Friday, June 8, 2007

Authentic Ministry in a Consumerist Culture

This post originally appeared on DocDisc--an list serve for the Disciples of Christ. It is written by Darrell McGowan, a Disciples of Christ pastor in Fullerton, CA, to a Disciple audience, but transcends this denomination of which I'm also an ordained minister. I hope to have Darrell write more about this in a future issue of Sharing the Practice, but I think this will get the conversation going.
Bob Cornwall


Hi everyone,
I've been doing some writing on these issues recently, and I offer you a few of my preliminary thoughts. If they are helpful, share them. If they are not, toss them. If you want to dialogue around them, I would love to hear from you personally or carry on the conversation in this forum.
Let me preface my thoughts by saying I think generational differences factor into the realities of what works and what doesn't in any context, but I am becoming more and more convinced that cultural differences that do not necessarily conform neatly to generational ones may be even more important. By cultural differences, I am not referring so much to cultures tied to ethnicity or national origin, but more to the way one looks at one's relationship to society.
We live in a consumeristic culture, and that reality needs to be addressed. One way to address this reality is to buy into the consumeristic culture and try to meet the needs of religious consumers. Under this approach, every time we identify another "felt need" amongst those we hope to attract to the church, we create or adapt a program or ministry to address that need. Churches that take this approach spend most of their resources meeting the needs of their members in different styles of worship, children's programs, new and remodeled facilities, and other accommodations. Many megachurches take this approach. They have a program for every group and a ministry aimed at every need. Most mainline churches that attempt this approach soon find they cannot compete with the megachurches. No matter how much they do, someone else is doing more and doing it more grandly.
Another way to address the consumeristic culture is to publicly stand in opposition to that culture. Many in the peace and justice movement take this approach, and they thrive as small groups with a very specific cause. They challenge people to relate to the world as something more than objects to be consumed and to relate to each other and to the stranger as something other than commodities. They tend to be driven by specific issues, whether the "open and affirming" movement, anti-war or peace movement, equal opportunity, racism, or some other issue. This approach usually has a short life- cycle unless the energy generated to address a particular issue can be continually regenerated or transferred to other issues as passion and enthusiasm wanes in relationship to the original issue.
A third way we can relate to the consumeristic culture is to create a countercultural environment where people can begin to question the dominant paradigm, experience freedom from the addictive patterns of a consumeristic culture and strive to live in life-giving relationship to each other and to the world. This model is deeply mission-focused and open to change. It meets people where they are at and ministers from the talents and gifts offered by the members of the church. A countercultural church models Jesus' command to love one another as we love ourselves. It actively works to free people from addictions to substances, unhealthy relationships, and self- destructive behavior patterns.
This third way is one that we, as Disciples, can be very good at if we choose. It can be embraced whether we worship in a more traditional style, a more contemporary one, or a cutting-edge style more meaningful to younger generations. It is not dependent on amassing large financial resources to pay professional musicians, administrators, technicians, or ministers. It fits well with our historical desire to seek unity in the midst of diversity.
I judge the first approach to be antithetical to the gospel, and although it has led to some very large churches with seemingly successful ministries, I believe it undermines the message of Jesus and perverts the public witness of the faith. When a church loses its focus on caring for the least amongst us and pours its resources into meeting the needs of its members, it is no longer proclaiming the gospel. Many of our churches have fallen into this trap as they tried to emulate what they perceived as successful models of church.
Unfortunately, most Disciples churches that have taken this path have ended up worse off as they poured financial resources into contemporary worship and other ministries only to find they still could not attract the religious consumers streaming to the megachurches. This approach further reinforces the narcissistic tendencies of a consumer culture and suggests that church should be a place where your needs are met, rather than a place where you are challenged, outfitted, and empowered to meet the needs of others.
Most of our churches have a strong mission focus unless they have declined to the point where they are just trying to survive. They could develop alternative worship services, build state-of-the-art children's facilities, and higher professionals in every leadership position if they would abandon their outward focus, but they are unwilling to do so. The good news is they do not need to abandon their outward focus, they need to proclaim it!
They also need to empower everyone in their church to share their gifts. If they have middle-aged and younger adults with the talent to create and staff a contemporary service, they should start such a service. On the other hand, if their members love singing in a choir and listening to the organ, they should work to expand the choir and invite new folks into it. Churches can grow and revitalize their ministries by welcoming middle-aged and older adults as easily as they can by attracting the young families most churches are targeting.
The religious consumers, who are likely to be younger than average, but can be any age, will look for churches that are focused on meeting their members' needs. They will be very comfortable in the megachurches. We are wasting our time trying to attract them and we may even be jeopardizing our ability to proclaim the gospel.
The folks who have tired of consumerism and are desperately seeking another way need to know that another way exists. They are the target audience of our message. They need to be of service in a meaningful way, learn the value and reward of stewardship, and experience the joy of living the gospel. We are ideally positioned to welcome people into a counter-cultural experience. That experience can be expressed in the context of any worship style and through any number of ministries that address the needs of others.
I hope we will find ways to explore this issue at Assemblies, Regional gatherings, district meetings, and congregational meetings. This can be a very exciting time, but we need to consciously choose to embrace our mission focus, let go of those who want us to be self- contained and inwardly focused, and welcome people desperate for freedom from the oppressive weight of a consumer society.



