Monday, June 30, 2008

Image Problem

By Sean McDonough, PhD
Associate Professor of New Testament

I am not sure which is more disturbing: the fact that in a recent newspaper article a franchise-church pastor openly compares his church-planting strategy to Starbuck's, or the fact that this does not remotely surprise me. We are so inured to a market-driven approach to church that it just seems like…business as usual. (I will spare you the details of this latest assault on gospel decency, though I will point out that this particular outfit is looking to push into the lucrative South American market, thus adding cultural imperialism to an already dubious mix.)

Whatever good impulses might drive these chains (and I am not denying those may be involved), there seem to be two irreducible (and interrelated) elements to them: Image and Control. The first involves creating a recognizable “brand”, which used to focus on having an eloquent preacher, but now goes all the way towards an eye-catching logo and an ear-catching slogan. The second consists of replicating a particular religious experience in a variety of settings. McDonald's provides the clich├ęd but still perfect analogy: the two-year old recognizes the Golden Arches in an instant, and cries with longing because she knows the cheeseburgers nestled within will taste exactly the same every time.

As always, there is a baseline of common sense we can work from: it seems reasonable enough for a church to have a consistent letterhead, for example, and a certain continuity in the worship service from week to week can help people focus on the content of worship rather than trying to figure out how we are doing things this week. The problem comes when Image and Control become the driving force of the religious enterprise.

Let us begin with Image. We are well acquainted (in theory) with the physical suffering endured by those who were crucified in the Roman Empire. We are less aware of the equally devastating social consequences of crucifixion: the cross was at least as much about shame, about abject humiliation, as it was about physical suffering. What this means for us is that when Paul made the cross the centerpiece of his preaching, he was arguably making the single worst marketing decision in the history of mankind. And it turns out that the whole of Jesus' public ministry was marked by a gap between Image and Reality: only those “with eyes to see” – those who could penetrate beyond mere appearance to see how things in God's kingdom really are – could embrace the subversive message Jesus preached. An obsessive concern with Image, therefore, deprives people of the ability to see clearly, and thus to joyfully enter the Kingdom they have seen.

If Image is the hand that slams shut the door of the Kingdom, Control is the key that locks it. The Kingdom of God is all about the free movement of God-in-Christ to reclaim the world he has created. It is about the Almighty Creator breathing life into the dry bones of humanity through His powerful Spirit. Certainly God uses human beings as responsible agents in pressing his kingdom forward, but it remains His kingdom; “without Me you can do nothing.” In the good old days, an airplane pilot might invite the eager six-year old up to the cock-pit to enjoy the view and marvel at the array of instruments spread out before him. But even in the good old days, the fun would stop if the kid tried to shove the pilot aside and say, “Okay, pal, that's enough; I'll bring her in from here.” Making reliable disciples of Jesus is not the same thing as making reliable five dollar lattes. It is a lifelong process utterly dependent on God every step of the way. “Without Me, you can do nothing” – really.

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