July 24, 2012 Permalink
By a technicality, I am a fairly large man. But one of God’s most gracious gifts to those of us in ministry is that as He gives us more opportunities we might perceive as “bigger,” He gives us perspective into how small we are. He allows me to see both that my life has unthinkable weight because He loves me, and yet how inconceivably irrelevant I am under the canvas of space and time. I am young enough that within my tradition, people occasionally tell me they see me as voice for “the future.” And while the sentiment is appreciated, I feel fairly certain I am not particularly futuristic.
The future has already arrived, and it has little to do with people like me. In the global body of Christ, we have seen a remarkable shift in the balance of power. Those of us in the west in general and North America in particular are used to being in the seat of power and influence; we are used to being those who shape global conversation in the Church. Our sense of self-importance is innate. Drunk on the rhetoric of America as a new Israel, our Christian faith a curious syncretism of sentimental piety and manifest destiny, we send missionaries into the world. We ship our virtues and vices wholesale into all the earth.
I am a Pentecostal by heritage and tradition, but culturally I am one of the bourgeois pastors whose day might seem to be coming, but in many ways has already passed. The whole white male, coffee-drinking, apple product-using, Coldplay-listening type. It is a very small world that we live in that feels deceitfully large. We have blogs, we write books, we talk about the most recent issue of Christianity Today. So it is easy to think we are the center of the universe.
We did not notice that the world has already moved on. We didn’t notice that the wind of the Spirit left us, and that there is a new world coming in Latin America and Africa and Asia that rendered us inconsequential. We enjoyed our time in the mainstream well enough to forget that the move of God always comes from the margins.
I am part of a tradition that began on the margins, in a rundown shack of a church in Los Angeles and among disreputable hillbillies in Appalachia. We did not have the burden of privilege then, and that afforded us the truer luxury of needing God and believing He could do anything. I write these words from Orlando, Florida for the Church of God General Assembly, and we are a case study for how the world had changed. Our movement is exponentially bigger outside the United States than within it. While we feel the sand sinking beneath us in North America, we have only a faint glimpse of the dynamic movement happening under our own banner in other parts of the world. Nonetheless, in Orlando we are comprised mostly white men from the Southeast—men just like myself—whose day has already past, our power already sifted through our fingers. And yet we still talk and conduct ourselves as if we are the center of the universe. We still talk as if the world has not moved on. We will talk as if God has not moved on.
This is not a distinctively Pentecostal phenomenon. I watched with some interest last week the online conflict that developed over gender issues in the Church. A blog from a pastor in the Reformed Gospel Coalition camp caused a stir in an attempt to critique the phenomenon of the novel 50 Shades of Grey, which is said to fetishize rape fantasy in the main artery of American fiction (I haven’t read it). The author of the post quoted from a book from Reformed “scholar” Douglas Wilson using strong language about gender roles. I alternately disliked the post and yet found it rather uninteresting. The use of the quote in context of the matter seemed to suggest that such fiction appeals to many women in our culture because gender relationships in the home are no longer properly defined. The idea, as I understood it, was that if men took their proper place of authority in the home, the little women wouldn’t want any of that stuff.
I both understood the backlash against the piece, and yet found the backlash surprising only insofar that there is perhaps no one in the North American Church more blissfully unaware of their own place in the grand scheme of things than some of my Reformed friends. I love my brothers there deeply, and find much to admire in many of them. There are some humble, powerful men among them I deeply appreciate. The fact that the author of the post, Jared Wilson, posted a lovely and nuanced apology a few days later demonstrates the many good gifts in their movement!
And yet that doesn’t quite get to the strangeness of the whole little affair. Most of the debate centered on the semantics of the language in the piece (which again I would personally find problematic). Yet I’m scratching my head that Wilson would still be considered a credible source in mainstream Reformed circles (especially the young guns) given some of the flagrantly bizarre positions taken in places like this (it’s full of gems: “Slavery as it existed in the South wasn’t an adversarial relationship with pervasive racial animosity…Many of the old slaves express a wistful desire to be back at the plantation.”) Suffice it to say that takes a special kind of audacity. But he has snappy one-line zingers (“egalitarian pleasure parties!” Har-har!), and a lot of those fellas just love that. (In some parts of the world it seems, you can get by with saying just about anything as long as you get atonement theology “right,” since this is the entirety of “THE gospel” and everything else is peripheral).
Still it is really not my intention to carpet bomb Wilson. Headed to Orlando, I am struck by how Wilson, the young Reformers, we Southeastern boys of the Church of God and this long-haired pastor with the pretentious named church have in common. The good news ecumenically speaking is that as different as we are, we are all brothers! The good news is, we are all on the same ship! But before we start singing “We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord,” here’s the harsher reality—we are brothers on the same ship called “The Titanic.” To hear us volley at each other, you would think we are fighting for the souls of the nation between us. But in reality we are not. Among those of us in the younger set of our camps, we are competing largely for the hearts and minds of the 20 and 30 somethings with their Ipads and Macchiattos. We are already dinosaurs and we did not know it.
The average Christian in the world right now is an African or Latin American female in her early 20’s. She doesn’t read our blogs and she doesn’t read Christianity Today. She doesn’t know or care who I am and she never will. The names Piper, Driscoll, Chan, Bell, Stanley, Warren—mean nothing to her. Like most Pentecostal women coming into the kingdom around the world, words like “complementarian” and “egalitarian” are not in her vocabulary, nor Calvinism and Arminianism. Unlike some of my brothers would lead you believe (where their lunch table is the only one that cares about Scripture and THE GOSPEL while anybody who believes differently from them in these tired conversations are flaming liberals), she takes the authority of the Bible very seriously. But more importantly, she believes in the power of the Bible in ways that are incomprehensible even for our most rabid “conservatives.” The western filter and language that frames these issues will not be determinative for her, unlucky as she is not to read our blogs. She may well in end up leading a church one day where she preaches Jesus like a woman on fire and lays hands on the sick and watches God heal them, though this will surprise those Reformed colleagues who are sure all female church leaders have been trained by godless-Unitarian-lesbian-leftist-radical feminist-seminarians (she didn’t have access to seminary at all–unfortunately she has read the Acts of the Apostles). Who knew?
The world has moved on, God has moved on, and we didn’t even notice.
I do not wish to be overly contentious with my colleagues. Tribally we are different, but culturally we are so very much alike. This is intended to be more conciliatory. Why don’t you pull up a chair beside me here on the deck, bring something to drink, and let’s at least watch from over the bow, shall we? I would hate to feel this irrelevant all by myself. It’s a beautiful sight, really. It is not so tragic for the world to lose sight of us. We must decrease so He might increase. So it’s a celebration then. Bring your macbook pro if you like; we can even listen to some Coldplay.