I have found myself in recent times thinking about “church”. I don’t get to go as much as I did – we travel from Paris to the South a lot and for the past month or so, the rail link from home to St Lazare has had maintenance closures, so weekend services are very severely limited and people are bussed to another station before being able to get up to town. No, I don’t feel guilty, nor do I think someone should try to make me. I miss ‘church’ in some ways, although a flagship building and strong, qualified, doctrinally sound exposition doesn’t really make up for the fact that it’s quite a friendless place, on the whole. As in any other large organisation, there seem to be circles within circles and the vagabond in me likes to sit at the gateway, nod, smile, dutifully sharing the Peace with people I’ve never met and speak to no-one.
On the subject of flagships, it’s been interesting, and rather saddening, to watch the implosion of that New Calvinist behemoth formerly known as Mars Hill whose charismatic if rather outspokenly brash senior pastor Mark Driscoll has been dismissed. It seemed he let his enthusiasm run away with him, smacked around a few too many followers, and a lot of vulnerable people found themselves browbeaten and abused by someone who should have known better. Now amidst the rubble, fallout and haemorrhage, both pastoral and financial, the whole structure is being dismantled and sold off in the ecclesiastical equivalent of a fire sale. When church becomes big business, it becomes susceptible to all the temptations of profit, status and media approval ratings. How it could have been prevented is a different thread.
I’ve always been in favour of small over large. Small means being known, large means anonymity where the secrets of the heart can be more easily concealed and transparency lost.
It seems that Mr Driscoll has apologised. Small means that apology has more meaning – usually, individuals are those wronged, and if one claims to apologise to an organisation, it’s like apologising to the bank for exceeding one’s overdraft limit, it lacks conviction and can be filed away under the header of the politics of expediency. It may only be at the circumference of the problem, not at its centre. A narcissistic apology with no desire to make amends is no more than manipulative theatre since it proclaims “I am hurting because of this”, rather than “You are hurting because of me”.
But, of course, the big/small issue is only a part. I don’t want to ‘belong’ to a large organisation so large that the man in charge takes on the status of a rock star, the worship team has its own fan club and in a time of need you have to queue, call or make an appointment to see someone who doesn’t know you and ends up just giving good advice which you probably knew already, not sitting with you in the ashes, with a servant heart. Neither do I want to belong to a small organisation which replaces pastoral care with a Blackshirt beating which is why I find New Calvinism particularly unappealing. It’s just like Old Calvinism in ripped denim jeans. There’s even a Facebook group called “Calvinism. The group that chooses you”. They are still relatively few in number, but that doesn’t bother them: being a persecuted minority proves they are among the elect. They are not “the next big thing” but a protest movement, defying the woolly baa-lamb mainstream that, they believe, has gone soft on sin and has watered down the Gospel into a glorified self-help program. A protest movement headed up by a Sherman tank of a preacher who once wrote that the mainstream church has turned Jesus into a “hippie, queer Christ, neutered and limp-wristed…. a Sky Fairy of pop culture” is bound to cause a few casualties, which is a shame.
I’ve seen my fair share of church breakups, most frequently caused by a systematic lack of humility together with self-aggrandisement conveniently masquerading as ‘vision’ sometimes laced with a sadistic sense of self importance consequently I’m quite relieved not to have been a part of this one. I found myself comparing it to ISIS. Cult minority status, unquestioning obedience to leaders, dissent stifled, emphasis on militancy…
Or, perhaps I go too far.