The Danger of Today’s Church Form

Is the current American church form a scandal to the gospel?

Richard Niebuhr, a theologian whose words were heeded by even the State Department, wrote, “Denominationalism represents the moral failure of Christianity.” Scathing words. Isn’t the prophet wagging his fingers too vehemently? Isn’t there any good in denominationalism?

Leslie Newbigin acknowledged goods done by denominations, but then pronounced judgment: “it is not, in any biblical sense, the church.” It’s highest achievement, uniting people of common passion and theology, is also its greatest scandal.

Denominational division emerges from the Enlightenment culture that relegates faith into the private world of values. What I believe is my preference. Religion, then, is an association, and denomination is the expression of the associational nature of the church. This is why denominationalism is a peculiarly American expression, perhaps more American than jazz.

Today’s church leaders are not offended by Niebuhr’s harsh words because we assume we are not implicated. We have, after all, gone past the divisions of denominationalism. Most new churches, mega-churches or tiny village churches, are non-denominational. And those in a denomination don’t even put it into the church’s name because we are beyond the tribal warfare of denomination? Surely, then, we are closer to the biblical understanding of the church? We have escaped the prowling lion.

Or have we run from the lion’s jaws into a pack of hyenas?

Hyenas are unrelenting. The modern church no longer sees himself (I use the masculine pronounce purposefully because the culture it has adopted is male-centric ) through denominations because he has put on a new suit of clothes, another cultural form to express himself. He has bought the modern corporate culture and have fashioned himself, as cool, relevant and pragmatic. The Church is not an association but a company. Each local church is its own brand. The larger ones have franchised.

The churches have taken the corporate/consumer culture as they were the gifts of God. What is scary is that we are unabashed about our union with the corporate/consumer culture. We throw around terms like “executive pastor” and vision, mission, and core values without flinching. We teach that a church without them cannot survive (Even my own church plant has gone through the process of defining our mission statement). It is one thing to say that such tools are helpful. It is another to say all churches need them. There is nothing biblical or necessary about mission statements, core values, vision, and strategies. They are useful, not essential.

Very few prophets are crying out against the church selling his soul to be a relevant “company.” Few cry out “woe” against the mega-church which is the wholehearted acceptance of the corporate culture (if it can grow, keep on growing). There is Eugene Peterson, but he is Jeremiah of our days, a lonely one. There might be other prophets but we don’t hear them because well, the microphone is usually given to mega-church pastors. And if any prophet rails too loudly against this adulterous affair, their words are dismissed as the griping of a jealous pastor.

But I am at an unease, especially as I am getting ready to plant a church. I did not desire this. But here I am, given a committed few, every one of them a confirmation that God desires a new community that is diverse ethnically, economically and theologically. And I am constantly anxious to make our church successful. There it is again, that corporate word dominating my mind.

I am aware that part of being faithful to the message is to make it comprehensible. The market (referring to the corporate/consumer culture) is a type of culture and for the church to be heard, it has to use its language. But form affects content. This is inescapable. And under the careful hands of the Holy Spirit, these newer expressions can lead to greater expansion of the revelation. We understand more of the gospel now because we have had 2,000 years of the church working out expressions of the gospel in different cultures and languages (Paul understood the extent of the Gospel as he was preaching it to the Gentiles).

We have more case studies (history) that should cause a pause in our undertakings. And if we take that pause, if we are humble enough to admit that we commit the sins of our forefathers by default (this is the lesson of the book of Judges), we would be alert to our current compromises.

Take marketing, for instance. Marketing is not neutral. Marketing desires persuasion through artificial means. It is rhetoric without ethics. Yes, the church can take it and adapt it for its use, but we must take it knowing we are taming a wolf and it can bite the hands that feed it, any day.

It was a non-Christian who pointed this out to me. Few days ago I was at WIC getting vouchers to buy milk for my 3rd Son (yes with the pastor’s salary I qualify for WIC and I will take it). In the waiting area, I sat next to a man with Batman tattoos and worn out sneakers (mark of poverty). I struck up a conversation asking him whether he liked the Dark Knight series. The talk about comic books turned to economics, a surprise turn. He was well read and this surprised me (and it should not have). He suggested books and authors I never heard of. He had a more critical analysis of the corporate world than most Christians, how the corporate culture leads to dehumanization by seeing human beings as either labor or consumer.

“Amazing,” his hands gestured excitedly, “how Nike can get their sneakers made $10 a pop through slave labor, and by sheer marketing can sell it for $120 and we buy them and we praise those marketers for puffing up the brand name to such value!”

I read FastCompany and they lavish praise on such marketers. Marketing takes lot of talent. But when the talents and skills goes towards creating value inflation and manipulating social pressure so children feel they must obtain it or it will be the utter end of their social life, should we not question the way it is being used?

The church hardly does this. We are kidding ourselves if we think we can take marketing and make it value-neutral. In one of our leaders discussion, we looked at six churches in Raleigh who sold themselves saying “We are not like other churches” in some form or manner. What drives them to distinguish themselves from other churches? Is that in the bible? That is in the marketer’s handbook isn’t it? Separate yourself from the competition.

Our leadership is talking about the color of our website, taglines to have in the street signs, motto to capture our vision and value. We know there are compromises taking place so we want to do it humbly and in the posture of repentance. We need to speak the language people know, but we have to always be reforming the language too.

We are calling ourselves New Life Triangle but in time, I would love to lose that name because that also is a form of branding. I would love to see New Life and other churches take up a larger identity provided by the shared mission field, the city we worship in, the church of Raleigh. Technology will make it possible. Perhaps it would be up to our children to take up that mission (city) centered identity. If churches begin to see themselves as the church of Raleigh, then that would be a bit more biblical.