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Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Fellowship of Freedom(less) Selves in Pop Christianity

I'd like to follow up on the prior post and place it in the context of pop Christian culture.

Walmart, Home Depot, and Barnes and Noble are all examples of "Big Box" retail stores. They make money by high volume sales and count on a low cost of goods sold by purchasing obscene amounts of quantities. (And if you are Walmart, there is no such thing as "overpurchase"--just send the extras back to the manufacturer and make them eat it!) This essentially means that we all buy basically the same types of pens, tvs, and deodorant.

Pop Christianity is similar to this in their various approaches to the self. They are all trying to sell you a one-sized fits all answer to who you are. This may take the form of giving you the "true" propositional truths, or the right way of thinking, the right way to feel, a certain self-image, various steps to success, or a "good" mentality. This is the commercialized version of Christianity. This is Big Box Christianity; an approach to the self that has a distinctively Walmart smell to it.

Traditionally, one saw this in the form of denominations or similar religious affiliations. There was a Baptist way of perceiving the self, or a Reformed way of viewing the self, or the Roman Catholic self, etc. But in United States, denominations have fallen upon hard times, at least in regard to their ability to maintain a grip and control on how the self is interpreted.

The new Big Box Christian interpreters of the self sell books, distribute DVD's, CD's, mp3's, and hold conferences and speaking engagements across the country. The new Big Box Christianity is centered on personalities. Hence, we pick our favorites: Joel Osteen, John Piper, R.C. Sproul, D.A. Carson, Rob Bell, Mark Driscoll, Scot McKnight, J.P. Moreland, and perhaps we could even throw Oprah in the mix. This list is very diverse, in that there are representatives of very very different approaches to the self. But they all have their commonality as Walmart-style Christianity in this: they are all selling basically one version of what a Christian self is. Whether that be a Piper/Sproul/Carson/Moreland version, where the self must hold certain "truths" in their briefcase, or whether it is an Oprah approach, where propositional truth is anathema. Oprah rejects that there is one particular "truth" that one should believe; however, the true "self" is found only (and exclusively) through a form of non-identity with anything propositional or even physical: we become who we are in the now by non-identity with who we are not; we are not form/ego/ideology/role and must strive to attain a linguistically indescribable consciousness of the now.

Let's look at Joel Osteen. Joel will say, "God has great things in store for you." If you attend his massive worship service, you will be encouraged to "hold up your Bibles and say it like you mean it: This is my Bible. I am what it says I am. I have what it says I have. I can do what it says I can do." The rest of the service he will then explain what the Bible says you are.

Even the so-called emerging church types are in the process of bringing a Big Box version of the self to the market place.

In my view, all of these approaches beautifully illustrate the fallacy that Paul rejected some two thousand years ago in his letter to the Corinthians:

My brothers, some from Chloe's household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, "I follow Paul"; another, "I follow Apollos"; another, "I follow Cephas"; still another, "I follow Christ." (1 Corinthians 1, NIV)

It is interesting that unlike all of the aforementioned Big Box Christian preachers and teachers, Paul rejects himself as a central figure! Rather than self-promotion, Paul has in mind self-demotion and the unity of the community:

Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul? I am thankful that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, so no one can say that you were baptized into my name. (Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don't remember if I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.

Paul then goes on to expound on the foolishness of the cross. The cross is humiliation and death to the type of self-promotion that occurs in today's Christian marketplace, where personalities claim to have the answer to who you are and what "self" means. All of them, of course, claiming to have the "absolute" or "Christian" or "biblical" perspective.

Even local churches in the U.S. often cultivate a superiority complex similar to that of the Big Box Christian self-promoters, vying for their niche in the spiritual marketplace by promising a we-are-better-than-the-other-guys approach. "Come to us! We will tell you who you are!" It still smells of the same mentality that went on at Corinth, only instead of "I follow Paul," we say "I am follow [fill in church affiliation]!"

Rather than claiming to hold superior convictions about the self, Paul expounds in 1 Corinthians 1 about the foolishness of the cross. What a contrast! One will likely have a hard time finding a Big Box market for a product that announces to the world that it is defective!

Perhaps a more positive vision for the self is to cultivate a fellowship of freedom, where the self is free to explore. This is not a freedom from accountability, but neither is accountability of the type that forces the self to conform to a pre-defined model of what "self" means. A fellowship of freedom is one in which members truly love one another; and where there is love there exists a kind of obligation to each other that is combined with a self-less dying to one's own interests. The cross of Christ, in this case, becomes the motivation and inspiration for moving beyond a powerless self-help mantra and into a process of personal and community transformation.

I'm not suggesting that a believer cannot find some good ideas from the Big Box Christian preacher, leaders, and thinkers. Personally, I have found some good food for thought. So, please, by all means, keep buying the latest paperback. Really! I mean it!

