Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Fig leaves won't do in the presence of a holy God

I have long soured on what I not so affectionately refer to as "pop culture evangelicalism," that faddish brand of "relevant" spirituality popular of late among the young and foolish. Some will protest that the term is unfair, and I might even be inclined to agree. To add the qualifier, "evangelicalism," to a movement that is entirely a product of "pop culture" is to diminish both, but that is precisely the point. Evangelicalism does not need pop culture and its addiction to celebrity in order to be "relevant," and pop culture does not need evangelicalism to clothe its narcissistic excesses in spiritual garb.

The dirty little secret is that American evangelicalism, unhinged from anything resembling historical moorings, has been married to pop culture almost from its inception. Its current adriftness--theologically, spiritually, and substantively--is the natural outcome of the exaltation of the autonomy of the individual over the mutual accountability of the community. The emergence of an evangelical celebrity culture mirroring that of the secular entertainment world was inevitable in such an environment.

Depravity, however, that most wholesome yet distasteful doctrine of the Reformation, has a way of wielding its ugly head at the most inopportune of times. The well documented downfalls of celebrity "mega-church" pastors are testimony to this. Sex brought down Ted Haggard. Muddled theology felled Rob Bell. Now, allegations of plagiarism threaten to derail the ministry of Mark Driscoll.

As is often the case when accusations of impropriety arise, many of Driscoll's critics, who have never cared much for his bombastic brand of evangelicalism, have taken to piling on, calling attention to some of the Seattle pastor's other questionable actions.

In an article posted at Juicy Ecumenism today, however, Mark Tooley raises an issue with Driscoll which may seem superficial, but actually goes to the very heart of the problem with pop culture evangelicalism.

It once was a redeeming quality for traditional once Mainline Protestant churches that, whatever their other deficiencies, they offered a respectful, traditional worship atmosphere, with clergy and parishioners dressed formally. Increasingly this seriousness is less and less common, and I sometimes see worshippers dressed similar to Driscoll in this photo. Usually I see only a handful wearing a coat and tie at my own church and other Methodist churches where I attend, a big shift from just a few years ago. Recently I was asked to be an usher at a church I visited, my only apparent virtue as a stranger apparently being that I was among the very few in a suit. 
An elderly woman in my church has recalled that her father, when pastor of the church in the 1940s, had been the last minister to appear in the pulpit wearing a frock coat and not a robe. Apparently not until well into the 20th Century did Methodist clergy start wearing robes, previously wearing dark suits. Francis Asbury, founding bishop of American Methodism, was famous for crisscrossing the American frontier in his dark suit, which naturally got frayed. John Wesley reputedly preached often to outdoor crowds in the robe of an Anglican clergy. 
The largest church in the neighborhood of my church is an historic black Baptist congregation. Their traffic creates a small traffic jam on Sunday mornings. And as I pass their parishioners walking from their parked cars they are always formally dressed, men and women, all ages. This particular church is pretty well to do. But as a black seminary president recently explained to me, historically black people who were not well off saw church as their most important experience of the week and dressed accordingly. I’ve noticed that worshippers at immigrant Hispanic evangelical churches are often dressed very formally, probably for similar reasons. 
Shouldn’t church be the most important event of the week for everybody, at least as important as a wedding or other celebration?
Tooley is quite on target in pointing out the inadequacy of Driscoll's wardrobe. I am not as big a stickler for congregational uniformity, but clergy ought always to dress appropriately when leading worship, proclaiming the Word of God, and presiding at the Lord's Table.

Driscoll and others of the "casual" persuasion may argue that their ragged and disheveled attire is an expression of incarnational ministry. However, that is missing the point. The minister leading worship has a great weight upon his shoulders. It is his responsibility to bring the worshiping community into the presence of a holy God. From the Garden of Eden onward, this is not something one does when clothed with mere fig leaves.