Darrell McGowan
Senior Minister,
First Christian Church of Fullerton
Fullerton, CA, USA

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The Age of Barbaria
by Jorge Majfud; translated by Bruce Campbell
Published in the Humanist, July/August 2008

Annual trips back to the year 33 began in the Age of Barbaria. That year was selected because, according to surveys, Christ’s crucifixion drew the attention of most Westerners, and this social sector was important for economic reasons since trips to the past weren’t organized, much less financed, by the government of any country (as had once happened with the first trips into space) but by a private company. The financial group that made the marvel of traveling through time possible was called Axa. Acting at the request of the High Chief of Technology, who suggested infinite profits through “tourism services,” Axa transported groups of thirty people each to the year 33 in order to witness the death of the Nazarene, much as the tourist commoners did long ago when at each equinox they would gather at the foot of the pyramid of Chitchen-Itzá to witness the formation of the serpent from the shadows cast down by the pyramid upon itself.

The greatest inconvenience encountered by Axa was the limited number of tourists who were able to attend the event at one time, thus hampering the millions in profit expected by the investors. For this reason the group maximum was gradually raised to forty-five, at the risk of attracting the attention of the ancient residents of Jerusalem. That figure has been maintained at the request of one of the company’s principal stockholders, who argued, reasonably, that the conservation of that historic deed in its original state was the basis for the trips, and that if each group produced alterations to the facts, it could result in an abandonment of general interest in carrying out this kind of travel.

Over time it has been proven that each historical alteration of the facts, no matter how small, is nearly impossible to repair. Such damage occurs whenever one of the travelers fails to respect the rules and attempts to take away some memento of the place. The most well-known was the case of Adam Parker who, with incredible dexterity, was able to cut out a triangular piece of the Nazarene’s red tunic, probably at the moment the latter collapsed from fatigue. The theft did not signify any change in the holy scriptures, but it served to make Parker rich and famous, since the tiny piece of canvas came to be worth a fortune, and more than a few of the travelers who have since taken on the trouble and expense of going back thousands of years have done so to see where the Nazarene is missing “Parker’s Triangle.”

A few have posed objections to this kind of travel, which, they insist, will end up destroying history in ways beyond our notice. In effect, it has: for each change introduced on any given day, infinite changes are derived from it, century after century, gradually diluting or multiplying its effects. In order to notice a minimal change in the year 33 it would be useless to turn to the holy scriptures, because all of the editions, equally, would reflect the blow and completely forget the original facts. There might be a possibility of tracing each change by projecting other trips to years just prior to the Age of Barbaria, but nobody would be interested in such a project and there would be no way of financing it.

