So Liz has put me on to the "free view" section of our Insight digital cable menu. One of the options is the Sundance Channel's documentary series, One Punk Under God, which chronicles aspects of the life and ministry of Jay Bakker, the son of Jim and Tammy Faye.
Jay leads Revolution Church in New York City, and the documentary offers a great look at that work as well as Jay's personal struggles with family and teaching the faith. I've sat down to view the first two episodes, and I'm going to blog a little about the issues raised by each one. Today's topic: ecclesiology. (Next time: gayness!)
Okay, so here's the deal with Revolution Church as its depicted in the documentary: to a considerable degree, people in the United States experience Christianity as a religion that is determined to label some people as good and others bad, and to treat them accordingly. I have no quarrel with this, and it gets especially bad when some Christians start getting all hot and bothered about the "culture war." By the way many Christians and church leaders behave, one would never ever get the idea that the God of Jesus Christ actually loves sinners (which he does, by the way).
So what if somebody started a church based on the idea that Jesus Christ loves sinners? What would that look like? In the documentary, Revolution meets in a bar, and people come to hear Jay talk about the love of God. I should go back and double-check, but I believe that Jay said at one point, "if you walked through that door, you're a member of this." People come and listen and meet people and make friends, and they come back. They are offered a sense of belonging as soon as they show up. It is made clear to everybody that Revolution Church isn't there to judge them. From the website:
To show all people the unconditional love and grace of Jesus without any reservations because of their lifestyle or religious background, past or future. This love has no agenda behind it (I Cor. 13:5). This grace sets no timeline on personal change or standards for spiritual growth (Romans 4:4-5). The idea is to be a part of people’s lives because we truly care for them rather than to fulfill a religious duty; to walk with them through all their struggles as a part of their life, not as a religious outsider.Jay takes a cue from Brennan Manning, noting that this church seeks to love people "just as they are, and not as they should be, because nobody is as they should be."
I want to say something about the pastoral and ecclesiological problems that will arise from this, but first let me be clear: it's a wonderful thing that these folks are trying to do and be, specifically a people who take the love of God seriously.
When somebody has this view of church discipline up-front - that there is none - when does one's faith commitment get 'round to teaching how to live? I think there are two wrong things that can be done here: insisting that God requires non-Christian people to live like Christians before he loves them, and insisting that God does not require Christians to behave like Christians.
God expects sinners to be sinners. The rest of us ought to, as well. Nobody ought to have to meet some kind of "moral standard" in order to hear and experience the reality of Jesus' love mediated through the Church. At the same time, salvation involves a Christian commitment, following in the Jesus way. That requires a lot of long-haul lifestyle change, and if people are going to be invited to be Christians, they need to know that up front. I think it's okay for people to take a long time to sort that out, and to be loved on and cared for by Christ's Church while they do that. However, let's not make the category mistake of calling interested seekers "Christians" or "members" of Christ's Church until then.
Some liberal Christians (and I use that word very carefully, and not as a pejorative) want to invite people to consider themselves as "belonging" to and being part of a church in every possible significant way before any kind of commitment to the Jesus way occurs (never mind Christian baptism!) because this is thought of as being "loving."
This is not loving, it is a failure of love, and a failure of imagination.
If we as Christians have to call somebody "one of us" in order to love them well, we have a huge problem. If I insist on saying somebody is "just like me" and part of the same thing I'm part of, when this is clearly untrue because otherwise I can't lavish them with love and care, I've got a big problem. Pretending someone is part of Christ's Church to get around my problem of not loving the people who aren't is just a great big cover-up, don't you think?
It's also interesting (Alan points this out, so I'll let him talk about it) that Revolution is very traditional in the sense that it talks about "members" and the liturgy includes Jay sitting up front and delivering a sermon. I don't care if he is smoking a cigarette, that's still pretty "traditional."
It's also an attractional model of the Church's mission; I'm not suggesting that the Revolution people aren't getting alongside folks in their real lives and seeking to love them well - surely they are - but I find it interesting that with their other concerns, they want to get "not yet Christians" to come to a religious meeting instead of having the meeting for people who are already "in." But I guess that's consistent with the notion of not having "insiders" or "outsiders."
I think there must be in a sense "insiders" and "outsiders" or else there's no clear idea of Christian identity. Of course, Christian identity requires loving and caring for outsiders as if they were insiders. We gotta remember that.