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The History & Future of (Consumerist) Christian Theology

shapevine-video-still This afternoon I watched the online video of a roundtable with Brian McLaren, John Franke, Scot McKnight, Darrell Guder, and Tim Keel hosted by Lance Ford. (Recorded October or November 2008, currently on the front page at Shapevine.com; sorry no direct archive link.) This group represents quite an exceptional emerging/missional brain trust, and the conversation is a good one from which one can pick bits to ponder almost at will. Here’s a bit of conversation that stuck out for me:

I’m a little worried that we go too quickly to trying to fix the systems when I don’t think we’ve gotten anywhere close to fixing the theology that creates the system. ….[Darrell,] you said this sort of individual eternal destiny preoccupation with the gospel goes way back. How far back do you think it goes?
– Brian McLaren
Well, Jaroslav Pelican, who’s done this massive work on the history of Christian doctrine, points out that by the time of Augustine, by the fourth century, we no longer find any evangelistic preaching that relates to the theme of the Kingdom of God. They just separated. The message of Jesus which was centered on the Kingdom of God has been gradually translated into heirarchical structures and medieval Catholicism and so on. So I think you can make the case that from the end of the classic period moving into early medieval Western theology and ecclesial practice, the focus is more and more upon “saved-ness” as a status rather than as a promise, as a pilgrimage, and upon the church’s primary function to administer the “saved-ness.” I think you can even interpret the medieval seven sacrament structure as a system to “manage” salvation, and so that’s why I think that it wasn’t the contemporary consumerist church that invented the idea that the church is here to meet the needs of its members, it’s been doing that for a very long time.

Avery Dulles, the Catholic theologian, talks about the great models of the church, and the three models that are the more traditional Catholic models all focus on the members and the benefits members get from membership. That is not missional. But that is probably the most pervasive mindset and that moves into every expression of the church, from the storefront to the cathedral.
– Darrell Guder

This is an important realization concerning consumeristic church. Typically we lay the blame for this attitude squarely on modern evangelicalism and the megachurch, but as Guder points out, it goes back for several centuries. As such, this idea has become so ingrained in Christian faith and theology that it affects everything — and staunchly opposes (somewhat by instinct!) the radical shift necessary in our thinking to be truly missional in our theology and practice. This may be one of the reasons why the term itself gets stretched into so many different molds. As McLaren aptly implies, trying to fix the structures without grappling with the theology behind them is a grave error, and I expect it will only lead us back around this same bush in a few more centuries. Or sooner, but it’s still an unnecessary cycle.

Praxis is vital, but for those who get frustrated with us theologians and “talkers,” there is method to our madness that has nothing to do with laziness or inactivity… it’s simply wanting to get the structural foundation — the theology — right so that our practice can be built upon. It is imperative that we be concerned both with the future of the individuals around us and with the future of the the Christian faith generally. And clearly, there is some deconstruction that’s still necessary.

One Response to “The History & Future of (Consumerist) Christian Theology”

  1. Patrick Oden Says:

    A wee historical quibble, prompted by the week past.

    Augustine, I think, represents far too much of what people think of when they consider the early church. He had his place, was quite brilliant and proliferate.

    He also represents what became the very strong foundations of a very powerful institutional church.

    But that doesn’t mean he’s the go to guy for what was going on in Christian evangelism.

    He’s the guy to go to for figuring out what how the central church was institutionalizing, so of course he represents and institutionalizing emphasis.

    There were a lot of others. See, for instance, the eastern writers, and the desert monastics. They sought the kingdom of God with all their being, whatever circumstances they were in. For those in heavily Christianized eras this meant finding depth among corruption. For those on the margins, this meant developing forms of community that were significantly representational of kingdom of God theology.

    John Cassian represents this trend, but as Augustine got all the attention over the centuries, Cassian got pushed back, even as Cassian was, during their time, possibly more influential.

    We see this in the work of Patrick of Ireland, who did not set up purely hierarchical, institutional systems, but appears to have modeled the church on small groups with localized leadership based on spiritual maturity and devotion. The Abbas of Ireland were main players, and all through Irish monastic writings we see images of journey and pilgrimage (The voyages of Brendan being a great example).

    Which means the problem of the church is that it became too institutionalized and self-empowering. The problem of contemporary study of the church is people think this institutionalizing form is the only one, and everyone has forgotten that to read about church missions, one has to read the church missionaries from the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th century and onwards who speak of things of great depth and power, and whose influence far, far outstrips the efforts of today.

    Patrick is a testimony to this, and well worth reading.

    That being said… I entirely agree with you. Indeed, you write, “it’s simply wanting to get the structural foundation — the theology — right so that our practice can be built upon. It is imperative that we be concerned both with the future of the individuals around us and with the future of the the Christian faith generally.”

    Having participated in gen-x/emerging/missional through their development since the early 90s, I stepped back from active ministry precisely because I realized how much underlying theology needed to be addressed, not pushed aside–renewed and rediscovered–in order to keep the same things from happening again. Emerging churches had almost all the problems I saw in traditional churches, with only more casual clothes and more vibrant mission statements giving off the appearance of newness. There were still people fried, burned, and scattered from these churches–people who truly sought the kingdom but got squashed by the institutions.

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