From Where I Now Stand

Birthed into the Kingdom in 1957 and “converted” to a radical Christianity in 1962, I’ve been active in congregations crossing racial and theological lines ever since. What I write, therefore, should never be construed as “truth.” It’s just one man’s interpretation of his own collection of facts. I often wonder if Napoleon was correct when he said that, “history is a fable agreed upon.” At the very least, history is a tricky business.

By the middle of the 1960’s, America’s churches had become deeply stagnant. While the evangelical/fundamentalist/full-gospel/holiness folks had, for years, belittled the “Mainline” denominations as compromisers, they were in the process of dying from the very same myopic view of God’s Kingdom on earth. Seeing themselves as a bit more spiritually correct, established congregations viewed difference and change as anathema, statements of compromise rather than inevitability. We embraced the notion that true spirituality would be evidenced by an “outfit,” a standard of dress and appearance as outmoded as it was misleading. In consequence, the Jesus Movement, with its weirdo-groovy people, was resisted by many until they realized the infusion of new bodies could be beneficial to their congregations and ministries. As God moved, civilians and crazies melted together into one, beautiful pool. For me, that was the power of “The Movement.”

While God and His word will never change, the Christian religion is chameleonic in the sense that it will always be a reflection of the culture in which “The Vine” takes root. Therefore, it’s not change I lament, and there is no pining for a false nostalgia. It’s about focus, and that matters because focus determines reality. “As a man thinks, so is he…”. The Christian scriptures refer to the loss of focus as a lost “first love.” I wonder if our generation hasn’t institutionalized that loss of focus, satisfying ourselves instead with the business of customizing religion. Though these laments have been voiced for generations, I submit that the cultural aspects of our generation, “the Jesus Movement,” Spirit-filled Baby Boomers, have served to galvanize them into a new norm, a new reality.

The “Exquisite Agony,” the art of preaching, is all but lost. It’s been well-documented that the Jesus Movement, with its sudden infusion of untaught extroverts, all of whom had an opinion worth burning down a building, needed to be assimilated into the Body Proper. As a necessity, teaching became the great emphasis, and we began placing greater importance on educational titles like Doctor Tarr or Professor Feather, even as the prophetic voice began to disappear. There are no Billy Sundays, young Oral Roberts’ or Billy Grahams any more. Perhaps time will reveal that fact to be for the better, but I doubt it. In our growing efforts to be “politically correct” and not leave hard feelings, our congregations have lost all their taste for candor. We hippies were spoiled brats. If we didn’t get our way, we burned something down or otherwise showed contempt for any “limitations” to our agenda. We continue to carry that American, cultural imprint. The end result is, we don’t want people getting personal about our lifestyles. Teachers relate. Preachers thunder.

We’ve replaced the “anointing” with entertainment. Raised on Rock stars and revolution, Woodstock and Attica, we came into America’s churches with a fixed idea of what “good” music should sound like and what “effective” ministry should look like. We evangelized the Church, and the Church allowed it because the new music and attitude appeared an effective method for church growth. Proving that Protestantism is divisive by nature, when the churches didn’t allow our preferences, we started our own congregations or communal ventures. Ultimately losing our “outward focus,” our corporate agenda has shifted mightily. In far too many neighborhoods it’s no longer about “winning the lost;” it’s about installing that $250,000 sound system to provide a better experience for other believers. Sure, you’ve heard these kind of old-guy gripes before. So what? You’ll be doing it yourself, someday. Since each generation believes itself a bit more spiritually correct than the generation that follows, such things, in one form or another, will be an ongoing issue. But this is different, the difference becoming institutionalized.

The “anointing” is, in practical terms, a clear manifestation of Grace, the spiritual unguent God uses to grease our wheels and move us closer to Himself. God’s anointing changes us. While pleasant harmonies and beautiful productions can get the hair or goose-bumps to raise on my body, that’s not the same as the anointing. Contemporary music, sung from off the wall, has turned the entire congregation into background singers. People don’t sing because they don’t know the songs. The people on platform are having a great time and show us how we ought to act in the moment but, “the anointing?”

We’ve lost our sense of urgency. Urgency is the driving force of evangelism. The fact that Jesus seemed serious when He said “Ready or not, I’m coming back,” no longer seems to energize those of us who claim to believe it. Abraham pitched a tent and built an altar. What he did for himself was temporary in nature; what he did for God, permanent. In America’s prosperity-cursed churches, people do just the opposite. Forgetting we’re just pilgrim’s passing through the land, we’re now focused on possessing it. The instant-gratification syndrome, coupled with a crippling case of class envy, has all but obliterated any sensory awareness that souls continue to hang in the balance. We don’t “compel them to come in.” What does that even mean? Whatever the finest meaning, it certainly indicates the need, and opportunity, to examine our focus and priorities. A half century later, my generation of believers, “Jesus people,” is in danger of becoming what we abhorred in Christ’s Kingdom.

Our objectives have been compromised. Politics and money were the only methods for effecting change our generation understood. But politics and money have skewed our compass when it comes to furthering God’s Kingdom on earth. If the billions of dollars Christians have sent away to Christian television, conservative politicians and big-time “ministries” had instead been invested in their local church’s outreach to their community, our entire nation would be changed. We’ve farmed out our Biblical responsibilities. Local churches are both barns for lambs and barracks for soldiers. It’s that last part our generation has pushed away.

If I read the Christian scriptures correctly, the earliest church came into existence in an effort to provide for the needy and those most seriously impacted by the oppressions of Rome. I submit that the “widows and orphans” among us are not being ministered to, at all, and those aged saints, no longer able to make services, are pushed completely off the radar to the shame of us all. “Why does my congregation exist?” Knowing that our “treasure” and our “heart” occupy the same space, what do dollars spent say about our priorities? We’ve created a monster and it requires everything just to keep it alive and looking well.

When the infusion of interest peaked by the Jesus Movement dissipated, local congregations become infatuated with anything that might engender the same kind of excitement and energy. Growing a church by winning the lost became secondary to, seemingly, anything that could jerk our “Rah-Rah” leash. The humbling, sacrificial work of “Each one, reach one…each one, teach one” is no longer modeled or emphasized. It’s much easier to believe that, “if you build it, they will come.” I cannot imagine myself alone believing that our objectives have been compromised, our vision obscured and our mission left unfulfilled.

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