There is a brand new church opening up shop here in the Holy City later this month. They’ve been advertising on local television over the past few weeks, and catching their commercial on the off instance I was actually watching daytime local television–or rather, it was on in the background–my curiosity was piqued. So I went to their website and they touted the fact that they were launching on a specific Sunday in October.
There was something odd about their page, though: their catalog of ‘ministries’ was full, their staff plentiful, they even had a full sermon archive online for streaming. Coupled with the fact that their commercial featured a considerable number of people in pseudo-flash mobs around various parts of Mecca, I began to smell a rat. This church wasn’t opening up shop, they were already open.
(Of course, if they had flash mobbed Big Blue/Gray or Six Flags Over Jesus, I might have a more charitable opinion. So much for being courageous. Alas, I get ahead of myself, and I digress.)
So, this church isn’t a typical church plant, where a pastor and wife or a small team of pastors are meeting in the Whispering Willows conference room of the local Super 8 at first (and, usually, last) and pretending to have a youth group when they’re lucky to even call what they do on a Sunday morning a service in a way that is nothing more than being vestigial. Nor is it a mothering effort, where a church offshoots a new congregation elsewhere in a community or metropolitan area–a notion which took flight quickly about 20-25 years ago but rapidly became antiquated in the Franchising McChurch age of corporate church growth we’re stuck with in the present. Why mother a new church when you can create a ‘campus’ and have a relative do the preaching? And why have a relative do the preaching when you can just beam yourself into their presence by closed-circuit? Bradbury, God rest his soul, worried about the right things from the wrong people.
Thanks to the power of the interwebs, I did some detective work and found no direct evidence of the church as it was before it decided to find its cojones. I did, however, find a self-professed prophet’s blog whose main eschatological viewpoints were anchored in the strange bedfellows of John Piper and Matt Drudge–I have no opinion of one and a very strong opinion of the other, and the most I will say to that is calvinus delenda est. This other blogger took the pastor to task for something about–I wish I were making this up–a gospel of diarrhea.
[EDITORIAL ASIDE: Now, I’m not above bodily functions describing the Christian experience. I often refer to the music portions of Sunday meetings as corporate spiritual masturbation–going up a step in that chorus is not the same as shekinah–and have pointed out on more than one occasion that the scriptural phrase which describes Jesus as delicately having been ‘moved with compassion’ is, in its metaphorical nature, akin to having the sudden and imminent urge to take a dump. How’s that for eschatology? Sorry, couldn’t resist. In any case, if the church is a body, then let’s embrace metaphors for what they are and in all their fullness. I, again, digress.]
It turns out that this new church is actually not, in any way other than moniker, new at all. It’s just rebranded. Like the fine folks at Sterling Cooper recommend, when a name is tarnished in the public’s eye, change the name. Of course, they were referring to dog food, but nothing seems to re-energize people like a name change. When, growing up, my totalitarian and self-insulated youth pastor changed the name of our youth group and even redesigned the entire room into a set that made television’s USS Enterprise look like the aforementioned Sterling Cooper, it held us captive and created a new chapter in the history of that group (and church. Many of his actions led to the church’s implosion and subsequent decade in the wilderness.) Never mind the sheer dishonesty of ‘launching’ a church that has already been well-established in the community; dishonesty is the one character trait at which we Christians excel: taqqiyah of our own design.
What bothers me most about church name changes is two-fold:
First, the notion that in naming a church that it somehow acts as names in Torah, that is to say, naming a church is prophetic for what the noun is supposed to be. In the same way that the First Baptist Church down the street in your neighborhood wasn’t actually the first (at least the Christian Scientists–or what’s left of them–are honest about this), naming one’s church a characteristic of the church one wishes it had–and further set up one’s own strawman by airing a TV spot where they fake flash mobs in a way to lend themselves gravitas–they fool no one but themselves. A corporation rebranded with the same leadership in place remains the same in every conceivable way. Even granting the creative work of the Holy Spirit, God doesn’t change the way in which God communicates to a single person or church. Innovation may be spiritually motivated, but it’s still operating within the mind of a person, or within the brain trust of church leadership.
Going all-in on your desire to be courageous by even changing your name to ‘courageous’ is reckless at best, and self-nullifying at worst. You don’t see obese Americans changing their names to ‘Svelte’, ‘Skinny’ or ‘Attained by prolific usage of cocaine and anorexia’.
In any case, what is it to be ‘courageous’, anyway? People can be courageous for all the wrong reasons. German soldiers were ‘courageous’ in conquering Europe, and they were dominant in the name of a regime that was wholly evil. One is better off sticking to neighborhood or nearby geographic identifiers than what one wishes one’s church was. This church in question would have been better off calling themselves ‘unapologetically on the crappy side of Springfield’ or being content in being what they were before, apparently, the only purveyors of truth in town.
Secondly, and indirectly related, being ‘courageous’ is something that only matters to people already in the camp. They fool no one and gain no cache with their intended demographic, after all, if I were outside the camp, the last thing I would want to walk into is a church that names themselves ‘courageous’. I don’t need people to be courageous to me, I’m not impressed by that. In fact, most of what happens on a Sunday morning is an exercise in self-congratulation and alienates even those who are remotely curious about Christ and faith-type stuff. All this is moot, though, if their demographic is people already in the camp, in which case one has to ask about that pesky Great Commission. People aren’t stupid, they recognize cheap gimmicks for what they are: campiness.
And we Christians would do better by default if we stopped treating people as though they were. They see through each and every trick because it’s all been done before. We aren’t nearly as innovative as we like to think we are. The rebranding has been going on with youth groups for decades now, it’s just now happening on a grand scale. (Ever notice we call our youth groups ‘ministries’, as though there were more than one ministry going on? I’ve always wondered what efforts take place that justify a plural. Plus, ‘ministries’ is a dead giveaway, like wheeling and dealing with a seller and ending up paying more than the original price. While I’m here, I should also mention that, to my erstwhile youth tyrant’s credit, he never slapped ‘youth ministries’ on the apparel.)
All that to say that the first clue a person is going to have is that they’re being invited to go to church anyway, so we might be better off working on the things that will really matter. We spend so much time–badly–hiding the fact that we’re Christians inviting people to share in the Christian experience that we forget that part and parcel of what is supposed to make Christians unique is to genuinely, freely and without ulterior motive give a crap about people.
The irony, lost on us believers, is that what would truly be courageous is to be Christ to people who are hurting and discontented in a way that diminishes the self so that Christ may be present in the life of another. If that means, as Douglas John Hall recommended, we ought to disestablish ourselves, or, as I recently recommended, forgo the Sunday routine to open up the fellowship hall for brunch, either would be a bold statement. We seem more comfortable in hiding our denominational affiliations and the fact that we’re churches than we are in figuring out how to best engage in conversation with culture.
Perhaps we prefer to shuffle the deck chairs of our Titanic while the worship team plays on. Hey, at least one church can say they are courageously sinking.