Tuesday, June 15, 2010

No more cheap church

Nearly four score years ago Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote The Cost of Discipleship. Every Christian should read it because the German martyr was on to something: He exposed the scourge of cheap grace. “Cheap grace,” he wrote, “means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian ‘conception’ of God.”

He saw the church peddling grace as an idea about God, not proclaiming Jesus Christ, whose lavish sacrifice and invitation to follow demands unconditional surrender. “Cheap grace,” Bonhoeffer continued, “is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.” The drift of religious Christianity is towards this bargain-store spirituality; we like God and his benefits on the cheap and with as little personal cost as necessary.

The contagion of cheap grace is cheap church. If we expect God and his goods on our terms, with our desires untouched, we will want church just as conveniently.

Dare we admit that many adhere to the doctrine of cheap church and fervently believe it to be true. We want church that costs nothing beyond our cash, interests and occasional attendance. We want church that will not require the gruelling tasks of loving, forgiving and offering grace to those we’re sure shouldn’t get it. We want to consume our bargain-store spirituality and happily shop with others who think the same. We want a church of the holy potluck, the holy project, the holy huddle, but we’re not so keen on a church of the Holy Spirit.

I mean, really, have you read what the Holy Spirit did to the church in Acts? Who wants that mess and cost anymore? Now that we’ve got everything pasteurized and organized, we can get on with church on the cheap and defend it almost like we mean it and mean it as if we like it!

We seem to expect church to be unrealistically perfect for our sakes. We want our church to have the spit and polish that convinces us we’re really something. We’ll give to that—particularly if there’s a tax break to be had! We’ll raise our communion shot glasses to that!

The church is foremost and always God’s cherished possession. Church is not something to horde, but give away! We give away Christ and with him always a costly piece of ourselves. God in Christ spared no expense and yet many who have been absorbed into the body of Christ by grace long for church on the cheap.

The church does not exist to prop up our wants. Rather, it requires us to collapse in the costly joy of dying to self and living alongside others who are not always easy to love, because Christ died for us—and them—and is risen from the dead! The church is to be a window into what can be when people spend themselves in forgiveness, reconciliation and mission together precisely because the grace they received was lavishly expensive.

Jesus still wears scars. How can we who are now his earthly body expect to wear anything less? The church extracts a cost many may have never fully embraced: It will cost us our rights, preferences and comfort.

The church is not easy! Get over it! It is a costly adventure in being a resurrected Holy-Spirit-endowed people, and the cheap church many practise is as much a swindle as cheap grace ever was.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

The Tech of the Amish

I grew up in technological no-man’s land. My childhood was shaped by the plain-living non-conformity of Amish and Mennonite bloodlines and locale.

There was no television in my home until I was nearing my teens. I remember the absolute magnetism TV held for me initially. I watched everything I was allowed. Weren’t the Smurfs amazing!? La, la, la-la, la, la…precious memories…I digress.

My parents agonized over that purchase. They had grown up in a religious tradition that banned such worldly things. Mom and Dad had left such legalistic religiosity for a new world before I was born and that new world inevitably meant the blessing and curse of doing technological ethics alone.

In their old community technological rights and wrongs were decisions made by church leaders for the sake of the community. Certain things were permitted (like cars – but they had to be black and radio-less – and tractors – which strangely could remain whatever shade they came in). Other things were forbidden (like televisions and instruments in church buildings). These decisions were not made willy-nilly nor in fear, but designed to balance the need to provide and do good while curbing the corrupting affects of “the world” on the souls of the righteous. The motives were pure, the aim admirable, and the fruit at times beautiful (see the incredible servant nature of these communities, their mutual support of one another, and commitment to live the God-ward life simply and lightly). However, avoiding certain technologies could not undo one sticky reality: it is not technology that corrupts the human heart, it is the human heart that corrupts technology. And so it was that my first exposure to the technological wonder of the glossy porn magazine came via some who were not allowed to have a TV or listen to rock and roll. How’s that for irony?

I’m now a parent. Today VCRs collect dust next to 8 Track Players and Atari consoles and I’m raising my kids in an iPhone and Wii world. What’s a man to do? Now it’s my parents who have cable TV while our kids endure bunny ears (which at least made the Vancouver Olympics look snowy). We have a cell phone, but not one as savvy as those of my relatives who don’t have radios in their cars. I’m typing this on a laptop, while some of the Old Order Mennonite boys I went to grade school with drive horse and buggies and operate businesses out of their sheds that require the internet. So, who has the best handle on this tech stuff after all? Are we all just a bunch of hypocrites? Or, could it be that we’re all just negotiating that treacherous tightrope between technology and theology?

“Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God” (Psalm 20:7).

Technology is. Technology is ethically neutral in that it has no power for good or ill on its own, but it is not spiritually neutral because we who create technologies are natural born worshippers. While humanity is gifted to create technologies that advance and amuse, the disturbing pattern is how enamored we become with what our hands create. We are smitten idolaters and idol-makers.

Want proof? Ever tried avoiding email on your day off? Ever watched two people sitting at a table texting all the while avoiding eye contact and conversation with each other? Ever threatened to take a video game away from your teenager? Ever tried to work up the courage to get rid of cable? Ever talked yourself into a toy you didn’t need, just because you thought is was cool?

While there’s nothing inherently wrong with enjoying technology, the reality is many of us could afford a sober spiritual evaluation of our love affair with technology. Some communal Amish-testing couldn’t hurt toward that end: Is use of this going to deaden our souls and close our eyes to one another? Will it weaken our ability to live as a community and be a unique witness to our world? Will it unnecessarily tie up our money in ways that will hinder our ability to be generous? Will this technology become our god and master? Will its use enable us to do more good and bring God more glory? Should we take some time before jumping on a new tech bandwagon (whether gas, solar or equine powered) until we can think, talk, and pray through the long-term implications on our following of Jesus, our ability to be human, and on creation?

Those are sobering questions. They are questions we must be willing to ask and keep asking in a world where horses and chariots of a more docile kind can become the tech-idols we never advance beyond.