November 17, 2019

Wednesday with Michael Spencer: Shopping the Whole Mall

Wednesday with Michael Spencer
Shopping the Whole Mall (2007)

It started innocently enough. His name was Tim, and he was a Christian at my high school. There weren’t many of us, and we made friends despite those denominational differences that were supposed to matter so much. Tim invited me to a charismatic prayer meeting at a Catholic church.

I’d like the music, he said. I did, and as a side benefit, God ruined church for me for the rest of my life.

These Catholics were reading the Bible, singing worship songs and praising Jesus. They prayed for people with trouble and need. They welcomed me as a brother. They loved the Lord. None of this was supposed to be true. They–”they” being my Baptist elders and teachers–had told me that all these Catholics were lost, enslaved to superstition, praying to statues. They didn’t tell me that some of them acted like they’d just gotten saved at a revival meeting.

It didn’t stop here. Tim introduced me to Jim, Marty and Billy: all Methodists. They asked me to be on a “revival team,” and we went around to different churches preaching, testifying and singing. All Methodist churches, by the way. Another group of people I’d been told were lost and didn’t believe in Jesus.

Pretty soon things fell apart.

I dated a Catholic girl….and a Methodist girl. I went to all kinds of churches that I’d been told weren’t for real Christians. I met people from every denomination you can think of who loved Jesus, believed the Gospel and wanted others to do the same: Episcopalians, Disciples, Methodists, Catholics, Presbyterians, United Church of Christ, Crazy Church of Christ, Pentecostals, Charismatics, mongrels, mutts, whatevers. I prayed, worshiped and witnessed with these folks.

It ruined me, and it was God’s fault.

You see, it’s supposed to work like this: The world of churches is like a big mall, and there are many different kinds of stores. You choose one store–ONE–and you go there for everything you need. You are LOYAL to that store. You BELIEVE in that store and what it’s all about; in the way it does things. You persuade others that your store is the one and only store real shoppers patronize. You buy name brand merchandise at every opportunity. It’s your store. Yes, there is a mall, but you only need one store.

Remember when your dad said he was a “Chevy” man? And you mom said we buy all our groceries at the Blue Bell market? Remember when you decided your school, this college, that team were all “yours?” And you were ready to argue the point of your loyalty? Churches are like that. You choose, and you stay with your choice.

Here’s something I’ve noticed: It felt good to know what you were. It felt good to have a team, a brand, a store, a school and a church. You knew who you were and what you were all about. Things were simpler. Lots of decisions already made; lots of questions already answered.

I know many people who still live in this world. They are shopkeepers in the mall. They are employees and customers of their chosen store. Presbyterianism. Roman Catholicism. Southern Baptist fundamentalism. TBN Pentecostalism.

When you come in to shop, they are very happy. But when you say you are leaving and going to another store, or several other stores, they are unhappy. They want to persuade, convince and bribe. They may be nice or angry. They may insist that it is wrong to go to another store, that you are making a terrible mistake and wasting your money and time. They can make you feel very guilty and uncomfortable, like you are doing something wrong.

They believe, you see, that Jesus came to found their particular chain of stores. Jesus was the founder of their store. It’s right there in the Bible as they read it, and they can prove it to you if you will just stop and listen to their favorite teacher. There are people I know who have bought into this in one store, and another and then another. They are on their third or fourth final choice of a store to patronize. Why shouldn’t you do the same? Don’t you want to be right?

And then there are those of us who, because God has ruined our shopping trip by showing us the good and the not so good in all these stores, are trying to shop in the whole mall and get back home. When God ruined everything for us by showing us the value and the limitations of all the stores, he didn’t give us the gift of feeling great about never really having a “home” of our own.

Do you know that feeling? Denise and I were tearfully talking about it today. It’s grown and grown over our lives. We’ve been Baptist and we are Baptist, but we can’t go all the way with Baptists. We’ve been Calvinists and Presbyterian, but we can’t go all the way. We love the Anglican and Episcopal churches, with their wonderful worship and liturgy. We find ourselves in Catholic churches a couple of times a year, and we are deeply drawn by what we see, hear and experience, but we can’t go all the way and buy into it. Not with any of them.

