Feb 10 2011

“Prosperity gospel” for Christian institutions? Part 3

Category: Uncategorizedharmonicminer @ 10:12 am

The previous posts in this series are here and here, and are essential background for understanding what follows.

The problem for faithful Christian organizations is this: there will come a day when the choice is between being faithful to mission, by maintaining a powerful Christian witness for truth, or being safe and well-regarded by the secular world. It will probably not be something so dramatic as a secular sovereign attempting to force a recantation on pain of death. It’s more likely to be the temptation to adopt an essentially secular perspective or initiative that “sounds good” on the surface, one with non-Christian or even anti-Christian origins, but one that is highly socially acceptable, and to bathe it in proof-texted Christian sounding rhetoric. Or it may be the temptation to withhold speaking out on a crucial moral issue, perhaps a controversial one, in which taking sides comes with some risk of negative public relations with some group whose approval we court. Another danger is the retention of leaders or employees whose dismissal will cause some inconvenience (lawsuit, perhaps bad public relations with a sister organization, etc.), but who are clearly out of sympathy with the Christian world-view that is presumably at the root of the institution, or who are having a negative impact on the institution’s ability to carry out its Christian mission without hypocrisy.

Self-delusion is easy. We can say that we have taken particular actions or adopted particular policies because they are the right things to do, not merely because we expect them to bring the good regard of the world and success in our direction. And certainly there can be overlap. But one thing is clear: the agenda of the world is not Christ’s. If we can not fairly easily point to several specific ways in which we have risked the world’s approbation for our church, para-church organization or institution, and risked it for the sake of being true to Christ and standing firm, it is likely that we have succumbed to a carnal view of our mission of leadership, wherein we judge ourselves more by our press releases and public image than by our faithfulness to Christ’s teaching.

One of the more seductive tendencies for 21st-century Christian organizations is to seek social acceptability by moving to the left. This is sometimes packaged as “maturing” and becoming less “simplistic.” Since the opinion makers in media and academia are mostly on the left, that may seem to be the only way to gain the good report of the world. Not that this is always a consciously chosen grand strategy; rather, it is often the cumulative result of many small compromises. It may also come about from adopting perspectives, initiatives and vocabulary of un-Christian or even anti-Christian origin, and then trying to find scriptural support for them.

There is irony in this. The left generally despises traditional religious and moral perspectives. It is usually anti-American in significant ways, and generally denies what it considers to be the flawed notion of western cultural superiority (including the “progress” narrative, the assumption of ever greater material prosperity, etc.). Yet the assumption of success due to intelligent effort is the most American (and conservative) of perspectives. The idea that you can do good and get rich is extremely American, not to mention capitalist at its core, with its assumption that when you do good by providing a service, or creating a product, you deserve to benefit when people freely buy whatever you’re selling. When that assumption animates church and para-church organizations and institutions, which then gradually shift to the left (because, after all, moving left sells, don’t you know, in the media and academia), the irony is complete. They become busy marketing a left-leaning perspective, one which is inconsistent with the underlying assumption that the practice of selling something that people want is to be justly rewarded.

There is another paradox. The Christian left is prone to agree with the secular world that “America is not a Christian nation” and to disagree with the notion of “American exceptionalism” that is generally held by conservatives and many “mainstream” Americans.  How sad, then, when a critical part of the self-image cultivated by some Christian institutions is that non-Christian, unexceptional America likes them, as measured by ratings in magazines, opinion polls and the like.

If any of this is interesting to you, stay tuned….  we’re about to get to the nitty gritty.

The next post in this series is here.