Friday I posted an email from Jeremy Hegi in response to last week’s original discussion topic of progressive discontent. I’m sure many of you are getting tired of this subject, and I promise to be done with it soon. I think in many ways it is such a fertile ground because it is a symptom of a much deeper problem, as my additional thoughts here to Jeremy reflect.
I agree that one of the primary issues we will deal with in this transitional period is the distinct difference between two groups of people – one group which is comfortable with the dynamic tension you describe, and one that is not. I think there will be some middle ground between the two groups – people perhaps like us who are “bi-lingual” to some extent, but in general I think people gravitate toward the extremes and forget the middles.
The most disturbing thing in all of this, which we’ve talked about before, is that these people who style themselves progressive really aren’t any different in their core theology from those they are fighting against. When the goals of some of the major change agents within our fellowship are geared primarily toward changes which lack real substance, we’re spinning our wheels and wasting time in a day and age where we need desperately to find our way. Altered worship styles have little if anything to do with a community of faith being transformed into a more organic body of Christ, and little if anything to do with effecting substantive change in individual’s transformations into the image of Christ. If we spend the next 30 years fighting about worship styles and baptism, I fear we won’t be around in another 30 years (not that I necessarily think that would be the worst thing).
As I’ve thought more about the entire discussion, there have been a few additional thoughts I’ll bounce off you.
First, it seems to me that such a worship-centric approach to God is dangerous in the same way as a physically-focused dating relationship. When you start dating someone, you may start to show physical affection in small ways at first – holding hands let’s say. Holding hands is fine, but you long for that day when you have your first kiss. One day it happens, and it’s wonderful – everything you thought it would be. All is good for a couple of weeks, until you become desensitized to that level in some ways, and you want to do more, go farther. In some ways this discussion sounds reminiscent of teenagers talking about their desires for extended sexual exploits – “How far do you want to go”, “No, we shouldn’t go there”, “I think it’s fine to go this far”, “You shouldn’t kiss before you’re married”, etc. I titled my blog post yesterday “ten questions of a ‘progressive’ discontent”, and I think in many ways it’s not the “progressive” (even in quotes) that is the eventual problem as much as the discontent. Do we have any reason to believe that once we attain this ephemeral change that we’ll be happy with it? In this regard I think the “traditionalists” are very correct – praise teams lead to praise bands, praise bands lead to something else, and pretty soon we’re on the slippery slope to who knows where. Where I disagree is that praise teams are a coordinated effort to get us to praise bands. I think it’s just a simple part of the human equation.
So how do we “fix” this? If we look back to the relationship example, I think one of the key parts to checking the physical relationship is balancing it with the emotional, spiritual, and mental side. If the foundation of your relationship/marriage is based on sex, there will be clear problems there. Physical intimacy is a wonderful thing, but it’s not enough to sustain a meaningful relationship. In a similar vein, corporate worship is a wonderful thing, but it is not enough to sustain a meaningful relationship with God. If we encounter God only during emotional worship highs and other “orgasmic” experiences, we are ill equipped to deal with the rest of our lives, and our spiritual journey becomes a quick dash from false summit to false summit, seeking the thrill of our last mountaintop.
Staying with a dating theme, it’s also interesting to look at what our outward appearance (and our attention to it) implies about our true worth. We tell our daughters not to dress like a hooker, because when they do they attract sleazy guys who are only interested in their bodies. Something I typically want to tell girls I overhear lamenting how guys just want them for their bodies, “If you don’t want to be treated like an object, don’t dress like one.” I feel in many ways like our attempt to alter our worship style is analogous to putting on a low cut shirt and showing a bit of cleavage in the hope of getting more guys to look at us.
Two things come out of this line of thought for me – first, are we really interested in the people who are going to look at us because of our “boobs”, as it were? Certainly we are interested in the world coming into relationship with Christ and experiencing his transforming power, just as a girl is interested in finding a man who will enter into a relationship with her, love and cherish her. Certainly that noble man might come along because he’s attracted to her body, but the majority of men are attracted to her body *and nothing else*. No matter how much time she spends or how much love she lavishes on them, most of them will never want her or see her as anything else, and when there’s a newer, more attractive girl available, they’ll jump ship and flatter her instead. The transient nature of people who are attracted to the next “new idea”, or “cool worship style”, or even “cool theology” is the same – while we hope to be a part of the transformation of the transient, we are both foolish and naïve if we believe men will be consistently transformed in meaningful and positive ways, or that true love will enter their hearts by looking at a woman’s body.
Second, what does it imply about our own perception of the spiritual worth of our community if we feel like we need to present a sexy image in order to attract someone? Like I’ve said before, there are multiple reasons why people will buy a product. People may buy iPods because they’re cool, but they certainly don’t buy motor oil for the same reason. No, rather they buy motor oil because it’s useful – they don’t want their engine to blow up. Most kind, sincere, intelligent, fun, caring girls have no problems finding guys who want to date and marry them, even if they don’t dress provocatively – precisely because there’s something more substantive than just the way they look. In fact, most girls who fit the above description don’t dress provocatively and draw attention to themselves because they recognize that the guys they’re interested in aren’t looking at their physical appearance. I’m reminded of what you mentioned a few weeks ago – that the early church made converts wait for potentially years before they were baptized. For anyone to join such a group – indeed for anyone to join a group where the likelihood of death came with the territory – there would have to be something there deeper and more attractive than the songs they sang while they were in the stinky catacombs.
My fear is that the main reason we feel the need to “sex up” our external image is because there is little to attract people on the inside. If we preach a gospel of morality, or of self-help, or of political action, do we really have anything to offer people other than a pep-rally? If not, then the questions we’re discussing here become exceedingly important – maybe the only important ones. If we have not been transformed inside, our only recourse is to make the outside more attractive. If over 50% of our marriages end in divorce, if Sunday morning is universally regarded in the restaurant industry as the worst time to work, if 91% of people surveyed say that they think of Christians as primarily anti-homosexual and judgmental, if the only picture of Jesus people have is Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and Fred Phelps, are we really surprised that nobody wants to come in?
The problem is not with our external appearances but with our internal transformation, or lack thereof. The unfortunate thing is that discussions like this one about primarily external matters serve as little more than criminal distractions in the pursuit of real change.