The more these various groups contend that Jesus is the exclusive sponsor of their stores, the less I want to do more than visit them. I love the whole mall. I feel I belong, in some way, to all of these traditions, but not wholly to any one of them.

When I was a college student, I picked up a book by Robert Webber called The Majestic Tapestry. It is now out of print, though much of the material is reproduced in his Ancient-Future books. In this book, Webber asked if you ever felt you were on a journey through all of the church in all of its expressions in all times and places, and that you, somehow, belonged to all of it. He asked if there were parts of yourself that were drawn to evangelical revivalism, and other parts to liturgy, and other parts to social action, and others to contemplative prayer. Did you feel that the church was a majestic tapestry, and all the strands were, in some way, part of your spiritual experience?

Yes. Yes. Yes. I did and still do. I knew exactly what he was talking about. When I discovered the voice and practices of the ancient church, and the language of the ecumenical church, I resonated deeply. All of the church was my home, but no single room within it made me so comfortable I wanted to stay there and there only.

Webber said that this experience was not always a happy one. The Christian world seems to work better when we find our niche and stay in it. Every kind of Christian with his/her kind and staying in the paths laid out by those who go before you. I grew up in that world, but God ruined it by showing me that all Christians are sinners and all Christians are vitally connected to Jesus. Jesus is the sponsor of the church, but he is not the creator of everything the church is doing or claims is the right thing to do.

I deeply value my Southern Baptist tradition. I “amen” its emphasis on scripture, preaching, congregationalism, simplicity, prayer, missions and evangelism. These are all part of the mission of God that flows from the Kingdom of Jesus. But in that same tradition there is much that I cannot affirm, even as I work for a Southern Baptist entity. I cannot affirm revivalism and invitationalism. I cannot embrace the unethical manipulation of emotion. I do not affirm the shallow, truncated, man-centered Gospel and the rejection of the larger Christian family. I reject the endorsement of the conservative culture war by our leaders. I do not affirm the inherent goodness or necessity of the grand denominationalism Southern Baptists have built. There are many SBC churches in which I could happily be at home, and there are others I could not support or worship in with a clear conscience.

I could write the same paragraph for any portion of the body of Christ that has influenced me. I love liturgy, but not liberalism. I love Merton, but not transubstantiation and papal infallibility. I love Anglicanism, but not apostasy. I want a Catholic church with Anglican theology, Presbyterian government and the Baptist view of the sacraments.

The work of bringing unity in the body of Christ isn’t a work of structure and institution. I doubt if God cares how many different ways we gather, worship, work or do mission. The work of unity is a work of the Holy Spirit in my heart, bringing me to love other Christians and to see Christ in them and for me.

As Webber said, this isn’t always a happy experience even though it is a rich and stimulating one. He also said this is the journey many of us are on. We are living at the end of denominationalism and seeing the birth of an emerging church. We are, many of us, almost homeless in this post-evangelical wilderness.

Yet I am encouraged and press on, because, as I said, it is God who ruined church for me. Abraham met one man in his lifetime who worshiped the God he was following. God works in his own time, and those of us who find ourselves unable to buy into denominationalism are seeing God do a great thing in his church. We need to nurture it in ourselves and pass it on to our children. And yes, blame God, for he is the author and finisher of our faith and of our journey in the post-evangelical wilderness.

Comments

  1. We are living at the end of denominationalism and seeing the birth of an emerging church.

    The end of denominationalism? Here in the U.S., in Europe and European colonial outposts around the world, yes, it certainly seems that way, though the Global church situation is a different kettle of fish. But the birth of an emerging church? That I don’t see. What I do see is denominationalism (including among its number the Roman Catholic Church) dying, and being replaced by something worse — an archipelago of cult-like independent megas (and some smaller churches of the same mindset and orientation) devoted to political/social Culture War and irrational, conspiracy-mongering prophetic ecstaticism in equal degrees.

