Yesterday, I used this space to talk about the mediocrity that reigns over much of what is produced in American evangelical circles – same ol’ same ol’ worship services, ho-hum music, literature and films that are often laughably bad. But that begs the question: why are most of the best things we churn out so pallid and low-grade compared to what can be found in the world? Why are the items we hold up as being the pinnacle of our achievement so much like (to use my analogy from Friday) the #1 surfer in North Dakota, king of his own tiny little backwater but unable to compete with the world in terms of quality?
Now, I would drop my objections to the quality of our work in the American church if it worked well in leading people to a saving relationship with Jesus. But one look at the numbers tells us it doesn’t. The evangelical church is shrinking, and the speed of the decline is increasing year by year. Not only are conversions no longer keeping up with population growth, in most places they aren’t even keeping up with the death rate in the church. (If’n you want details, Google “Michael Bell” or “coming evangelical collapse” for the raw data. You may want to take an antacid first.) So not only isn’t it of high quality, it isn’t effective either
I don’t believe for a moment that there’s anything intrinsic in Christianity that makes for weak art. Committed Christians over the years have given us the wonderful fiction of Leo Tolstoy, G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis, the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and Felix Mendelsohn, movies like Ben-Hur, A Man for All Seasons and The Robe, and more paintings and sculptures than I could ever hope to count. So what happened that now instead of Chesterton, Michelangelo, Bach and Ben-Hur, we’re forced to settle for Jerry Jenkins, Thomas Kinkade, Superchick and Fireproof?
I would be willing to concede that to a certain extent, the same thing is going on in American culture as a whole – more people, after all, are willing to listen to Aerosmith than to Philip Glass, to read John Grisham than Philip Roth, to watch American Dad than The American Experience. People don’t necessarily want to be challenge by their media; often they find mediocrity much more comfortable.
For Christians, this is a problem on a number of levels:
- God doesn’t call us to be comfortable – He calls us to grow and change from what we once were to what He wants us to be. Nothing about growing or changing is comfy.
- He also says to us that “whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men” (Colossians 3:23). Do you want to present the Ruler of the universe with a shoddy product? Do you think it will please Him if you do?
- While most of the things the world puts out are not great, some of them are great. And it seems to me that the percentage in the world is higher than the percentage in the American church these days.
So when we do the same things everyone else is doing, when we produce art or perform ministry that’s just the bare minimum needed to be accepted by those around us, we’re doing God a great disservice. Furthermore, we’re going against His will for us. He wants to do great things through us – “even greater things than these,” Jesus said, talking about the miracles He performed (John 14:11-12). When we’re doing not-so-great things, regardless of the field we’re in, we’re missing God’s desire for us. And whether we realize it or not, we’re telling the world through our second-rate production that the church is second-rate, and by extension our God is second-rate too. Chew on that one for a while.
But I don’t think our willingness to settle is the only cause of our problem in this area. I think our theology is also.
The majority of American evangelicalism, whether we admit it or not, revolves around a kind of “cheap grace” that believers of earlier centuries would find ridiculous. Most congregations provide little or no accountability for their members, and have little or no expectations of them except to show up every Sunday, participate in the events of the service and hopefully cough up some cash. Furthermore, we have chopped down the idea of Christian commitment to coming down the aisle for an “altar call” and/or filling out a response card – no honest repentance or change of behavior required. This is not what the Bible says, it’s not what Jesus or the apostles or the church fathers said. It’s what we have whittled it down to. And I believe it’s a stench in the nostrils of the Almighty, and a poor substitute for a vibrant, active, connected relationship with God and His people.
Let me use another analogy, no surfboard required. What if, after I married the Supermodel, I had signed the marriage certificate and then left, going back to my apartment? What if from then on, I visited her at her apartment once or twice a week for some quickie sex, gave her some money and listened to her talk for maybe an hour, then went home again? What if, other than those time with her, I basically kept living as a single person, doing what I wanted when I wanted, without considering her unless I needed her help with something? And I called that a marriage.
Wouldn’t you think I was a colossal idiot? Wouldn’t you say that I was totally missing the point of marriage, that it’s supposed to involve sharing your whole life with your wife and hers with you, being there with and for her through everything? And if you were the Supermodel, seeing me come by week-in and week-out mostly just to have sex with you and give you money, wouldn’t you feel like I was treating you as if you were a prostitute? All in all, wouldn’t you say that it was a shallow excuse for a marriage?
