From a British point of view it is scarcely believable.
But coming soon to American TV is a reality TV series based on the flamboyant lifestyles of preachers from Los Angeles. Called Preachers of L.A., it promises a behind-the-scenes look at how certain kinds of megachurch pastors really live. The concern that this announcement has generated has largely been about the evident ‘prosperity gospel’ emphasis of these ‘Preachers of L.A.’ (see October’s column). I am reminded, though, a little of the old quip about Mary Baker Eddy’s ‘Christian Science’ movement, that it is neither Christian nor Science. Similarly the ironic aspect of the prosperity gospel is that it is neither offering true prosperity nor the real gospel.
I am mentioning Preachers of L.A not so much to comment on the prosperity gospel but to remark on the sheer cheese factor. It continues to amaze me because my background was so different but there really are people who grew up in an environment where most, if not all, of the cultural conversation revolved around church, Christian media outlets, and general subcultural Christian norms of a fundamentalistic type.
If part of the purpose of this ‘Letter from America’ is to explain American evangelicalism to its British counterpart, then it is important to stress this subcultural phenomenon. J.I. Packer nailed the issues related to it in his Fundamentalism and the Word of God. It is important to read that classic book, or at least understand its context, because otherwise a lot of the books published over here, the books that are read, the church models that are promoted will make little sense — or worse they will be adopted unthinkingly in a British context without realising that the target that they are aiming at exists in Tallahassee but not Sevenoaks.
Reacting to culture
Many American evangelical leaders who appear to be writing in a way that moves away from Christian orthodoxy are doing so because they are reacting to a culture in which they grew up where there was a hardline connecting ‘do not drink’ or ‘do not go to the movies’ with ‘believe in substitutionary atonement’. I barely can conceive that such a thing can exist — and it is rarer now than it was — but, believe me, it has not gone away here.
Different context from Britain
It can be more subtle than that too. Some models of church growth, or church health, are really sending the message, ‘we are not a bunch of ignorant fundamentalists but know the Bible and church history quite well’. That is all fine, I suppose, but it has little relevance to someone who is unlikely to think that the vicar from St. Peter’s down the road is an ignorant fundamentalist. More likely to think that he is wet, or out of date, or a very nice man as long as he doesn’t insist that everyone has to believe in Jesus and go to church.
Few then in the UK are likely to ape the more outlandish models of ministry soon to be broadcast in Preachers of L.A., but there are other preachers who do not appear in reality TV series, and who are not prosperity gospel preachers, whose models of ministry are nonetheless designed for their cultural context, a context that is remarkably different from other places in the world. Remember the Bible does not provide us with 16 ways to do church just like we do. God seems to have left more up to the creativity, maturity, and common sense of the leaders of his church (insisting on orthodoxy and orthopraxy, of course) than we might have done if we had been designing or writing a manual for church that was to last thousands of years. Of that we may be grateful, feel a little scared, and rather more free than preachers of L.A., San Francisco, D.C., New York, Dallas, or anywhere else that might spring to mind.
Josh Moody is the senior pastor of College Church, Wheaton, Illinois.
This article was first published in the November 2013 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information.
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