    • I should’ve included in that archipelago a growing number of increasingly popular, and influential, cyberspace-based internet Pentecostal “ministries” especially dedicated to the same Culture War mentality and irrational prophetic ecstaticism and conspiracy-mongering — the influence, and danger, of this spreading phenomenon should not be underestimated when assessing exactly what is “emerging” in the wake of the decay of denominationalism.

      • senecagriggs says

        Interesting take Robert F

      • Christiane says

        Take heart, Robert F.

        yesterday was a sea-change in Congress where McConnell, CIA Director Gina Haspel, FBI Director Christopher A. Wray and Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats stood up for the truth against the Putin/Trump coalition and FINALLY the truth was presented to the nation that confronts Trump’s lies and Putin’s ‘plans’ in the Middle East. All I can say is thank God.

        Now I’m waiting to see how the extreme Culture War crowd with their ‘prophets’ handles what happened in Congress yesterday.

        Our government system is holding against Trump/Putin. I hope the work of yesterday continues, as it is evidence that there are some patriots in the Republican Party who understand that the USA and Putin are adversaries.

        If the Congress and the Intel community remains strong, I do not see the ‘culture war/prophet’ group holding sway in our land. They are a ‘passing darkness’ in our land (paraphrasing Tolkien). Yesterday, the sun came out again and hope returned.

        • senecagriggs says

          “yesterday was a sea-change in Congress where McConnell, CIA Director Gina Haspel, FBI Director Christopher A. Wray and Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats stood up for the truth against the Putin/Trump coalition and FINALLY the truth was presented to the nation that confronts Trump’s lies and Putin’s ‘plans’ in the Middle East. All I can say is thank God.”

          LOOKING thru the news: don’t see any big item such as you described Christianne. If you can give me a link, I’d appreciate it.

          [ If it’s not in the headlines; it might not be a “sea change.” ]

          • I don’t think any of this has to do with today’s post. Please, everyone, let’s stay on topic. CM

            • Yes, Chaplain Mike, sorry for off topic. (I always am sorry, but no way to erase my comment)

              As for SENECAGRIGGS,
              you can type into google to get to the reports or watch CNN or MSNBC and good luck

              no comment necessary for Lyd, oops, St. Ben

        • Christiane, While you like to get politics in everything you read I fail to see what your comments have to do with the fine article by Michael

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            I see it as a midrash on IMonk’s “I reject the endorsement of the conservative culture war by our leaders” which has now flowered into fruition. They think they’ve won, and now that they’re the Winning side It’s Payback Time.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          Now I’m waiting to see how the extreme Culture War crowd with their ‘prophets’ handles what happened in Congress yesterday.

          How do you think they’ll handle it.
          Double Down AND SCREAM LOUDER!
          The Culture War reached fruition in November 2016, taking the Mark of The Trump on forehead AND right hand, Look to their own End Time Prophecies for what Taking The Mark does.

          • Again Hug, nothing to do with the post. Your never ending sarcasm continues to reach new heights

          • Christiane says

            Hello HEADLESS,

            the desperation of the intense fear-mongering by that extreme group begs the question:
            what DO they worship? and WHY?

            I guess it IS politics, and has little to do with any religious topic we speak of here

            However, something is there that sees Christ as ‘cover’ for their merciless acting out towards ‘the others’ and I think there is some emotional illness that drives the intense hatreds at work in these folks

  2. Steve Newell says

    How much of what we think we know about Christian church bodies is not what they say about themselves but what we say about them? How often do we take the time to understand what another Christian church actually teaches and confesses?

    We all like to think that our particular church body has it right and while there are Christians in other church bodies, they are wrong. There are not shades of colors in how we view the Church but just black and white.

    • –> “How often do we take the time to understand what another Christian church actually teaches and confesses?”

      My guess is, “Not often,” and I think the reason why not is because we often know what other Christian denominations teach and confess, and we know that they won’t line up with our own view. Michael’s post and the wisdom within it suggests that we should do exactly what you say: take the time to understand what others think and believe, and maybe “how they got there.”