Now then … when the extent of many American Christians’ relationship with God is to sign a response card, and then once or twice a week to meet with Him and His body for some quick worship, give some money (or more often not), and listen to someone talk for maybe an hour, then go home again, when there is no change in their behavior or their attitudes, wouldn’t you say that they’re missing the point of Christianity? If you were God, seeing those people come by week-in and week-out mostly just to sing some songs and give you money, wouldn’t you feel like you were being treating shabbily? All in all, wouldn’t you say that it was a shallow excuse for a relationship with God?
But that’s exactly where the non-relational, over-structured, altar-call-obsessed mentality of modern evangelicalism has led us. Much of the American church is shallow because it’s built to be shallow. And thus, whatever we make is shallow, whether it be worship services, films, books, CDs or marriages (the divorce rate in America among those who call themselves “born again” is the same as those who don’t). Mediocre is as mediocre does.
There are two things we need to do to change this. I could simply state them as “love God” and “love people”, but allow me to make them a little more directed to the topic at hand:
- Devote ourselves to God, His Word and His will, doing whatever it takes to grow and change into what He wants us to be, doing our best in everything we do because we want to please Him, and getting rid of everything that hinders us from that.
- Go out and not just love people, but let God use them to teach us and challenge us to be more that we were and do better than we’ve done, whether they happen to be saved or not.
If we’re devoted to God, letting Him show us how to do things and sharpening the gifts He’s given us, and then learning from whatever sources He gives us how to do things and do them better, the quality of our work will naturally be high. People will appreciate it, and be more likely to listen to us when we say we do it for God’s glory. By and large, they aren’t listening now.
And we not only shouldn’t be afraid to compare our art to that of the world, we should actively seek the challenge. Evangelicals in America haven’t put out a lot of great art in the last generation or so, but when they have, it usually hasn’t been produced for the “evangelical ghetto,” the closed circle of the Christian subculture. It’s been released through standard, “general market” publishers and record labels and movie studios, companies who don’t care about anything except whether it’s good enough to make money from.
I mentioned a few examples yesterday, like The Passion of the Christ, the sci-fi novels of Kathy Tyers and the music of jazzman John Patitucci. There are others, like Jan Karon’s Mitford books and the music of U2 (whose members are devout Roman Catholics and committed to fighting poverty and the spread of AIDS). All of them are out in the marketplace and working hard to make a difference in the world with their art – and they couldn’t do that unless their art was good enough to make people notice.
One more example should suffice. I’m planning in the next few weeks to stumble into the 21st century and finally buy an MP3 player. In the process, I’ve also been checking out (legal) music download sites, comparing prices and selection. I was looking at what one of them happened to offer last night, and typed ”Jars of Clay” into its search engine.
Now, Jars of Clay didn’t take the usual route to success of most contemporary Christian acts. They didn’t play years of concerts at churches before being discovered, they were found via a Nashville talent search. Their first demos (and a couple of songs on their first album) were produced by Adrian Belew, formerly a member of the progressive rock group King Crimson. Their first single was ignored by many Christian stations but cracked Billboard Magazine’s pop music top 40. The members of Jars of Clay are Christians who, while they do work for a “Christian” record label, have essentially spent their entire musical lives (almost two decades now) out in the secular arena. And their work has proven acceptable in both that world and in evangelical circles – no mean feat – because of its high quality.
The download site had tons of Jars of Clay’s work, including a new version of a number from their first album, called “Love Song for a Savior.” Understand, this was a song that was released to the world, that the world was willing to appreciate because it was a well-done tune. It’s also a song that takes an unflinching look at some of the same problems in the church that I’ve addressed above. And on top of all that, it’s one of the most powerful, affecting hymns (if I can use that word) I’ve ever heard. Just thinking about it makes my eyes tear up, and that’s not something that happens a lot.
So there I was last night, singing harmony to Dan Haseltine’s melody as he repeated the chorus’s refrain to God, “I want to fall in love with you …” and thinking about how Christians can make great art and great worship at the same time, even though it seems like we don’t bother to do it very often these days. But when we do bother, it’s life-changing. We can reorder our congregational life to better focus on God, relate to each other and introduce others to the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ. We can create works of art – in music, in words, in pictures still and moving – that not only further the gospel but also stand the test of time, just as Michelangelo and Handel and Dostoyevsky did. We can do this, if we are willing to give our whole lives to God and to His goals for us.
Whether we will do it, of course, is another matter …