Monday, November 11, 2013


The Need To Be Smart

IN a longish post written largely in "evangospeak," Skye Jethani @ Out of Ur opens this way:
“We can’t support that?” the campus ministry leader informed us. “Not unless you include a tract or share the gospel in some way.” My college roommate Dave and I had requested some material and volunteer support from the parachurch organization for a new project Dave had initiated. He wanted to show God’s love on campus by raking leaves, cleaning frat houses, and providing hot chocolate on cold mornings. The ministry leader would have none of it. Showing kindness and love was not enough. For these acts to carry real value, he said, they had to be accompanied by something more.

That experience 20 years ago was my first encounter with the evangelical value of efficiency. One of the blessings of the evangelical tradition is it’s commitment to proclaiming the gospel--a call that many other streams of Christianity have abandoned. This missional focus, however, is often accompanied by a tyrannical urgency that results in the devaluing of every other call. If the direct missional value of an activity cannot be demonstrated it is often dismissed as useless or at most a distraction from the saving of souls. The result is what I call “evangelical austerity”--the shedding of all activities and investments deemed unnecessary for soul-saving.
Jethani then quite rightly analogize this "austerity" to Soviet inflicted poverty, particularly when it comes to the absence of art in our worship spaces and our appreciation. I have serious questions about whether this "austerity" actually produces "salvation." Mark Roberts:
Ephesians 2:10 reveals that we have been "created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do." This raises an obvious question: What are the good works God has prepared for me?

Many of us would be inclined to answer this question by pointing to specific things Christians tend to do as an expression of their faith. Good works would include: attending worship services, praying regularly, studying Scripture, giving generously from our financial resources, joining a small group, going on mission trips, caring for the poor, working for justice for the oppressed, loving our neighbors, and so forth. These are surely among the good works God has prepared for us. We rightly engage in these activities as people who have been transformed by God's grace through Christ.

But, if we think of good works only in these terms, we miss the extent to which God's plan for our good works is much broader and deeper. Our translation explains that we are created for good works, "which God prepared in advance for us to do." The Greek original reads more literally, "which God prepared in advance, so that we might walk in them." The language of walking was used by teachers in the time of Paul in the way we might talk of living or engaging in a certain lifestyle. In other words, the good works of verse 10 are not obviously religious activities scattered throughout an otherwise secular life. Rather, the good works encompass the whole of the Christian, all that we do by God's grace for God's purposes.
This austere approach seems to say that the only "good work" is the work of attracting more people to the church. Does anybody besides me see a certain "selfishness" in this - an aggrandizement of the church over the work that God would have us do? I say this in all seriousness, I have been places where seduction was a means of getting people to come to church. (And here we thought Corinth was a ghost town.) What this austere approach does, is as Jethani points out, just like the Soviet Union, it is somehow dehumanizing. It turns the individual into a puppet of the "state," or in this case the church.

But most of all, it robs us of the abundant life that God has promised us. That's not very smart.


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