By Greg Forster; part five of a series.
“Three years ago, when I first came to this church, I didn’t have a job. I lived off my girlfriend. I spent all my time sitting on the couch, eating junk food and watching porn – and that was my life. Today I have a job, I’m supporting myself, I don’t do that other stuff any more, I just started my own business, and it’s all because of what God has done for me through this church.”
I quote from memory, but that testimony comes almost verbatim from a member of a roughly 1,000 member fortification-paradigm church – the kind of church that has tendencies toward isolation from the world and fundamentalism. The faith and work movement needs to relate the kingdom of God to human culture, and this model – with all its notorious problems – contains some of the wisdom we need, just as the equally problematic culture war model does.
I served that church for some years as a small group leader and teacher of the new member class, and I know that testimonies of transformation like this one were not at all uncommon there. I wouldn’t want to guess how many former drug and alcohol addicts we had in that church, but it was quite a bit more than at any dominance or accommodation paradigm church I’ve been in.
Several of our male leaders were very open about having been former porn users, and I think successful overcoming of slavery to porn was also an area of success for that church. We had a pastor who had, in a previous spiritual life, divorced his wife; he spoke eloquently about the call to marital faithfulness. One semester, we had two women in the new member class who were living with their boyfriends when the class began. Within a year they had both discontinued extramarital sex and joined our church.
In the faith and work movement, we talk about transformation and about resisting the world’s standards, working in a Christian way and not in the same way our unbelieving neighbors work. We ought to sit up and take notice of the fact that it is the fortification paradigm, “fundamentalist” churches that have the most success in cultivating transformation from worldly sinfulness to personal holiness.
Their approach challenges other perspectives on how the church cultivates transformation. Once, during my time at that church, I attended a hoity-toity academic conference on religion where I was (give or take) the only evangelical. A liberal Anglican professor – who spoke eloquently at the conference in defense of a strongly accommodation-paradigm approach – asked me how a church with a traditional position on sexuality could possibly reach new people when most people’s relationships were outside our bounds. Amidst a longer discussion about the law and grace, and other such theoretical abstractions, I told her about having women in my new member class who were living with their boyfriends.
“How do you handle that?”
“I didn’t raise the issue; they did. They asked what we believe and I told them. One of them offered some challenges – something about people in ancient Rome not having known about homosexuality – and I explained why we didn’t share that view.”
“And do you persuade people to change their minds, accept your moral standards?”
“Not always. On average, maybe about half the time, I guess.”
She was dumbfounded. She hadn’t thought such transformations occurred. Her whole argument was that the church had no choice but to Get With It on sexuality for this very reason.
What Other Churches Can Emulate
Spiritual transformation comes from religious communities that have clear boundaries and historically rooted, transcendent, non-negotiable moral commitments. Such communities, and only such communities, 1) are able to know specifically what kind of change they are demanding from people, and 2) have the standing in people’s lives to get what they demand.
Fortification churches care a lot about holiness, and – just as important – they are more likely to have a theologically informed understanding of what holiness is and requires. Domination and accommodation churches should consider how fortification churches, alone of the three types, have to some extent successfully resisted the relentless pragmatism of advanced modern culture, treating our natural preferences as something that each of us must learn to discipline and control at a radical level.
In some ways fortification churches do best at emphasizing the cruciform nature of discipleship to Jesus Christ. Believers are required to submit to the death of their desires for both individual comfort (as against the accommodation paradigm) and corporate influence (as against the dominance paradigm). The church is not here to make us comfortable and happy, nor is it here to influence society; it is here to become like Christ, regardless of the consequences.
Dominance churches should particularly consider how cruciform discipleship involves abandoning the pursuit of power and influence. In particular, it is worth considering how the Religious Right movement compromised the church’s moral standards, and therefore its credibility, in the pursuit of power. It’s not that power is bad. But the cruciform path to power is to gain power by not seeking it. Our willingness to submit to the death of our desires, and to follow the Christian path without regard to whether it “succeeds” or “fails” by worldly standards, is the only basis for the church’s credibility as a prophetic voice. Why should anyone care what the church has to say about justice unless the church proves by its way of life that it is, in fact, an ambassador of an invisible kingdom? And how can that be a credible claim if we behave like just another power-mongering special interest group?
Accommodation churches should particularly consider how cruciform discipleship involves changing our definition of what it means to be “successful.” Health, comfort and happiness are good things, and the gospel is a gospel of reconciliation and holiness that lead to shalom, so the church should be concerned with them. But it is the reconciliation and holiness that matter, and that should be (through the gospel of grace, of course) the primary focus of the church. In the present age, the shalom that reconciliation and holiness produce will never fully arrive (that is what makes the present age the present age) and their manifestation will often be very incomplete. We should make it easy to find Jesus, but nothing can make it easy to follow him.
Next time I’ll look at where (besides the obvious) fortification churches might look to the other models for growth opportunities.