By Greg Forster: part eight of a series.
I believe I have discovered the secret of accommodation paradigm churches. They are not marketing gimmicks. They are spiritual reclamation projects. They make the transformative grace of God imaginable to those for whom grace has become unimaginable. The faith and work movement needs to engage in similar reclamation just as much as it needs to call people to be militant and pure in their work.
Well, okay, accommodation paradigm churches are not only marketing gimmicks. Of course that goes on, too.
But for my whole Christian life until just recently, I was taught (more or less) that marketing gimmickry was the only thing going on in accommodation paradigm churches. Churches seeking to make it as easy as possible to come to church are selling out the holiness and justice of God in order to build as large a church as possible, for the glory (and revenue) of the church leadership.
Then I started attending one of these churches – a church that bends over backward to say that we don’t have all the answers and we don’t want to judge people and we want everyone to feel welcome. A church that invests a lot of itself in doing good works in the community: good works that don’t have a Jesus fish stamped all over them or challenge dominant understandings of what is good (things like holding an annual prom for special-needs students and supporting a home for abused teenagers and raising awareness of human trafficking). I had the opportunity to lead a small group and do some theological seminars with their staff, and get beyond the slogans to find out what was underneath.
I made a startling discovery. I started to meet people with tragic stories – tragic church stories. I met person after person who had been dominated and manipulated and exploited by church leaders; by wolves in sheep’s clothing who had used the word of God to build little empires for themselves, laying heavy burdens on the people while not touching them with one finger. This church was their city of refuge.
I met one woman who was raised in a church where women are not allowed to pray. I don’t mean not allowed to pray in public during the worship service. I mean not allowed to pray at all. That’s what they have fathers and husbands for, you see.
Toss a pebble in our fellowship hall, and as likely as not you’ll hit someone who has been traumatically hurt by a toxic church. Or perhaps I should say a toxic “church,” for the Westminster divines were all too right when they said that some religious communities “have so degenerated, as to become no Churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan.”
And slowly it dawned on me: These people would not be in any church if they were not in a church like this one – a church that bends over backward to say that we don’t have all the answers and we don’t want to judge people and we want everyone to feel welcome. Churches that invest a lot of themselves in more or less conventional kinds of good works.
These people have no other hermeneutic of God’s grace. Toxic teachers have removed all their other reference points. After their trauma, this is the only connection point they have through which the transformative grace of God can be made intelligible to them.
Accommodation paradigm churches are reclaiming lost souls from Satan’s religious synagogues just as surely as fortification churches are reclaiming them from Satan’s fleshly synagogues of intoxication and lust; just as surely as domination paradigm churches are reclaiming them from Satan’s worldly synagogues of injustice and materialism.
As I reflected on this, the conventional good works of the church began to appear in a new light. The prom for special needs students and the home for abused teenagers and the human trafficking vigils – what are these but a hermeneutic of grace for a whole civilization that has been traumatized by the toxic churches of the culture war? Of course these programs do good to those who recieve their ministry, but their larger function is to interpret grace to a culture where many if not most of the traditional symbols of grace have been rendered unintelligible by political conflict.
What Other Churches Can Emulate
The point here is not just grace but the hermeneutic of grace. It is not just the job of the church to proclaim grace and practice grace but to make grace intelligible. In every time and place, it is hard for people reared and formed amidst the darkness of the world to wrap their heads and hearts around the reality of grace; it is the job of the church in every age to discern how to interpret grace in, and into, their culture’s system of symbols.
Accommodation paradigm churches care intensely about interpreting grace to people. As a result, they have set themselves to the enormously hard work of studying and learning how to use the complex system of symbols in the surrounding culture. In doing so they have gained mastery of a knowledge and skill set comparable to that required of an engineer or medical doctor.
Rather than view such churches as loosey-goosey or following the path of least resistance, domination and fortification churches should consider how accommodation churches, alone of the three types, have successfully resisted the collectivism of advanced modern culutre. Both domination and fortification churches, in their different ways, partake of the modern tendency to reduce the handling of human affairs to standardized systems. The difference between a domination or fortification church is whether the system that tends toward this inhumane encroachment is political or ecclesial. In both cases, the “somebodiness” of each image-bearing human individual has a tendency to get lost.
Domination churches should consider how accommodation churches have approached culture outside the church looking for symbols and commitments that can be used to intepret the gospel to people, rather than looking only for injustices that require correction from the church. There is no true justice without grace – certainly not in a fallen world that is slowly being reclaimed toward justice by the transformative power of God’s grace, resisting the world’s degenerative tendencies – and if grace is not made real and intelligible to people, justice will likewise be unintelligible. And if you force justice upon people in a way they don’t understand, you are engaged in the injustice of tyrannical rule.
Fortification churches should consider how accommodation churches have approached culture outside the church looking for symbols and commitments that can be used to interpret the gospel to people, rather than looking only for impurities that require cleansing from the church. There is no true purity without grace – again, certainly not in a fallen world – and if grace is not made real and intelligible to people, purity will likewise be unintelligible.
You can shout at people to put their porn and their drink and their culture war away from them until you’re blue in the face, but if you don’t communicate the transformative grace of God to people in symbols they understand, you might as well be shouting at a brick wall. And that is what you will have in the end – a wall around the church, with believers standing inside, shouting the gospel message at the wall, and unbelievers outside, unable to hear.
Next time I’ll look at where (besides the obvious) accommodation churches might look to the other models for growth opportunities.