A Kingdom Graceful for Love

By Greg Forster: part nine of a series.

“Making it easy to find and follow Jesus.”

This is the slogan my accommodation paradigm church used for several years to summarize its mission. It should, of course, be easy to find Jesus. But to follow Jesus? Not so much.

It’s along the same lines as the initial advertisements this church was circulating when it first launched, which promised “Loud Music, Short Services.”

Now, when I examined the “practical deism” of dominance churches and the “cultural puritanism” of fortification churches, I intentionally set aside their most obvious problems – the culture war and fundamentalist isolationism, respectively – in order to dig deeper and find the roots of those problems. Partly because many churches have already awakened to these problems, and partly because you can overcome the culture war and yet find some other way to live out practical deism, or overcome fundamentalist isolation and yet find some other way to live out cultural puritanism, and that’s not much progress.

So let’s take it as given that marketing gimmicks intended to maximize attendance (“Loud Music, Short Services”) aren’t the way to go. As with the other models, saying that isn’t saying enough – and anyway, most accommodation paradigm churches these days are past that stage already; including my own church, which has changed its mission statement with that very concern – about overcoming marketing gimmicks and calling people more clearly to spiritual growth – in mind.

And thereby hangs a tale.

It turns out that while we were using the slogan “making it easy to find and follow Jesus” for a few years, that was never actually our mission statement. Our mission statement was “helping people find and follow Jesus.” Which is an awesome mission statement. We just weren’t using it! We were using this other, marketing-friendly slogan instead.

What I want to focus on is not the marketing gimmick, but the quality of the church community that made it possible for us to drift away from our actual mission statement without realizing what we were doing. How did this other slogan come to displace our actual mission statement in all of our advertising – and in the worship service, where it was proclaimed every week at the start of the service?

(By the way, the new mission statement we have recently adopted adds one word to the old one; it’s now “people helping people find and follow Jesus.” The new version emphasizes community, which makes it even better. But the thing I like best about the new statement is that church leadership has used the occasion of the change to retire the “making it easy” slogan.)

As I wrote last time (when I looked at what accommodation churches get right), during my whole Christian life until recently, the one thing I was always taught was that accommodation paradigm churches are sellouts. I had been in dominance churches and fortification churches, and I had grown a great deal in both but had also absorbed a lot of their limitations.

So now I’m in one of those loosey-goosey churches, and I’m getting a lot of “what’s a nice guy like you doing in a church like that?”

My first response is to describe what I wrote about in my last post – the intentional use of the cultural system of symbols and the conventional good works that interpret grace to people, particularly to people who have been traumatized by toxic churches. But in answer to the concerns about doctrine I put it this way: Accomomdation churches have all the puzzle pieces, but they don’t have the box top. They’ve got Christian doctrine, but they struggle for coherence (how do all these pieces fit together?) and for prioritization (what is most important and what is secondary?). But they’re sensitive to this problem and they’re working on it.

(I digress here, but that’s kind of the idea of this whole blog series – that the point is not which church is closest to the perfect model of the kingdom of God, but how can each church become sensitive to the defects in its own model, and strive to correct them? Give me the messed-up church that knows that it’s messed up and is striving to improve rather than the complacent church that superficially gets everything right!)

I’m going to call the problem that plagues accommodation paradigm churches pseudo-pragmatism. I want to stress that by “pragmatism” I don’t just mean “loosey-gooseyness.” I have in mind the technical use of the term – pragmatism in the John Dewey sense, although not (praise God) in the Richard Rorty sense.

Pragmatism in this sense means the abandonment of, and even a phobia of, absolute truth claims. Therefore pragmatism that is seriously meant and seriously followed is, at bottom, a swindle – for it is the truth claim that there are no truth claims. The history of pragmatism is the history of that swindle being exposed, and what the pragmatists themselves did about it.

Dewey himself could get away with pragmatism because the swindle had not yet been exposed – even to him. He and his many, many followers could find it plausible that democracy and freedom and tolerance and expressive individualism and taking care of your neighbors were simply desirable, and that was all there was to it, because their cultural context made that seem plausible.

Then the challenge of totalitarianism and the cultural disintegration of the West forced people to recognize that if we cut ourselves loose from absolute truth claims and just do what feels right, democracy and freedom and tolerance and expressive indivdualism and taking care of your neighbors are not in fact what feels right to everyone. (Read George Orwell’s magnificent book review of Mein Kampf or Whittaker Chambers’ haunting letter to his children in Witness.)

The swindle exposed, some abandoned pragmatism in search of certainty in various fundamentalisms, secular or religious. Those who stuck self-consciously with pragmatism, like Richard Rorty, doubled down on the swindle, essentially accepting a world in which they would be forever fighting and killing totalitarians while acknowledging that in this eternal war no one is “right” or “wrong” in a deeply meaningful sense.

But the large majority in the West have retained their phobia toward absolute truth claims, even while they are also (as a result of the challenges of totalitarianism and disintegration) phobic toward not making absolute truth claims. While the swindle at the heart of pragmatism has been rejected, pragmatism’s deconstructive attacks against the making of absolute truth claims has not.

The result has been pseudo-pragmatism: We believe in absolute truth claims but we are afraid or ashamed to act like it.

Hence a church can believe in the truths of the Christian faith while struggling to communicate them with coherence, to set theological priorities, or to police its marketing slogans. Hence outsiders looking in on an accommodation church assume that it has no real beliefs, because they don’t see the obvious outward marks of such belief. The belief is there, but there is a deep sense of inhibition against expressing it as a truth claim rather than as, say, a pragmatic way to live a more spiritually harmonious life.

Stay tuned for my next post, which will discuss how accommodation-paradigm churches can overcome religious pseudo-pragmatism.

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