What I am suggesting, however, is that the "I follow Rob Bell/Sproul/Piper/Osteen/[insert your church name]" type of mentality is harmful. Friends, it is time for bold leaders to step forward and create fellowships of freedom. Not static "movements" or "institutions," but dynamic and authentic contexts that cultivate the self and set it free to understand faith; freedom to understand what it means to take up your cross daily.


P. Mantis said...

Thanks for the much needed breath of fresh air!

hoosier reborn said...


I believe that when we begin to understand true freedom in christ, found in christ, rather than the latest paperback or honey dripping podcast; we have a more complete understanding of true fellowship with other believers and tags will fail to matter. I won't deny my own growth from reading Bell, D. Miller or Eldridge...but I am not one of their converts, nor Paul's for that matter.

I agree there may be some emergent church trends that could become the big box christianity of our generation-at the same time, discussions in our circles are less about issues as they are centered around questions of what the church, the body of christ, should look like. The answer is obvious, Christ, but in application. I think this is more of an "awakening" than trend. At least I pray so.

Sorry so long-good work J

chris van allsburg said...

Hey! You didn't mention Mark Driscoll! I'm never coming back to this blog ever!

Jonathan Erdman said...


Don't leave! I'll do anything!

I'll kill you if you leave!

Jonathan Erdman said...


Good thoughts.

Props to your blog, btw.

chris van allsburg said...

Sigh...well at least Jesus forgives me.

chris van allsburg said...

No, wait a minute: you DID mention Mark Driscoll. You're the man, and I love you! I'll never do anything to harm you, brother. But, transfer me to 1944 with an M-1 Garand and put me in Carentan, and I might shoot at someone in a dark, grey uniform.

samlcarr said...

Can we imagine religion or politics for that matter without 'leaders'? Somehow I think Jesus and Paul were being very unrealistic.

I've heard about servant leadership but only seen it on a very few occasions and even then once there is a 'following' quite automatically the leader gets elevated whether they want it or not. The only way out is to quit and that is so obviously against the greater good that it just does not happen.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Uhm, yes, fair point, Sam.

In certain ways, I think that Christianity always exists in some sort of tension between thriving from the leadership of strong individuals and suffering from being controlled by them.

Here's a question: What kind of a leader was Jesus? Was Jesus a leader? Perhaps not by our American standard. We like to quantify a leader's output and/or measure it against some sort of standard. Did Jesus have a large crowd of followers? Well, yes, but he pushed them away by going at their hearts and revealing truths to them that they could not handle.

Jesus focussed on a small band of ragtag fishermen. One of the twelve betrayed him. 11 for 12? That's not too bad, right?

Maybe Jesus and his band of disciples are something of an instructive model for us. Perhaps the most effective leader focusses on the small group. This lends credence to people like me who advocate a focus on small groups/cell groups/house churches. Not quite so sexy as a the mega-movements, but then again, Jesus' ministry wasn't all that impressive either.

samlcarr said...

I guess Jesus' movement was both fascinating and horrifying for its telling of hard truths. I think Jesus avoided telling people what/who they are, which must have been frustrating and comes close to your point about needing to have someone define our selves for us.
Israel defined itself from the covenants, the Mosaic law and as sone of Abraham. Jesus attacked these comfortable and easy to manipulate niches. Instead Jesus forced his followers to interact with a concept "the kingdom of God", what it means to be a child of God, and his favourite "son of man".

As to 'small is beautiful', well it's always better to be small than big but the temptations are just as great, though perhaps also slightly more controllable. The pressure to conform can be just as great if not greater in a small group setting and conformity is one thing that Jesus tried to avoid at all costs! Small groups also have 'leaders' even when these are not officially so designated. The leader should not set 'a model' that has to be followed and that's the rub for some love to lead and some love to follow.

daniel said...

Dave Cape wrote a great book on servant leadership with Tommy Tenney as a co-writer. Check out Dave's website: www.footwasher.net

Maybe Tommy Tenney helped get the book on the market in the US, which is not wrong just tactical considering how difficult it can be to communicate to the American public without hype.

It's a little different in the rest of the world, but still it seems like the globe is slowly but surely conforming to an advertiser's image of reality.

Anyway Dave is a very humble Christian leader with a great legacy in South Africa and around the world.

Sam - we need leaders. Jesus was the ultimate leader, and by commissioning us to make disciples he was literally calling us all to lead.

samlcarr said...

Daniel, I think it's hard for us to not think in terms of leaders. Paul certainly was considered one but the way I read his epistles Paul certainly tried very hard to be a good example but always looked to encourage the wholeness of a mutually interdependent body rather than allow 'leadership' as such to .

