The following thoughts were inspired, so to speak, by something I saw the other day on a Christian TV broadcast featuring an influential midwestern U.S. megachurch.
As I watched, the Pastor was making a big point on the topic of money in a sermon he was giving to the large crowd gathered in the "worshp center" or "sanctuary" or whatever other name the auditorium went by. For the sake of emphasis, he paused (on cue) as a bubbling bass line was piped over the speakers. It was instantly recognizable as a well known pop song featuring the word "money". And then, as if by magic, a shower of paper money (presumably fake) came floating from the ceiling into the crowd like ticker tape, having been shot from some pneumatic dispensers in the rafters. I'm not making this up.
All I could think of was: "I wonder how much money this sermon illustration about money cost". No, actually, that's not true. I also thought: "What on earth must people think of the Church and churches when they see this *&%#@ (sort of thing)". Or when they watch Reverend Wright damn American in the Name of the Lord. Or when they gaze upon a sprawling illustrated panorama of the end of the age standing authoritatively behind the old-fashioned preacher who seems to have the whole thing neatly figured out.
Flip on the tube (or the Godtube) and you too can witness what is being fed to the flock of God from Lakeland to Los Angeles and back and forth again across our nation in these times. Like it or not, these church broadcasts function as a sort of mirror that American evangelicalism holds up to itself. If it was merely a funhouse mirror that distorted the real image for a laugh, we too might chuckle. But no. What we see in this mirror is the actual reflection of what far too much of American Churchianity has actually become. This is what we hold up as the gospel. This is what we give our time, talent and treasure to in order to "reach the world for Christ". Not only are we guilty of guilding the lilly, but we have been doing it with fool's gold.
But then, like a lightning bolt of grace, I have seen a few other reflections glance off the illuminated mirror in my living room -- two truly edifying profiles of American churches in action neither of which were produced by Christian TV people but, in fact, by those crazy folks at ABC. I'm talking about last season's Home Makeover: Extreme Edition program.
The first episode was a two hour special on a Vineyard church in Albuqueque, New Mexico. It introduced us to a humble and godly pastor and his wife and their family who had moved into a run-down neighborhood with a vision to renew it. They opened their home and their lives incarnationally to the people there. They fed them, clothed them and housed them in the Name of the Lord. They taught them the Word of God in both word and deed. They lived among the people in self-sacrifical ways. Their commitment, over time, had begun to reveal the kingdom in a very dark place and was beginning to change things. And so, when Ty Pennington and the gang showed up to add to the story (at their expense, mind you)-- the image of the American church BEING THE CHURCH IN ACTION told a far different story.
Later, the same program featured a largely African-American church that had been ruined in the Gulf flooding. The damage had compromised not only the worship center but the food pantry from which the neighborhood was daily served. Once again, their lives told God's story without hoopla and without padding and the Makeover people stepped up to rebuild the church and re-open the kitchen that feeds the poor. By this means, another ray of divine light bounced through the nation and into the homes and hearts of viewers. Anyone open to the gospel of Jesus, the kingdom of God and the unvarnished church would not find it difficult to smell the difference between the two churches featured in the Makeover programs and so many others that promote themselves on their screens.
The whole business reminds me of another sermon illustration I once heard. In it, a man came across the devil sitting on the steps of a church building, sobbing.
"What's the matter, Mister Devil?" asked the man.
"It's those (darn) Christians," came the reply. "They really get me upset".
"But why?" asked the man.
"Because they're always blaming me for stuff I haven't had the chance to do to them yet."