Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Consuming Jesus by Paul Louis Metzger

Consuming Jesus: Beyond Race and Class Divisions in a Consumer Church
by Paul Louis Metzger


I enjoyed this book. It stretched me to think about things I didn't really want to think about. Namely, thinking about serving the needy by working together with other churches.

The only problem I had with the book is that the first half of it was very theological. While not a problem if I was better trained in that area of study, it seemed difficult for me (and I think also difficult for the average person) to grasp some of the advanced terminology and ideas. As a result, I felt somewhat confused in the first chapters. For example, he uses terms like "fundamentalist-evangelical heritage," "modernist theology," "denominational seminaries," and "intensifying antagonism" all in the same sentence (p.18). While those terms may be relatively easy to understand by themselves, it slows me down significantly when jumbled together. It seems to me a bit difficult for a casual reader.

That being my only criticism, I thought there were many positives. Since there are so many topics in this book that I resonated with, I will simply list them by bolding the main points and provide an excerpt.

What struck me when reading this book was his huge desire to join the fragmented Church that exists in the world today. Churches need to unify, cooperate, and fulfill God's purpose in a wicked world.
Instead of pointing the finger at the secularists and materialists, we evangelicals need to point it more at ourselves. Jesus did not die to save us from liberals. He died to save us from ourselves. The prophets and the saints of old--I'm not speaking here of America's founding fathers--identified themselves with their sinful nation and asked God's forgiveness for their own wrongdoing as well as for that of the masses (see Ezra 9, Neh. 9; Dan. 9; see also 1 Pet. 4:17). Not only do we need to give ourselves on behalf of the poor, but we also need to be poor in spirit and seek God's forgiveness. Such humility will go a long way as we seek to address the race and class problems plaguing America.

As an evangelical, I struggle with materialism: I am too often fixated on wanting my kids to be well trained, my wife to love life, and my own finances to be in order. I am not often fixated on seeing the church family reordered in view of a nobler vision of being consumed by Jesus and consuming race and class divisions. The evangelical church, including me, must awaken to a missional existence and see itself as a peculiar people with a particular politics, an institution and a people whose mission includes shaping one another's lives through conversion and participation in the crucified body of the risen Jesus, being consumed by him, and consuming race and class divisions. (p.34)

The church should be the setting where Jesus' Good News can work in our lives.
Preachers must deal with problems and bad news from their pulpits--and in their ministries to their communities from the get-go. The Good News does not hide from our brokenness of hide our brokenness from us: the gospel deals with broken people and fallen conditions, and it addresses those human conditions by proclaiming Christ's transforming power. That is what makes it the Good News. Perhaps Baby Boomers do not wish to hear more bad news; but those reaching out to Generation X find that the young want to deal with their pain and brokenness--even on Sunday morning! The preaching and practice of a Martin Luther King, Jr., and a John Perkins do not skirt brokenness (nor do they revel in it, for that matter). Rather, their preaching and practice address our brokenness and pain in order to shape the beloved community in view of our everlasting hope: "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream!" (p.52)

It is important for the church to be diverse and unified.
While we evangelicals should guard our strengths, we should critically engage our weaknesses. We should address structural evil as we recognize that individualism structures us negatively and often fosters the negative outcomes of homogeneous small groups. While I see the need for some homogeneous groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, given the shared need for confidentiality and sensitivity to members' individual addictions, we need to be intentional about creating diversity groups that include members from different ethnic and economic subcultures in order to nurture sensitivity and build understanding and reconciliation among these groups. Lastly, we should address our own consumerist impulses. Rather than quickly leaving our consumer-oriented, homogeneous churches--thus becoming connoisseur Christians ourselves--we should do everything we can, working patiently and lovingly to become transforming agents, helping our own churches transform themselves from the inside out.

One last reason evangelicals have a hard time seeing these things and taking them to heart is the long-standing suspicion in many evangelical quarters of social involvement (as I have noted in the last chapter). But the gospel is social, and we must exhort the church to live out now what will one day be true in all creation, which is how Paul exhorted the Corinthians: he told them to restructure their socioeconomic arrangements in view of God's restructuring of human society through Christ's reconciling work, to which the Lord's Supper bears witness. The gospel promise offers energizing hope that mobilizes the church to participate in God's eschatological future, which has already dawned in Christ's mighty acts on our behalf in history. We need to open our eyes to the triune God's multifaceted kingdom work in our midst, which will expand the homogeneous small group's vision so that it becomes the fellowship of the King. (p.66)

Stereotypical materialistic churches are what we will resort to if we aren't gospel-focused.
Some homogeneous units that are meeting behind closed doors in suburban or exurban megachurches act out the concept of Sartre's play No Exit, which depicts hell as three self-consumed individuals who are locked up in a room with no escape and whose eyelids cannot close. These Christians gather there, with eyes wide open, some of them hanging out around the coffee bar to check out the possibilities for future dates, perhaps in hopes of building cozy Christian homes. Some others plan evangelistic ski trips to Vail, with the only aim of showing their non-Christian homogeneous friends that Christians can have fun, too. The predominance of this mindset in many evangelical circles today makes it very difficult to see how diabolical this orientation is, and it blinds us to the fact that by turning inward we close ourselves off to making an exit and entering into true freedom.

