During an absolutely perfect Father’s Day, I had a few precious moments to chat one-on-one with my daughter-in-law to be. Jessi is completing a Masters degree in social work and has started working extra hours in a local homeless shelter for the summer. Naturally the biggest need there is for night shift workers and so she has been injecting a few nights each week into her schedule.
In another time and place I was a shift worker for quite a few years and so we were able to share an understanding of the exhaustion, disrupted sleep patterns and upset stomach that go along with working during unnatural times. And we each reminded the other that shift work literally takes years from a person’s life.
Because I have a wandering mind, I have been thinking since then about the blessings and curses that came with electricity and the industrial revolution: artificial lighting, machinery, assembly lines, the ability to affordably produce and move product. Because of those things we have conveniences that were unimaginable two hundred years ago.
However it has also added unnatural work hours, long commute times, different types of stresses and families separated by work schedules or geography. I often feel badly for people in service industries who work staggered hours for less money and rarely have two days in a row away from their job.
We have an endless supply of cheap t-shirts, french fries, hair product, fishing lures and mayonnaise but it’s so difficult to find quality anything that we can plan on using for years. Our communities, families and personal lives are increasingly busy, impersonal, mechanized.
It’s interesting that evangelicalism was born at around the time of the industrial revolution. It’s not my intention to dive deeply into this discussion because it is a very deep pool but I will say that our understanding of religion was largely (and perhaps appropriately) formed by those social conditions.
Simply put, evangelicalism became defined by a lineal, mechanical view of life and purpose; kind of a production line.
The mechanical reasoning is that we begin as babies, born into a sinful world and start walking the road to trouble. In fact we sinners are so disturbing to his holiness, that God has no choice but to act fairly and punish us by sending us to hell.
Of course we can also choose to go to heaven; the heavenly road is a straight line too. First of all, we ‘get saved’ by participating in a legal transaction where God is an impassive judge who is required (?) to act justly. Through an official prayer and statement confirming such we are able to receive the gift of salvation.
There’s rules of course: read your Bible (we’ll tell you what it says), pray, pay your tithe plus, go to church regularly and volunteer there a lot. Community volunteering is fine too but the church should get your best energy.
If you want or need something, just ask God and he will take care of it. (If he doesn’t then you obviously have either sinned or don’t have enough faith.)
But wait, there’s more. This free salvation comes at a further cost. We are then told we have to market what we believe to outsiders because manufacturing new customers is the most important thing now. In turn, the new customers are used to fuel another round of manufacturing and increased sales numbers.
CEOs pastors of these companies churches are under a lot of pressure personally and corporately to compete and build strong, competitive products. The profile of the company needs continued improvement and they must always be providing a better and better product so slick presentation, feel-good experiences and lots of alpha leadership are needed.
If your sales go really well you will need to build a bigger and better church and find even better ways to market your product. Ultimately, consumption and growth is the ultimate goal.
Do I think that Christian life and all churches are like this? Of course not but don’t ever forget that these tendencies are a constant threat because they are in our DNA. The machinery of our faith can get in the way of the purpose of our faith; the organization can become more important than the object of our faith. It’s how abuse and cover ups happen, frankly – protecting this company we have invested in.
Our evangelical roots came from a time of unprecedented business, trade and productivity in the world. Revivalism was a way of producing a product to be packaged, marketed, sold and re-packaged again. It worked well so we have carried it forward.
Justice, punishment, transactions, sales goals, success. No wonder we understand this stuff, it’s what we swim in every day in the dirty world around us. It’s also why increasing numbers of people are leaving or refusing to enter the faith – they’re feeling like objects of worn out strategies from another time.
Do you ever feel dirty when you ask people to a church event or invite them to enrol their kids in a program or spend hours on a committee strategizing new, old tactics for getting people to ‘sign on’ to Jesus? Have you ever thought of it as a bait-and-switch where they think they’re coming into a caring community of friends but they’re actually just sales targets?
We can be cold, assembly lines of spirituality. God machines.
Don’t believe me? I can walk into almost any evangelical church this weekend and find globs of people who are exhausted by the work load added on to them by said church. They arrived early, will leave late and will steal time from their family and themselves next week ‘doing’ more stuff while their souls are emptying. Are they doing it all for God? Maybe, but only because they’ve been taught that’s what they have to do. Is it what God wants? I don’t think so.
Right now I can access a library of church-building books (for a price), videos (for a price), systems (for a price) or people waiting to help me with a course or seminar on how to do almost any Christian activity (for a price). Strategies, methods, plans for being a christian leader. Yuk.
Listen, I have attended training sessions on how to lead a person to Jesus, complete with illustrations I could draw on a napkin. (In fact, I just did it, this is my drawing – freehand!) Notice the chasm of hell separating you from God? But Jesus death on the cross bridges the gap and makes a way for us. (Did I mention I did it freehand? It was only my second try.) Just pray this prayer and you’re in!
It’s as if we’re hatching a new tech company or sketching a business transaction except that this is both a beautiful and a gracious relationship that begins and grows organically. It’s not a simple, lineal formula you can draw and people are not targets.
Our Christian faith is not a transaction, it’s a relationship that grows and changes and finds its way to something more deep and meaningful, then continues on some more. It’s organic and whole, not strict and mechanical. I believe that the production, assembly line, performance mentality is unbiblical, ungodly and is strangling our faith (this’s where I get shunned).
But here’s a secret I’ve learned – God’s love for me is not conditional or performance based. Period. His pleasure in me has nothing to do with production or transactions. His deepest hope is that my pleasure is returned to him in the same way.
What if we stopped thinking transactionally and began thinking relationally? What if it was okay to live our lives without busyness or gimmicks or expectations or quotas or correct doctrine? What if we put ourselves into talking to God and getting close to him and training ourselves to be loving and patient and kind? What if Jesus just naturally got breathed in and out of us and our conversations instead of us selling him?
Here’s a beautiful thing: imagine churches whose numbers never get larger because they are continually sending out strong disciples into the world to make a difference? Imagine if homes and coffee shops and street corners and parking lots could become ‘churches’ where Jesus people interacted naturally with God and their neighbours? What if these people were so healthy in spite of their troubles and hurts that others naturally trusted them?
Imagine a world where relationship is truly important and the sales schemes of the God Machines is a thing of the past. Imagine if our lives were three dimensional gardens instead of straight, mechanical processes? What if we cultivated and pruned and watered instead of building and packaging and selling?