The discussion about whether history should remain as it is or can be legitimately modified also no longer matters. But the latter is, in any case, dangerous, since it is impossible to foresee the resulting changes that would be produced by any particular alteration. We know that any change might not be catastrophic for the human species, but could potentially be catastrophic for individuals: we might not be the ones who are alive now, but someone else instead.

The most radical religious groups find themselves on opposing sides. Barbaria’s information services have recently discovered that a group of Evangelicals belonging to the True Church of God in Sao Pablo, will make a trip to the year 33. Thanks to the charity of its faithful, the group has managed to gather together the sum of several million charged by Axa per ticket. What no one has yet been able to confirm are the group’s intentions. It’s been said they will blow up Golgotha and set fire to Jerusalem at the moment of the Crucifixion, so that we thus arrive at the greatly anticipated End Times. All of history would disappear; the whole world, including the Jews, would recognize their error and would turn to Christianity in the year 33. The entire world would live in the Kingdom of God, just as described in the Gospels.

Others dispute this as conspiracy theory, or they question how the travelers could witness the Crucifixion without trying to prevent it. The theological answer is obvious, which is why those least interested in preventing the martyrdom of the Messiah are his own followers. But for the rest, who are the majority, Axa has decreed its own ethical rules: “In the same manner in which we do not prevent the death of the slave between the claws of a lion when we travel to Africa, neither must we prevent the apparent injustices that are committed with the Nazarene. Our moral duty is to conserve nature and history as they are.” The crucifixion is the common heritage of humanity, but, above all, its rights have been acquired totally by Axa.

In fact, the changes will be increasingly inevitable. After six years of trips to the year 33, one can see, at the foot of the cross, bottle caps and magic marker graffiti on the main beam, some of which pray: “I have faith in my lord,” and others just limit themselves to the name of who was there, along with the date of departure, so that future generations of travelers will remember them. Of course, the company also began to yield in the face of pressure from dissatisfied clients, leading to a radical improvement in services. For example, Barbaria just sent a technical representative to the year 26 to request the production of five thousand cubic meters of asphalt and to negotiate with Pontius Pilate the construction of a more comfortable corridor for the Via Dolorosa, which will make less tiresome the travelers’ route and, besides, would be a gesture of compassion for the Nazarene, who more than once broke his feet on stones that he failed to see in his path. It has been calculated that the improvement won’t mean changes in the holy scriptures, since there is no special concern demonstrated there for the urbanism of the city.

With these measures, Axa hopes to shelter itself from the storm of complaints it has received due to alleged inadequacies in service, having to confront recently very costly lawsuits brought by clients who have spent a fortune and have returned unsatisfied. The cause of these complaints is not always the intense heat of Jerusalem, or the congestion in which the city is entrapped on the day of the Crucifixion. Above all the cause is the unsatisfied expectations of the travelers. The company defends itself by saying that the holy scriptures weren’t written under its quality control, but instead are only historical documents and, therefore, are exaggerated. There where the Nazarene really dies, instead of a deep and horrifying night, the sky is barely darkened by an excessive concentration of clouds, and nothing more. The Catholics have declared that this fact, like all those referenced in the Gospels, should be understood in its symbolic meaning and not merely descriptively. But most people were satisfied neither by Axa’s response nor by that of Pope John XXV, who came out in defense of the multinational corporation, thanks to which people can now be closer to God.

Jorge Majfud is a Uruguayan writer who received his Ph.D. from the University of Georgia, and who currently teaches at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. His essays, story collections, and several novels have been translated into Portuguese, French, English, German, Italian, and Greek. His latest novel is The City of the Moon (Baile de Sol, 2008).

Bruce Campbell teaches Hispanic Studies at the College of St. Benedict and St. John's University in Minnesota, and is the author of Mexican Murals in Times of Crisis (University of Arizona, 2003) and the forthcoming ¡Viva la historieta! Mexican Comics, NAFTA, and the Politics of Globalization (University Press of Mississippi).
© 2008, American Humanist Association