by Sam Kim
Kate Bowler, a Professor of History of Christianity at Duke, recently wrote a New York Times op-ed piece about her experience with the prosperity gospel in America. She shared a story that left me deeply ambivalent. It actually made me laugh out loud at first because of the irony, but saddened me a moment later because of its tragedy.
She said, “No word of a lie: I once saw a megachurch pastor almost choke to death on his own fog machine.”
The fact that Kate had to inform us that this wasn’t a hyperbole suggests that even she had a hard time believing what she was seeing. I guess it is a little difficult to believe that something so incredulous could happen in the church. Or is it?
In the acclaimed novel The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway, the character Bill asked, “How did you go bankrupt?” Mike answered, “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”
How did a megachurch pastor almost choke to death on his own fog machine? “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.” This is the culmination of the unholy marriage between American consumerism with the American Church.
Christian apologist Os Guinness asserts that when we look at evangelicalism today, the world and the spirit of the age are dominate, rather than the Word and Spirit. The Church in the U.S is strong numerically, but weak because it is worldly. The American Church is in the world and of the world; and as a result, it is in profound cultural captivity.
I saw this cultural captivity with blazing perspicacity when I read a recent Lausanne report about how underground Chinese church leaders have asked why mega-churches and ‘missional’ churches in the West are not sending any missionaries and wondered what can be learned from such shallow faith.
All I could think about at that moment was the megachurch pastor who almost died from choking on his fog machine and how trying to get the 20-somethings in my church to tithe often feels like I’m fighting Alien, the Terminator, and the shark from Jaws (sometimes all three when I bring up monogamy as an actual value!).
This question haunted me. It was as if they were asking me directly. I had to repent in tears.
The goal was always to make disciples; this is what Jesus commissioned before Constantine in Rome and the Church Growth Movement, as the church ontological identity subtly shifted from being sent out to where you sat down!
I believe there are two ways the Church can be liberated from this profound cultural captivity, especially culminated in Millennials.
First, we must aim to create ambassadors, not customers. In a church in profound cultural captivity, this is almost transcultural. It will go way over people’s heads at first.
The evangelical community cringed when Tim Keller started Redeemer in the late 1980s without a worship band and opted for classical music in Manhattan. Tim reasoned that urbanites would know Mozart but not Don Moen. It worked. Droves of secular people came to faith. Redeemer sacrificed its preferences and became a church not for itself, but for the city.
Is this not the way of Jesus? The prerequisite to following Christ requires a certain death. “Only those who lose their lives for the gospel will find it.” It’s ironic, but the Church’s current captivity is in her inability to sacrifice herself for the world. Death is the only antidote from the spirit of the age.
Second, we must challenge the sovereignty of the individual. We cannot equate cultural engagement with mission. If Jesus becomes just another option because it works for the moment, then we’re only contributing to this profound cultural captivity.
Prolific Dutch Statesman Abraham Kuiper notes, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’”
The sin of omission replaces the Great Commission if the sovereignty of the individual is not being fully surrendered to the sovereignty of Christ.
The Lordship of Christ is the Great Commission. Jesus said to make disciples, not crowds. The current crisis in the Church is that we have many crowds, but few disciples.
I’m deeply grateful to the underground Chinese leaders for helping me see the absurdity I have subtly come to embrace and moving me toward a radical reorientation of the gospel.
Sam Kim (@Sam180church) is founder of 180 Church NYC, a community joining God to restore the beauty in all things. He teaches and writes about culture, preaching, and evangelism in various contexts. He is husband to Lydia, dad to Nathan and Josh, and best-friends with his dog, Brownie. Learn more atsamdkim.com