I felt a little sad coming home from the “Elephant Room”, a conference featuring well-known Evangelical Mega-Church leaders, which is odd, because they were good men with strong, biblical convictions and flourishing ministries. Still, the discussion resuscitated a conversation with Anne Blackwell this week. She is a quasi-elderly, ex-Baptist and a longstanding teacher/leader in Xenos, Columbus groups (and once my co-leader in a very early Home Church). She told me that 40 years ago her Baptist mind was plagued in a way that echoes the plight of many today: “I always knew something was wrong with my church,” she said, “but I couldn’t explain it.” The Elephant was hobbled by the same conundrum in the Elephant Room, it seemed.
Fortuitously, Ann Blackwell resolved her vague problem later, but only after tasting the excitement of real Body Life, or Christian fellowship—a “Body” composed of “Cell Groups”. Once Ann stepped out of her tribal, Baptist world, she could never go back. (“Baptist” and “tribal” are not always synonymous, of course!)
Ann benefitted unexpectedly from the plight of dirty, hairy Jesus Freaks, who were Pagan Christians, strays and drifters unwelcome in the Institutional Church, or aversive to dressing up to join one. Jesus Freaks staged a revolt against the Institutional Church model by forming home Bible studies and other low-cost, sloppy, informal fellowships like The Fish House, our progenitor at OSU.
Bleeding Elephant Room
All this concerns the alarming course of Christianity raised in the Elephant Room. A mass Exodus is underway, a revolt against the Institutional Church, but solutions in the Elephant Room were scant compared to the revolt 40 years ago. They told us 3,500 Americans are quitting their church (on average) every day. Worse yet, the downward spiral is accelerating rapidly. Since 2010, church closures jumped from 4,000 to 6,000 in 2011. That’s a whopping, 33.3333% rise in collapsing churches in one year! Since the number of available churches is shrinking, a higher percentage is collapsing today.
Will the casualties keep accelerating? The Elephant Room conference gave us helpful stats, but explanations were few and solutions mostly absent, beyond the generic need for “more sanctification!” As a poignant metaphor, this was the Bleeding Elephant Room. Lots of casualties are underway, with more pending. A better term is Elephantine Institutional Drift. This occurs when Institutional Drift keeps growing among Institutional Churches. Elephantine Institutional Drift produce Mega-Churches, which produce collapsing churches.
Institutional Drift turns organic Body Life into an Institutional Church. Cold, institutional facsimiles of warm, human relationships produce “The Really Big Show”, with grand facilities and smart programs. Money is the chief currency of Institutional Drift, rather than love, the currency of Body Life.
The elephants of Institutional Drift were In the Elephant Room. They are the products of Elephantine Institutional Drift, a phenomena where large populations of Christians are sucked in by the allure of “The Really Big Show”, trading their mundane Institutional Church for a bigger, more exciting one. The Mega-Churches represented were not less than 10,000-strong, growing largely by Christian transfers. To sustain mobs of drifting, disgruntled Christians, superstar personalities dressed in riot gear are needed at the helm—like Mark Driscoll.
Mark will kick your butt so you’ll remember it. He openly boasts that his church, Mars Hill, empties the pews of lame, outdated churches, and he says it should be this way—an American Capitalist, “survival of the fittest” ethic. Moving Christians from one location to another means “reinventing Church”, which is the buzzword today. “Reinventing” is not the same as “growing”, however.
Like Ann Blackwell, lots of people are saying, “Something is wrong with my church, but I don’t know what.” The problems are far greater than anything the Bleeding Elephant Room discussed, however. According to Barna Research and Fuller Seminary, the number is 7000, not 6000 churches shutting down every year. Barna says about 7000 “church members” are joining the ranks of secular society every day, about twice what the Bleeding Elephant Room disclosed. (For aggregated church attendance statistics, click here, and for more information, see links at the end of this article.)
Don’t think these are evil men, because they’re actually good men with good intentions and good ministries. They believe their ministries provide safe harbor for drifting Christians, which is probably true, and perhaps necessary. Some Mega-Churches are bringing pagans to Christ, unlike the smaller Institutional Churches they absorbed, but the conversions are still miniscule, since Christianity continues to shrink at alarming rates.
See why I was so sad? But then I was glad…
Pagan Christian Elephant Room
Ann was not a counter-culture Jesus Freak when she came to Xenos. She belonged to the upper crust in Upper Arlington, married to a wealthy, famous Business School professor. Despite the Jesus Freaks and riff-raff, what attracted genteel Ann was the “Counter Christian-Culture Values” which are not Christian-transfer-friendly, but they are outreach-friendly. Let me explain.
Later that night I attended a truly scandalous but informal Elephant Room, and it was a blast. Some zealous, Pagan Christians (secularized, new converts) dropped in my place to tell me about their Pagan outreach (evangelism) coming from all directions (Central Teaching/Home Churches). We talked about conversions and near-conversions, females (usual fare for single guys), transformed lives, ministry houses, condoms, AIDS, nude models in Art classes, fights, resolutions, new Bible teachers, heroic teachers, bad teachers, Bible passages, Bible commentaries, silly Singing Worship Service, Bible study software, pirating software, the “Missionary Perspectives” course—and we squeezed in a couple episodes of The Office.
Some of these topics would scandalize the Bleeding Elephant Room (ironic, since “Elephant-in-the-room” means raising scandalous topics), especially the casual cusswords. Why? Because the Institutional Church is drowning in traditions and ethics inherited by Christian culture, centuries-old. These are not biblical issues. Layer upon layer of Institutional Church Values run deep, so those in the Bleeding Elephant Room stand very little chance of thinking outside the Institutional Church box.
Oil and Water
It’s oil and water: either outreach to the Pagan culture, or outreach to the Christian culture. Ann Blackwell dropped her Christian Cultural Values to join the Pagan Christian group at Xenos. It was Culture Shock, she said.
Conversely, most of these Pagan Christians would still be Pagans if Ann’s Baptist church was their only hope. Someone has to face Culture Shock—either Christians empowered by the love of Christ, or Pagans empowered by the god of this world.
As immoral as these Pagan Christians are by Institutional Church standards, they clearly demonstrated hearts close-knit in love. Casual acquaintances can’t broach the touchy topics these Pagan Christians tossed around, unless they’re drunk. Casual acquaintances don’t usually talk about nudie Art models, nor do they cuss so much, unless they’re drunk. These guys were perhaps drunk in the Spirit, but otherwise stone, cold sober. More important, they weren’t casual acquaintances.
If it’s true, “the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF’” (and it is true, since Galatians 5:14 says so), then I ask this: is not the Pagan Christian Elephant Room righteous, by God’s standards? If so, then what does it mean?
“Be careful how you listen!” Jesus told the people, back in his day. But they didn’t listen. Think about it—the Jews in Jesus’ day were teaching about the Jews in Moses’ day, or the Jews in the Old Testament at any point who listened, but didn’t listen.