Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Unclean! Unclean!

In examining the history of the spread of evangelicalism in America, it becomes clear that the Christianity of our culture is defined by "what works." Mark Noll implies this historic trajectory in his book America's God. Instead of being a more "thinking religion" of doctrines, confessions and creeds (characteristic of European Christianity at its healthiest peak), North America has developed a strain of Christianity marked more by feeling and production. The early years of this new republic saw a wave of revulsion to establishmentarian traditions and polity. This trend did not slow throughout the 19th century, nor did the 20th century so much as tap the breaks either. Far from it, so much would Americans retain this distrust of restrictive highchurchmanship, equating ecclesiastical and political freedoms, that JFK's Catholicism would eventually have to be defended to conservative critics.

Another trend of the early republic was ecclesiastical expansionism. Itinerants were encouraged to start as many new churches and study "societies" as they possible could, with the renown of some speakers growing through the newspapers as reports of crowds numbering the thousands hit the front page. The young country was quickly developing the underlying supposition that the Christian God of evangelicalism was the "God" of numbers, expansion and success. Examining these historic threads should not lead one to believe that numbers, expansion and success are wrong. However, Americans developed the uncanny ability to interpret the Great Commission of Matthew 28 in these terms alone.

Therefore, a culture of binding ministry success and Divine blessing together became normative. Preachers learned to gauge God's "blessing" on their ministries by the success they enjoyed through expanding numbers. If, on the contrary, they experienced the opposite, that was interpreted as God withholding blessing. I attend an institution that gives lip service to overcoming this set of assumptions, but then maintains a curriculum for pastoral candidates that keep these assumptions alive and well. The "giants" of present day ministry success are paraded before the student body to inspire their diligent efforts in working for the Lord. The end result is that the vast majority of students carry these "success/blessing" assumptions around in their head.

So when fellow students who know that I have been a pastor for the previous year ask, "How's your church doing?" I know what they're wanting to hear: that it's grown to several hundred, that conversions are weekly, that my salary has risen and that we're needing to add building space. This is not what I can report though. Instead I report the glorious truth: of how God gave us the wisdom to proper diagnose the church's trends, of how the Spirit guided us into a relationship with Gateway Fellowship, and how ministry continues in this way that continues to strengthen the work of the Church in our community. Regardless of these positive aspects of the closing of Woodcreek Bible Church, the look on classmates' faces remains predictable. Their countenance sinks in brooding empathy for their fallen comrade who has suffered through watching the glory depart the temple.

Since blessing and success are so married together in my evangelical sub-culture, the implied sentiment is that I somehow missed out on the blessing. It's reminiscent of the Old Testament cleanliness laws. There were parts of life that, though not necessarily being sin, could render someone ceremonially "unclean." Such things as touching a dead carcass or giving birth to new child could result in ceremonial uncleanness. The remedies were typically simple, but had to be followed in order restore cleanliness and re-enter the camp. If the condition causing uncleanness was not dealt with, the result could be leprosy (this was a generic label given any skin condition that rendered one "unclean"). By the first century though, lepers had to walk about warning people of their condition exclaiming "Unclean! Unclean!" so that people would not come into contact with them, becoming "unclean" themselves.

At times I have felt, on campus, as though I should walk across the quad shouting "Unclean! Unclean!" For when I speak of my supposed lack of ministry success (striking terror in the hearts of the unsuspecting by announcing the closure of a church), the reaction of many is to politely break of the conversation as quickly as possible. I feel as though I need to succeed at something in order to come back into the "camp" and be receive by my sub-community of success/blessing evangelicals. I know that this feeling is not warranted; for God has repeatedly shown me the manner of his leading, how the regular rules of evangelical success-ism are not the legitimate measure. Nevertheless, I struggle to remember that the work of the Church is not so tied to market forces that God is a poor recruiter for his ministerial ranks. Instead, he calls who he calls; and for reasons that seem good to him, he has called me to serve his people in the manner that I do.

1 comment:

Monk321 said...

I suppose I should take comfort that so many colleagues view me as more of an academician than a pastor anyway. Case in point, I walked past a professor today who called me "Dr. Ott." This was strange since I don't interact with that particular professor often. However he's not the first of the DTS faculty and staff to call be that. I wonder if that's how many view me then.