“…so that they may be one as we are one.” John 17:11b
Sometimes I feel like the entire community of Christians has the wool pulled over its eyes. Then I remember that I am part of that community, and I get nervous. My initial response is to become bitter, and detach myself from “those” Christians. My next response is guilt. I shouldn’t be sitting back, criticizing the church, and only adding to the stench. I should be redemptively, humbly, and prayerfully striving to alleviate the malady to the best of my ability in order to build wholeness and unity.
How easy it is to criticize, how easy to spot flaws, and how difficult and laborious it is to partake in the long—but joyful—process of mending what’s broken: the brokenness that defames Christ, the brokenness that we as Christ followers have a responsibility to remedy in search of wholeness.
In Donald Miller’s foreword to Paul Louis Metzger’s Consuming Jesus: Beyond Race and Class Divisions in a Consumer Church, he discusses how difficult it is to truly be unified. What does that even mean anymore? And should we even bother? Or better yet, are we bothering? Although Metzger poses serious and grave concerns about consumerism driving the church toward disunity rather than a love for Christ that spurs unity and reconciliation, Miller points out that Metzger does this in a refreshingly redemptive way. “Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of this book lies in the hope the author forecasts for the contemporary church,” and one “senses Dr. Metzger’s grace for all parties” (p. x).
When I think of the Christian church, smiles come to mind: nurseries, little blonde munchkins running around, the awkward greet-your-neighbor time after the business-as-usual church announcements, flowery, well-groomed young couples, and polite, reserved old couples. I think of nursery numbers flashing across the giant screen mastering the front of the congregation, notifying young parents of their problem child. I think of the hot coffee and its array of creamer options: vanilla, crème brulee, sugar-free hazelnut, and of course, the pumpkin spice or eggnog creamer during the holidays provided by the truly accommodating church. Starbucks does it, so the church should too, right? I think of a happy little message, or even a tear-jerking message, and then of course the typical post-church festivities: lunch out with my sister, coffee with friends, or maybe just a nice little nap.
All in all, the church experience is very pleasant. But what occurs outside of church is where it gets complicated for me. I see all these nasty problems in the world. And the strange thing is, they’re not getting better—they seem to be getting worse. Odd, because when I sit in church and look around me, it seems as if all is right with the world. But a simple look around will tell you this is not the case. I find myself becoming disillusioned with the church because it seems so disconnected from the surrounding world. As a result, I feel internally disconnected, going through a seemingly unending cycle of frustration, guilt, good coffee, smiles, frustration, guilt, good coffee, smiles…
Now, I don’t necessarily have a problem with having six different creamer options. I don’t even see anything wrong with flashing nursery numbers. In and of themselves, these do not pose any real threat to the health of the church. But I do have a problem with what all the consumer-driven messages, in the big picture, communicate to both Christians and non-Christians.
I often feel as if an imposter has taken my faith captive, raped it, abused it, and hung it up for all to see. See, my conversion experience was not pretty. Nor flowery. Nor smiley. I was a wretched, miserable sinner, completely jaded toward God, religion, the church, Christianity and all the irrelevant, ignorant, oblivious people who joined that destructive force. That was my first-hand experience with the church. So now, being a Christ-follower and personally experiencing His un-explainable grace, joy and redemption, I am sensitive to, and concerned about the image that evangelical Christians present to those outside. I know what it’s like to be “on the other side”, to view the church as some sort of freaky justification to be sheltered and fake.
The thing is though, that voice, that message, is worlds and worlds apart from the story and heart of Christ. So, how do we overcome this—on both an individual and corporate level? I personally believe change starts individually, but the church institution as a whole gives these changes momentum and lasting power. Spiritual discernment and understanding will certainly help. But these are hard to come by when, for as Miller says in the foreword to Consuming Jesus, church leaders today tend to communicate more competencies in movie-clip allusions than in New Testament Greek.
For Miller, “…we understand the church better not by simply studying it, but studying what it has eaten to become it” (p. x). The sneaky thing about being inundated with consumer-driven messages is that because they are so constant, we don’t even recognize them anymore. As a result, it is natural to acquire a pop-culture vernacular, while it is uncomfortable and unpopular to step back and objectively examine how the consumer in each of us can exacerbate division, oppression, and a misconstruing of the Christian message. But according to Miller, Metzger’s book provides such objectivity. Consuming Jesus helps us step back and assess the situation objectively. As a result, Miller writes, “we finally realize that we are rats in a maze, where before we simply searched for cheese” (p. x).
If, as Metzger says in his conclusion to the book, the church is ideally like a patchwork quilt where those from different races, classes, backgrounds, and ages all come cohesively together to warm a cold universe, then I would say right now that it’s a giant, holey, cream polyester blanket full of fuzz balls.
Cohesive messages and lively worship bands the church gets, but intentionally striving for true unity among believers from diverse backgrounds it tends to forget, in the name of homogenous units and consumer comfort.
Miller ends the foreword to Metzger’s book by admonishing Christians to “lock arms at our differences to display for the world one Christ manifesting himself through the church for one purpose” (p. x). I believe that this is the sort of vision that the Lord Jesus had in mind when he prayed to His Father that we may “be one.” Not “them” out there, but “us” in here, and all the others scratching their heads over what creamer to use and forgetting why they’re even there in the first place.
Christianity is about unity. It’s about love. It’s about demolishing walls and accepting people through the compassionate eyes of Christ. It’s not convenient, it’s not dainty, and it’s not supposed to come in a shiny package for us to rip open, only to be disappointed. But man, to sit in church amongst all my neighbors of this world, not just the select few like me (those I like), would feel a bit like this unity thing Christ is talking about.
I want us to get there. And as Metzger always says in our theology class (and which John M. Perkins says in the afterword to Consuming Jesus), “we settle for so little when Jesus calls us to so much more!” The all-consuming Jesus is a patient one, but He’s still calling us to be consumed by so much more than base consumerism and consumer preference Christianity. So what’s holding us back from the all-consuming Jesus?