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Saturday, December 10, 2005

As the Megachurches Close Their Doors

"Family values:" it comes down to Family Values.

If the family is the unit in which Christianity is understood to be most effective, then one should not meet with other Christians to celebrate the birth of the Savior. One need not, like Scrooge, be introduced to the poor, the needy, the people one's double-crossed, the people one has personally disappointed. If the family is the unit for Christianity, one can comfortably spend Christmas pretending that one lives in a Hallmark Family Special: grandma and grandpa reminiscing over punch; the kids unwrapping presents, perhaps everyone saying a prayer thanking the Lord for blessing them with the riches to afford so many gifts and so much food this Christmas season.

Rachel Zoll's AP article on Megachurches closing their doors for Christmas has been reported and reposted throughout the web. David Wells, an evangelical professor of History in Massachussetts, says, ""This is a consumer mentality at work: `Let's not impose the church on people. Let's not make church in any way inconvenient.'" But I have yet to see anyone put their finger on why this picture strikes so many non-megachurch Christians as utterly ridiculous. I'd like to take my stab at it. I think the reason is pretty easy to understand: Jesus did not endorse Family Values.

Jesus, after all, said that his followers could have neither mother nor father nor sister nor brother. Jesus said that his coming would break up families: "For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law" (Matt 10:35). Not only would it break up families of unbelievers, but it would break up families based on love and obedience: "If any [man] come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:26).

In all of these statements in their context, Jesus makes clear demands that the individual follow his free conscience to God, rather than obeying the demands of family, church, or social pressure. The statements are continuous with Jesus's two great commandments, "to love God and serve one's neighbor," in which Jesus commanded by example and speech that the Christian serve the poor and follow God.

The calling to which he beckoned us was a family of a larger community, in which rich men knelt down to wash the feet of beggars, in which noble men forgave the tax collectors who had cheated them, in which prostitutes and lepers were welcomed to the table -- before, not after, they gave any outward signs that their lives had changed. This larger community, this great church, is inherently unhospitible to families because it is one in which at the cost of all thoughts of social advancement, family solidarity, or relationship stability.

Now for most of us, who depend on our families and the good-will of others, these are challenging passages in the Gospel; I remember reading them in Sunday School when I was a Methodist 13-year-old, and entertaining serious doubts about the Book of Luke. Of course, one way of dealing with difficult passages is to ignore them.

But when Christians start speaking out against the closed doors of Megachurches, they lay their finger on a kind of heresy rife within American culture: the heresy of family values, and all the evil it has done modern political debates.

Family Values have been used, as everybody knows, to champion a certain kind of anti-tax, anti-gay, middle-class program that has successfully dismantled welfare, social security, and the rest of the safety net with which America as a nation once acted to secure its poorest citizens against complete disaster.

When the Megachurches close their doors this Christmas, they will give final testimony to the nature of the god they worship: it is a god of suburban barbeques and quiet lives; a god of shopping malls and basketball; a god made joyful by little girls in lipstick but deaf to the protest signs of angry veterans and unemployed workers and migrants hungry, housed in trenches around the farms of California.

This petty god who insures that the suburban two-car family maintains its stability even while their government spreads inequality and injustice and torture throughout the globe, this petty god is not the Lord of All. He is not the Messiah who was born to save all men. If he rules in the quiet suburb and the shopping mall, he will not rule their long: even the most secure drivers of SUV know that the oil will run out, that the race riots are spreading, that the forces of division on which their petty god feeds have grown and stretched over the country until the entire surface of America is blackened with fomenting chaos about to erupt. There is indeed an end-time coming, and it's the end of the petty god. And there is indeed a return of Jesus Christ planned, but he will not come back for the Megachurches that closed their doors to him.

The Messiah whose birth was foretold, whose coming as a savior we are now waiting for as we light candles in our urban churches and homeless shelters and open tables; this Messiah is due to come back. We spread news of His coming when we react with disgust and outrage at the closed doors of the Megachurches of the petty god of the suburbs.


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