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The Therapeutic Gospel

21 August 2009

It struck me afresh this last Saturday night during the church service at TF.  More on that in a minute.

*****

Our family has been estranged from our long-time, former church home since May of 2007, when the accumulating weight of disillusionment reached the breaking point – disillusionment primarily with the character of the congregation’s leadership, broadly construed, but also with the remaking of the church’s culture, indeed the reformulating of the fundamental assumptions that give rise to that culture.  Whatever flaws the previous culture had, they seem oddly quaint in retrospect.  One could argue that Paramount Terrace Christian Church (PTCC) had gotten comfortably complacent about its place in the community, but that was not pervasively true.  We weren’t perfect, but we took care of our military families; we reached across racial boundaries; we took care of widows, orphans, and single moms; we tithed both cash and sweat; we extended a hand to those in prison; and we took seriously the study of Holy Writ in contexts large and small.  We forgave one another, but we had high expectations of each other.  We were devoted to learning how to be faithful husbands and wives and fathers, salt and light and leaven in the community.  On Sunday mornings, the music was wonderful (despite the obvious datedness of the technical systems), appropriately varied, and earthy – which is to say, of course, the product of amateur musicians under skilled, professional guidance, but of amateur musicians nonetheless.  Time around the Lord’s table was thoughtful and – dare I say it? – intimate.

The deficiencies in the preaching were real and disquieting, and indeed much of the trouble that resulted in our leaving PTCC originated in our congregation’s frustration with that dimension of church life.  A key resignation in 2004 created a vacuum in the church hierarchy that latent, long-simmering agendas among the ministry staff and the more influential elders were swift to exploit, and then fill, with a CEO in the mold of our nation’s current president:  young, [ostensibly] charismatic, upwardly mobile, ambitious, energetic, obsessed with executive authority, filled with visions of grandeur – and, sadly but predictably, filled with a commensurate degree of self-importance and self-regard.

And perhaps above all:  ruthless.

—–

Note to self:  self-deprecation and humility can be polar opposites.

—–

The new culture was conceived and gestating long before he arrived, but he fit that culture to a tee and has been its most ardent proponent and agent.  His agenda, which was obvious at the time and is only so much more obvious now, was a fundamental transformation.  He intended that the new congregation would abandon nearly everything about its prior existence and identity.  He worked, and insisted that “his” staff work, to foster a terribly consequential form of amnesia wherein virtually nothing about the new church resembles or echoes the old.  PTCC, which became Hillside Christian Church shortly after his arrival, was to be slain and buried.  And forgotten.

He has succeeded to a remarkable degree.  And now Amarillo’s first true “megachurch,” TF, is no longer alone at the top, whatever that might mean.  There’s a new empire being built, and it is aggressively challenging TF’s hegemony in the Amarillo area.  (It would not surprise me if the new sheriff were to decide that he needed bodyguards, not because of any real threat, but because of the rock-star status that bodyguards imply and confer.)  At least one of the elders at HCC, with whom I was well acquainted during my latter years at PTCC, tells us on his personal-networking site that the new sheriff is one of his “heroes.”  And so forth.

—–

I have grown to despise megachurchISM, as has been amply documented here.  But the gravitational pull of the polished, professional-grade music, the high-tech auditoria, the colorful children’s wings, and the “practical” and “entertaining” bent of the preaching, is tough to resist, particularly on account of our kids.  One of my deepest failures as a father has been that I did not do everything I could to create a space in our home for reverence and quiet, an appreciation for the rough and the deep, the mysterious and the ordinary – a place where if it’s going to get done, someone in the rank-and-file is going to do it.  My parents and my childhood churches certainly did that for me.  But now that the boys are well into their school years, though, it’s unlikely I could do the same for them.  They are accustomed to a high, professional-grade polish, and nothing less will engage their imaginations and their enthusiasm.  It is a terrible loss and a profound failure on my part.

—–

One of the most sinister aspects of megachurchism struck me afresh last weekend as I sat in my luxurious theatre seat in the brand-new auditorium at TF.  There is no confession here; there is only therapy.  The “gospel” here does not include ownership of sin, but it does provide a pithy three-piont sermon on how to live more effectively.  The assembly is a place to receive God’s blessing, but not his admonition.  The preacher apologizes preemptively and profusely for going “deep” (as he calls it – it usually just means he’s going to define a Greek word for us), but he quickly returns to the syrupy, superficial pap that one could easily glean from an hour of Dr. Phil.

He’s not a bad guy – I think he has bodyguards, too, judging by the dudes in suits with spaghetti-wires coiled up behind their left ears, continuously scanning the audience with their arms folded in front of them, dutifully hustling off on odd errands after he whispers in one of their ears – and I have to admit that he’s extraordinarily gifted.  The folks here love him, whatever that might mean.  His is a compelling, personal story of redemption from the excesses of youth and a meteoric rise through the ranks of his home church.  He’s a one-woman man with a fine speaking voice, a charming manner, and a telegenic presence in front of the dozens (!) of Hollywood-grade (!) studio cameras (!) ringing the platform.

Is this all there is?  And is this the future of the kind of church that I’m going to ask my boys to commit themselves to when they leave my house to lead their own lives?  Is this true?

—–

From Dallas Willard:

Therefore the focus of discipleship to Christ is not the church, but the world.  If it is focused on the church, it will stagnate and leave most people at a dead end, for their life is not the church.  Discipleship is for the sake of the world, not for the sake of the church.  It is carried out in those situations where people spend their life.  Above all, the “world” is work, the realm of creativity for which human beings were created according to Genesis 1:26.  For most people that means our job – our “position” if you like.  Unfortunately, “discipleship” as Christian groups now teach and practice it, where they do so at all, consists mainly of “special” activities of various kinds, religiously characterized, motivated, and organized…

…It will come as a shock to many to think that Jesus did not tell his followers to make Christians or start churches, as we automatically think of Christians and churches today.

Dallas Willard,  Knowing Christ Today (New York:  Harper Collins, 2009), 209-210.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. 21 August 2009 3:23 pm

    The issues you raise frustrate our desires to teach our children and grandchildren how to authentically “follow Jesus”. N. T. Wright doesn’t offer an easy escape. In his “Evil and the Justice of God” he paints a dismal portrait of the ways in which we seek to mitigate “evil” in this culture by continuing to advocate a reality of automatic progress through technology, education and western democratic capitalism. He characterizes this new problem evil in three ways: “We ignore evil except when it hits us in the face” (QB’s parent’s world); “we are surprised by evil when it hits us in the face” (as we experience the realities of globalization) and finally, “we react in immature and dangerous ways claiming the status of victim as a new multicultural sport.”
    Dallas Willard has been teaching, writing and speaking to this reality for a number of years. I am encouraged by his personal challenge…”you can do this!” Somehow, we have to come to believe in ourselves.

  2. 21 August 2009 3:28 pm

    Go to http://www.Center for American Progress.com

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