      Last year, my family was invited by our Catholic neighbors to attend a special musical worship night at their church, and during the event I turned to my neighbor and said, “You could pick this up and move it to our church and it would get everyone shouting, ‘Amen!'” It was that Christ-glorifying. It was a pleasant, wonderful surprise, and I wouldn’t mind going back there again sometime.

    • We all like to think that our particular church body has it right…..

      I don’t think that, and wouldn’t like to think it. And I don’t think many in the Lutheran parish I’m member of think that; perhaps none do.

  3. Christiane says

    It is possible to examine St. Paul’s speech at the Aeropagus (sp?) and understand better the following, which seems ‘conflicted’, but in the end, is open to the mystery that is the Holy Spirit at work in the world FOR God’s purposes of salvation:

    I’m from a Church that believes we have ‘the true faith’ as it was passed on from the Apostles to those who followed them;

    AND we are able to recognize this:

    841 The Church’s relationship with the Muslims. “The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims; these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind’s judge on the last day.”

    AND we are able to recognize this:

    839 “Those who have not yet received the Gospel are related to the People of God in various ways.”325
    The relationship of the Church with the Jewish People. When she delves into her own mystery, the Church, the People of God in the New Covenant, discovers her link with the Jewish People,326 “the first to hear the Word of God.”327 The Jewish faith, unlike other non-Christian religions, is already a response to God’s revelation in the Old Covenant. To the Jews “belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ”,328 “for the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.”

    and we are able to recognize THIS:

    843 The Catholic Church recognizes in other religions that search, among shadows and images, for the God who is unknown yet near since he gives life and breath and all things and wants all men to be saved. Thus, the Church considers all goodness and truth found in these religions as “a preparation for the Gospel and given by him who enlightens all men that they may at length have life.”332

    WHY?

    maybe this helps explain better:

    “Outside the Church there is no salvation”
    846 How are we to understand this affirmation, often repeated by the Church Fathers?335 Re-formulated positively, it means that all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body:
    847 This affirmation is not aimed at those who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ and his Church:
    Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience – those too may achieve eternal salvation.337
    848 “Although in ways known to himself God can lead those who, through no fault of their own, are ignorant of the Gospel, to that faith without which it is impossible to please him, the Church still has the obligation and also the sacred right to evangelize all men.”338

    The Holy Spirit goes where He will. He cannot be ‘boxed in’ or ‘corraled’ or limited in the human sense of the word, no. That this cannot be understood is okay. There is room for mystery in the faith of Christ.

    • Christiane,

      You wrote a few things I would like to get some clarification on.

      “I’m from a Church that believes we have ‘the true faith’ as it was passed on from the Apostles to those who followed them”

      “Outside the Church there is no salvation”

      “it means that all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body”

      When you say “the Church”, are you referring to the Roman Catholic Church or to the universal body of believers?

      “Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience – those too may achieve eternal salvation.337”

      Two parts of this statement concerns me: “the Gospel of Jesus Christ or his Church” and “through no fault of their own”.

      Again, is “the Church” referring to the Roman Catholic Church? If so, since I knowingly reject the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church but know the Gospel of Christ, does the “through no fault of our own” not apply to me (or any protestant, for that matter)? What is my ultimate fate for eternity?

      • Hello Ken P.

        Catholic, here . . . but I am inclusive in the sense of ‘the Body of Christ’ and also I believe in the Incarnation as a part of our salvation, in the way that the EO see it: Christ ‘assumed’ our humanity to Himself, and that changed everything for all humankind . . . I also reject any kind of strict Calvinist determinism . . . I am comfortable among main-line Christian people, (but uncomfortable around those who throw stones at ‘the others’ and look down on them and yet see themselves as ‘the saved’ . . . I pity them more than dread them, though . . .so much hate in them for other people who are different)

        and the quotes are from the Vatican catechism, primarily

        as to anyone’s eternal salvation, that is in God’s good keeping . . . trust Him, follow your moral conscience which He gave you.
        here’s some prayers I love:
        “Jesus Christ, I trust in You”
        “Holy God, Holy Mighty One, Holy Immortal One, have mercy on us.”

