Monday, March 09, 2009

A Weekend With Nadab And Abihu

Because of some unusual plans, I had the misfortune of surveying the current state of Christian television this past weekend. Actually, worse than that, I surveyed the condition of American churches through television. I'm not merely talking about the spiritual bankruptcy of much of the name-it-and-claim it dreck that normally appears on TBN, for instance. Even most evangelicals are able to recognize that for what it is these days. Rather, what I witnessed were a number of sermons that had recently been preached (and recorded) in evangelical mega-churches that then happened to be televised. These weren't just spectacles taking place in Christian TV studios with gold chairs and velvet chandeliers and leopard-skin footrests; these were worship services taking place in churches on Sunday mornings. David Wells once wrote, "God now comes to rest lightly and inconsequentially upon the Church." After this weekend, I've never been more convinced of that.

Among my discoveries:

The first thing that jumps out is the amazing cultural conformity. The scenario was invariable. Instead of a pulpit (even a Plexiglas one), there was a tall table like one would find at a coffee shop or a bar. There'd be a tall stool next to the table that the pastor would occasionally sit in. More often than not, there was a studiously placed Starbucks coffee cup placed just so on the table to show that, hey, the pastor is a normal guy just like you and me who needed to stop to get some coffee before he got here. (Occasionally, the coffee can be replaced by a conspicuous can of Diet Coke. Just look at this official picture of one megachurch pastor and think for a moment about how much thought had to go into placing that soda in that photo. And then think further about how utterly cynical that is.)

Jackets and ties are now verboten. Instead, the pastor must wear an untucked shirt over jeans or casual slacks. Puka shell necklace (or some other medallion) is optional but frequent. Hair must be mussed in the currently fashionable way, even if the pastor is embarrassingly past the age when such styles are recommended.

The messages are tied into whatever fad is hot this week. One guy had keyed a series of messages to the TV show "24." (A few years ago it was all "Matrix" stuff.) Just on a hunch I Googled "American Idol sermon series." To my absolute non-surprise, it returned 22,100 results. I guess at least some of those series are presumably addressing the issue of idolotry, meaning there could even be a little bit of biblical content there. Not so with "24.") It almost becomes fun. Google anything that's popular-- including something you think nobody would be foolish enough to turn into a sermon series--plus the phrase "sermon series." You'll never be disappointed. (Or, rather, you'll always be disappointed if you love God and the Bible.) "Sex in the City" plus "sermon series"? This guy did it. "Desperate Housewives"? You bet.

Props are ubiquitous. One pastor had a couple of doors up on stage. Another had a car battery recharger stand. Beds are increasingly common as these hip pastors all give that (same) racy message on sex--you know, the one the local TV news station did a story on and that they bought billboards for all over town. Watching some of these "services," I was waiting for someone to finally put the sheets of visqueen on the first few rows of pews and do Gallagher's old act. (That sounds outlandish, but upon asking around, I've discovered that the "24" guy actually did that too a couple of years ago. As part of a sermon illustration they put down plastic and smashed watermelons with mallets. No kidding.)

The messages I watched were all mildly comedic, "relevant" (in the evangelical conception of that word, which generally means "only two or three years behind the curve") and remarkably Jesus-free. One of the messages--being presented in a Sunday morning Christian worship service--was called (and I wish I were kidding about this), "Priceless Poop." The website address was flashed frequently so you could be sure to get a copy of this message for home. A visit to the website reveals that an earlier message in this same series was entitled...ahem..."Booty Calls." Another church had recently done the series, "My Naked Pastor." Then other messages I saw were more tame. One was a very sensible sermon on debt-reduction. Another was on health and fitness. All contained moderately helpful life tips, and all were wholly beside the point for a Sunday morning worship service.

The old, hidebound, non-relevant Apostle Paul once wrote to one of his churches, "And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified." Well, I guess Paul didn't get the memo that that stuff doesn't fly anymore. You've got to give them stuff they can use these days. You need to give them life hints. Tips for better living, interwoven with humorous asides. Not all this bloody-cross, dead-and-risen savior stuff.

On none of the programs did I hear the good news. Rarely did I even hear the name of Jesus. Instead, it was all "life principles" from "God's instruction manual" about what to do. And even then, the treatment was superficial. Debt, for example, was treated as an error in judgment rather than what it really is--an idolatry problem. As the prophet Jeremiah said, "They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace." Light healing is the order of the day. The messages I saw all had one clear idea in common: God is the way to get what you really want. Your goal in life is less stress, a stronger marriage, better relationships, and satisfaction at work. And God is the means toward helping you attain your idol...er...goal.

I'm far from the first to recognize that modern American Christianity has largely capitulated to the spirit of the age. Nor is this the first time even I've noticed it. But it took a solid day of sermon-watching to remind me how bad it's really gotten. Rather than sinners in need of a savior, modern mega-church Christianity presents us as merely unsatisfied people in need of satisfaction--or even more to the point, audiences in need of entertainment. In the meanwhile, our lampstand is in the process of being removed, and whatever light is left will only be here for a short time longer unless there is real repentance of this feathery, consumeristic nonsense in the American church.

But I'm not holding my breath.

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