The Malling of Evangelicalism
A recent article in Reuters.com featured American churches that “reach out with coffee and roller rinks.” Reach out with what? I thought the Scriptural way that a church reaches out is by preaching the gospel of Christ – “faith comes from hearing” (Rom 10:13-17) – crucified for our sins and raised for our justification.
“I’ve always said the church is not about a building, not about physical structures, it’s really about the people themselves,” said Pastor Jeff Arrington of SonRise Community Church in Cincinnati, Ohio. The church is about what? I thought the church is about worshipping God, sitting under the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, breaking of bread, and the prayers (Acts 2:42).
Their youth pastor says that the coffee shop “doesn’t look anything like a church. Kids come here and it’s non-threatening…” It’s no surprise then that a part-time Roman Catholic, part-time evangelical teenager says, “It’s a great way to end the weekend and have fun.” Non-threatening. Relevance. Love. Coffee shop. Fun and games. These are the code words for today’s evangelical churches. But what about church words like these: Offense of the cross. Sin. God’s wrath. Liturgy. Sacrament. Suffering. None of that irrelevance – the Bible is out, Starbucks (or Purpose-Driven Life) is in.
R. Scott Clark, Professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary in California, in his article “Program-Driven Church,” writes about the mall culture of the church:
Finally, to the engine of the program-driven church: the congregation. Not always, but often the congregation is just as culpable for turning the church into a mall. They want what they have (perhaps implicitly) demanded and it seems that theyâ€™ve demanded â€œthe mall.â€ After all, the mall is where they get their needs met. The mall forms their culture. Itâ€™s comfortable. Itâ€™s familiar. It works. The mall has a food court, a cinema, and all the right shops. Why canâ€™t the church be like that? Whatâ€™s wrong with it?
Paul exhorts the Corinthian church to “prophesy,” that is, preach the gospel, so that when an unbeliever or outsider is in their midst, “he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you” (1 Cor 14:24-25). Being convicted and falling on one’s face aren’t exactly non-threatening, but rather, very “church-y.”
Roman Catholic churches still use words like Eucharist, Mass, homily, Holy Rosary, etc. I’m sure that in the mosques you’ll still hear words like Allah, Shadadah, Salah, Hajj, Zakat, Sawm, etc. And in Buddhist circles, I imagine that Infinite Consciousness, philosophy of mind, altered state of consciousness, enlightened, karma, guru, yoga, etc., are still in vogue. So why is it that evangelicalism is ashamed of, and hides, its gospel, even from its own people? Paul has a term for this evangelical anomaly: “ashamed of the gospel” (Rom 1:16) – a gospel that is “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Cor 1:23).
In the Philippines, the church has literally become the mall – many church services are in the malls, movie theaters, and restaurants. “Reaching out” is more like “Wowowee” and “Eat Bulaga” (racy Filipino noontime shows) evangelism. Evangelical churches adopt the crass sex, idolatry, and escapism saturating these two TV variety shows, on which the eyes of millions, from toddlers to centagenarians, are glued daily. This is why most Filipino evangelicals find nothing wrong in children (and adults too) body-writhing and hip-hopping to the vulgarities and sexual innuendoes of “Ikembot Mo!” (“Shake Your Booty”), “Itaktak Mo,” and “Boom Tarat Tarat!” in their church activities (I have no idea how to translate the coarse language of the other two).
What’s wrong with these, if they would bring “unchurched” people to church so they could “get to know God”? Anything wrong with Starbucks and Krispy Kreme evangelism? The answer is in Paul’s reminder to the Ephesian saints:
But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God… Therefore do not become partners with them… Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose themÂ (Eph 5:3-11).
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