        hope this helps, sorry if I confused you . . . I don’t have all the answers, no . . . but some advice, this:
        Keep your eyes on Jesus Christ, and Him Crucifed

  4. Michael didn’t mention C.S. Lewis’s “hallway” but I think with the mall metaphor he was getting at the same idea.

  5. I would have to agree. While I primarily worship at my Catholic parish I feel right at home in the Lutheran, Anglican, and Methodist church along with the Presbyterians. The only ones I avoid at all costs are the mega churches. There are none near me but I also would feel right at home in the Orthodox Church. Wherever Christ is preached is is home and family.

    • I agree, I avoid mega churches which are rampant here in SoCal….well, pretty much all of Cali.

      We worship in a Lutheran Church, been their almost 5 yrs, after leaving a Baptist seeker-friendly Church who denied they were baptist or seeker friendly. Pretty funny…no, sad.

      I married a Catholic 33 years ago, and my family thought I was a heretic. Still do. We, too have gone from catholic to Calvary chapel, to baptist to Lutheran. Probably would be Anglican if there was one near us. As it is, we love walking to our little Lutheran Church every Sunday…and we love their ministries to church and community, their faithfulness to give the gospel each week, bible studies, etc.

      I’m so tired of having church ‘tribes’….thought we were a whole BODY….not a dismembered one.

      Just sayin’?

      Maybe we’re ‘home’ after all these years? Especially as we approach our retirement/old age…don’t really want to have to start again…unless we relocate….which could/could not happen.

      But mega church…NEVER!

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        You’ll have to get out of the state or hole up in a cave somewhere in the Sierras to get away from Megas and Gigas. I can think of half a dozen I pass by almost every day. All sheep-rustling each other like Big Box stores rustling each others’ customer base.

        • Christiane says

          I’m trying to imagine what a ‘giga’ is . . . . . must be like a mega with its own bowling alley and shopping mall

          I love the local Mormon Church here in town . . . . they are good people and have a nice facility that is welcoming to the friends of their children . . . . my son was friends for years with twin boys his same age and they played basketball in the small gymnasium . . . . I think the Church had a small kitchen and some meeting rooms, and the large sanctuary for their sacrament meeting. A mega? no A giga? nope Just a nice neighborhood Church of the Mormon faith that treated its neighbors kindly, Mormon or not. Love ’em.

          • I was invited to a reading of Thoreau’s Walden by an intellectual from work for a few months…. turned out it was a group of Unitarian Universalists each having their own view including a Buddhist. Found it to be fun… I think I was brought in as the token Catholic. They wanted me to come experience their service but I declined…. seemed a bit too hippieish … or maybe too much like a meeting to meet my spiritual needs. Was honored though that they would want me to hang out….

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            I’m trying to imagine what a ‘giga’ is . . . . . must be like a mega with its own bowling alley and shopping mall

            Gigachurch is when a Megachurch is too small for the Founding Lead Pastor/Apostle’s ego.

        • Hug, not everyone lives in California. I left 10 years ago and have never been happier

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            I’m stuck here for the next four or five years until I’ll be able to retire.

            Don’t know exactly where I’ll bug to; Northern Arizona’s currently the favorite, but everyone I know who lives outside CA is in central Pennsylvania.

  6. Yet another classic Michael Spencer post of the kind that drew most of us here to iMonk, letting us know it’s okay when you realize, “Maybe my tribe isn’t the be-all, end-all.”

  7. Ronald Avra says

    ‘As Webber said, this isn’t always a happy experience even though it is a rich and stimulating one. He also said this is the journey many of us are on.’ Perhaps he would have noted the prophet Jeremiah, who spent a prolonged period absent of “happiness.” Happiness in itself is not the goal, but living in lengthy exile is frequently exhausting. A nomadic life of faith was definitely not the objective I had set for myself. Appreciate Michael’s insights.