I'm not at all sure tho whether I agree with you. Can we equate discipling with leadership? isn't it false to set one person 'in authority' over another even if it is by mutual consent?
Jesus certainly was and is our leader. The way I read passages like Mtt 23, and the very concept of the Lordship of Jesus means that for me I have to avoid any sort of substitutes. Each is free to be a genuine servant but when 'followers' emerge, then I think that we are crossing a line into worldliness and in some form also idolatry.

Melody said...

isn't it false to set one person 'in authority' over another even if it is by mutual consent?

Do you really think of Christian leaders as having authority over other Christians? I don't. It would be weird and cult like. I mean, isn't that one of the ways you know something is a cult? If one leader or group of leaders is supposed to have the authority of God over the others? You know, like the kool-aid people or the moonies.

But throughtout the NT you definately see the apostles leading by example and teaching.

"The things which you have seen and heard and learned and recieved in me, these things do and the God of peace will be with you" 2 Timothy 4:9 (I think)

Jonathan Erdman said...


Are you being serious???

At the church at which we are both members, if you step far enough out of line, you will be put under church discipline. And, yes, they will call upon the authority of God as grounds to oust you!

I'm just saying: watch yourself!

For me, the jury is still out on what "leadership" is in the body of Christ. The early church quickly organized themselves around the disciples. Then the disciples nominated deacons to "wait on tables." These were the wise guys (not in the gangster sense) who also were filled with the spirit.

The early church, though, may not be the best example of leadership b/c the faith was so very new that some people literally knew nothing. It seems reasonable that with thousands coming to faith, it was necessary to do some mass instruction, even in light of the fact that they were meeting together in homes on a regular basis for fellowship.

In today's developed countries, particularly in the States, information about the faith is plentiful and teaching (imo) is not really all that important, at least in terms of getting information out.

For today's challenges, I think we need more leaders who are passionate, thoughtful, and willing to wash feet.

The example of Jesus seems clear enough: he didn't try to build a big organization; he lived in order to die. He had a personal mission that he kept moving toward and along the way he invested himself in a small group. By all accounts, it seems as though their little group had misunderstandings, hurt feelings, confusion, snappy remarks, rebukes, anger, but also good times and personal growth. Who knows? Maybe Jesus grew as well. Is it possible that the disciples taught Jesus? Or that Jesus learned from his time with the disciples?

Authority may be a necessary evil. But if the body of Christ was functioning in love and tied together in dynamic relationships, would we still need authority? If we set each other free, would we really need to enforce laws? If we focussed on the work of the Spirit, would we really have to work so hard at controlling the flesh? If we cultivated relationships where we could be open and challenge one another (think the opposite of most sunday schools =) then would we have to wait until people were sleeping with their neighbor's wife to excommunicate them???

It seems to me that a fully functioning body of Christ would need minor tune ups and not all that much major repair work.

Melody said...

Are you being serious???

So serious.

At the church at which we are both members, if you step far enough out of line, you will be put under church discipline. And, yes, they will call upon the authority of God as grounds to oust you!

Oh no, not my church membership,
whatever will I do?

I'm not a member. I don't understand the whole membership thing. What do I get for being a member? Is there a discount on my tithe?

I mean, I guess I'd get to vote on stuff. Do we vote on stuff?

The only authority any of the pastoral staff has over my life is that I help with youth group and if I were to make poor choices I can only assume they wouldn't let me help anymore. But that would happen anywhere that children are involved - and should.

I'm just saying: watch yourself!

What do you think is going to happen, "Well Melody, we've been monitoring your blog activity and we were very disturbed to see that you do not believe we have any authority over your life, so just to prove you wrong we are banning you from corporate worship for three weeks. We want you to use that time to think about what you've done."

Maybe Jesus grew as well. Is it possible that the disciples taught Jesus? Or that Jesus learned from his time with the disciples?

There's not any record of that is there? What would he have learned?

daniel said...

Amen brother. Sam, you and I agree, discipleship is worked out in relationship and the leadership involved is by the authority of God's Word and through the conviction of the Holy Spirit. Anything else is phony and short lived, resulting in more bondage and legalism.

Jon Amen and Amen, so true that Jesus learnt from his experience, as fully man he tasted death, and conquered death, he tasted betrayal, he overcame disbelief and revealed divine forgiveness. Although God is all-knowing he humbled himself to become a man, what a mystery. Jesus must have learnt a lot from his mom and dad, someone teaching him to talk, walk.

Jesus was 100% genuine. When he asked Peter who do you think that I am he didn't know the answer, when he asked the man at the pool of Siloam he wanted an answer this wasn't just going through the motions.

Jesus maintains the same absolute interest in you and I today and that is what is so amazing. He is still willing to "learn" from us in this sense, to learn our hopes and our fears, to be our Lord and friend.

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