March 10, 2011

Efficient--or Sufficient--Faith?

I was in the midst of my daily “Delete” of several dozen unwanted e-mails when my eye lingered on the subject line of the next message: “Salvaging churches in crisis: How one Dallas consultant wants to blend business savvy with Bible study.” An endless stream of such advertisements arrives in my in-box each day: like some gigantic subterranean aquifer, the public relations machine of American evangelicalism produces “amazing” opportunities for me to meet experts, attend conferences, interview authors, or participate in “enlightenment.”
I’ll admit that it was the geographical hook that caught me this time. I like Dallas. I used to live near Dallas as a child. My favorite football team is ostensibly from there (though actually plays in Arlington). I’m still partial to the lilt of a soft Dallas accent.
2011 1507 page6The advertisement itself was a model of the efficiency it touted. In 417 words it identified the crisis du jour (Americans abandoning mainline churches); offered a smattering of data from an untraceable source; identified six reasons for the decline; and pointed me to both a Dallas-area megachurch and a consulting firm that could help to salvage my church.
Additional enticements kept me engaged. The megachurch is “one of the fastest-growing ministries in the country,” which attracts “enormous Sunday crowds.” According to the founding pastor, “the faith-based community needs more of the ‘for-profit’ mind-set to find redundancies and waste.”
Given that one of the major reasons identified for why so many churches are in crisis was “disillusionment with arcane church teachings,” I decided to learn what an efficient doctrinal lineup might look like. The megachurch’s well-designed and regularly updated Web site did not disappoint. Eight doctrinal points are apparently held in common by its thousands of attendees, including the Trinity, the Bible, atonement, salvation, the Christian life, the church, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and a full 61 words describing “eschatology”—37 less than Scripture offers in 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17 about the return of Jesus. Carefully honed to avoid the pitfalls of doctrinal exceptionalism and maintain optimal inclusiveness, the statement contained almost nothing that any American evangelical could not at least tacitly endorse. To complement my commitment to doctrinal (and marketing) efficiency, I could stop in the men’s apparel section of the church’s online store and purchase an “Alpha” polo shirt (sizes XL to XXXXL) or the accompanying “Alpha” Flexfit hat.
There is a certain sadness in all of this, as when one watches hordes of consumers rushing off to superstores at 1:00 a.m. on “Black Friday” to fill up their lives with high-tech toys and gadgets almost none need and many cannot afford. Driven by the sociable desire to be part of what is trending at the moment, millions of American Christians now float between denominations, mixing profoundly incompatible beliefs and practices in a highly personalized shopping cart of faith. (See the December 2009 report by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, “Many Americans Mix Multiple Faiths”:
The impulse toward doctrinal reductionism has not bypassed Adventism, either. At least once a year I receive a draft of some well-intentioned simplification of Adventism’s Fundamental Beliefs, usually with the accompanying plea for a more “portable” faith. With the authors of those drafts I share a desire to express biblical truths with all the clarity and efficiency possible. But a faith that can be reduced to a laminated card in a wallet usually stays just there, commingled with the chief symbols of our consumer mind-set.
Seventh-day Adventists ought never to be afraid of doctrinal distinctiveness. The truths we hold to be self-evident in Scripture are not a set of market-tested consensus statements, but the full-orbed wheel of biblical faith that takes seriously all that Christ has told us is important.
In the immediate aftermath of the great disappointment of October 22, 1844, Adventist pioneer Joseph Bates was asked by fellow Millerites if there was any new light that should follow his longtime proclamation of Babylon’s fall—“Come out of her, my people” (Rev. 18:4, KJV).

“Yes,” said Bates with classic New England verbal efficiency: “Stay out of her, My people.”

There’s a line that has a permanent place in my in-box.
Bill Knott is editor of the Adventist Review. This article was published March 10, 2011.