to God's appreciation for style rather than trying to make God submit to our culture.

As far as where the final authority lies - I say in the Word of God - where you will never find the Lord encouraging "anything goes" in matters of style. You will never find any biblical example of someone standing in God's presence making wisecracks or worrying about being "comfortable" or "casual." In fact, when the Lord's instructions for handling holy things were not followed, people were struck dead (e.g. Num 3:4).

The traditions and customs of the Church come from the Word of God. The traditional liturgy of the Church is nearly word for word from Holy Scripture. It isn't ours to monkey with, but is rather the Lord's. The modern Christian liturgy is the same way (style) of worshiping as did our Lord in synagogue and in Temple.

In the Church, the dead have a say as to how we do things - because they are still part of the Church, are still present with us in worship around the Lord's throne. That's what "tradition" (literally: "handing over" see 1 Cor 11:23) is all about. That's how it is G.K. Chesterton could remark: "Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about."

I hope this provides some biblical basis for further discussion.

Christopher D. Hall said...

Very nice post and excellent response here in the combox. I blogged similar thoughts atThis Side of the Pulpit yesterday--though you did a better, more thorough job.

Pr. Christopher Hall

liturgy said...

Thanks for this thoughtful contribution.
I'm trying to develop the Liturgy of the Hours section of my site:
and your insights help.