Those who look inward today are also often looking upward. While books that warn people not to get left behind when Christ returns may prompt some to put their homes in order and to give to the Master's cause, they may also be used by some as a stimulus to escape this world, to leave everything behind in order to build bigger homes and churches in the suburbs (or now, in the gentrified inner cities), to await that day when they are raptured to that great country club/ski resort/bistro in the sky. Can we even talk about personal holiness without also talking about holistic lifestyles? (p.98)

There is a big problem with outsiders not feeling welcome.
This missional orientation will include greater attention to what we wear and how we relate to the community around our church if we wish to have a sacramental and salt-and-light presence in the community. While it is certainly true of many "white" churches, I know of an African-American church in the inner city that is made up of middle-class commuter members who have virtually no connection with the community around their church. Members moved their families out of the community some time before for greener pastures as they became more affluent; now they come back only for Sunday morning worship services, and they are always very well dressed. The inner-city blacks and whites who have remained in the neighborhood cannot relate to them. An Anglo friend of mine who moved into that neighborhood and attended the church for some time told me that he had invited a black woman from the neighborhood several times to visit the church. Finally, she agreed to go to his church with him. But when he went to pick her up that Sunday morning, he had to wait for some time as she tried to make herself presentable. She finally appeared in a dress, but it didn't fit her. He could tell that she felt very awkward and uncomfortable, apprehensive that she would not fit in with their "dress code" and could not meet their social expectations. She never attended the church again. The problems we face are not simply white and black, but green as well (the separations of cash and class). (p.126)

Metzger explains ways that the church community can reconcile itself in a broken world:

Relocation:
"Individual church ministries need to get beyond their church walls." "Each assembly should be concerned for the total church in a given region, not just for those physically present."
Redistribution of Need:
"A humble spirit of giving and receiving will replace the haughty spirit of charity and snobbery toward the poor," which is something God is teaching me right now.
Redistribution of Responsibility and Blame:
"The church must re-envision its understanding of communal identity in view of its communal and co-missional God as involving solidarity with society at large." "Christians must take responsibility ... we are responsible."
Redistribution of Resources, Talents, and Goods:
"Churches in affluent communities must work together with churches in downtrodden communities to foster and maintain an 'incarnate' presence of healing and hope." "We all say that we hate poverty, and many of us try to relieve the suffering of the poor. But do we hate the conditions that make people poor?"
Redistribution of Ownership:
"Churches can work together in particular areas of need; that is, affluent and poor churches can together take ownership of depressed communities." "The key to explosive and long-term community-development vitality is to ensure that the people in a depressed community fully believe that they are responsible for repairing the foundations and walls of their community."
Redistribution of Glory:
"[1 Corinthians 3:5-7] must come to dominate the church's imagination and its discussions of church growth. It is not about you or me; nor is it about this or that church. In fact, it is not even, in the end, about the church of the city. It is about the Lord. Christ's all-consuming glory captured Paul's imagination, and it led Paul to seek cooperation between Christians in a given church and among churches. We can share with one another because God shares his glory with Christ, and Christ, as the incarnate agent of the communal and co-missional God in the world, shares it with us. As John 17:22 makes clear, 'I have given them the glory you gave me, that they may be one as we are one." (p.139-161).

Thankfully, he consistently states that the real solution for this issue is found in the Holy Spirit. Inward change in the hearts of Christians in the church is how a true community can thrive and mature.
It is God alone who can sustain us, coming to us through the indwelling and empowering Word and the Holy Spirit, the God who enlivens our practices, inspires our imaginations, and gives us hope to pursue beloved community in our own day. This community sees no divisions between race and class, between black and white and Asian-American and Native American, between rich and poor, between healthy and diseased, between young and old. Meeting us in our time of need as we stand firm in the struggle against the fallen powers of base consumerism in the church and beyond, this God will be with us always, even to the end of the age, and beyond it to the eternal dawning of the new age. (p.172)

I am very encouraged by Paul Louis Metzger's passion for seeing God's power in our hearts change things in the church. He is right on when he tells us that the best, most diverse community stems from Christ's redeeming change in our lives. There is a long journey ahead of us that we need to become more aware of in our pursuit toward unity in the church.