Thursday, February 19, 2009

Image at War with Substance

As a child, I used to think I would be a rather suave, sophisticated adult: a snappy dresser who could appreciate the finer things. But, alas, now approaching the 40's, I live in a cookie cutter house (don't get me wrong, it's very nice) in a vanilla suburb (also nice). My wardrobe is typically geeky white male, got on the cheap (mostly) at places like Stein-Mart, Marshalls, and the Maxx (okay, my wife will add my penchant for Bean/Lands End --still pretty square). I like classical music, red wine, and the theatre, but my knowledge of them doesn't go very deep (sometimes, that's a blessing).

I am great with all of this. I work in a very image conscious part of probably the most Southern city on earth. Status, appearance, knowing and being known, and connections are everything. The appearance of wealth is prized. In this, it is not unique, though it has a far different flavor here than elsewhere --people have something to PROVE, and the wealth is not easily worn like in other parts of the country. Incidentally, the wealthiest people I have known (and I have casually known a few billionaires and several more that sat on tens of millions --don't ask me how that happened) are some of the most humble and down-to-earth --it seems that the upwardly mobile, upper-middle are the ones who need the APPEARANCE of wealth.

We run into this in the church. Sometimes, the argument is made that we need to polish image. Words need to be parsed carefully, also tone of voice. Staffing decisions that favor young, polished, handsome athletic types would be prized by some (thankfully, not all). We think, somehow, we need to adorn the gospel with polish. We need beautiful buildings and designer clothes, and a winsome type A personality.

The truth is: Jesus was none of those, nor did he seem to include such people on his team. He picked losers --let's be honest about it. Yes, the early church picked up a physician later on, but I doubt Luke carried the prestige of top-flight doctors today. And, he did this for purpose --he puts his treasure in jars of clay to make sure we know the surpassing greatness of his power has nothing to do with us.

Image does not help substance. Image does not help advance the gospel. Image harms the gospel. The church is not an auto show, where a curvy young thing needs to be strewn across the hood to sell a product. The gospel is the supernatural power of God, and it changes lives. Is the church anemic today because we don't understand this? I think so. Humility, service, sharing the gospel, and cultivating Biblical knowledge and spiritual disciplines work every time they are tried. Why do we keep seeking something better?


  1. Good points. I always wonder when I read your blog what you encountered that triggered your need to express your opinion on that topic. Hmmm... For years I have been troubled by many in the church who think we need to recruit members that have some sort of celebrity status. Also, those who suggest that the gospel needs celebrity billing to be effective. I have heard many women over the years for example say, just imagine what God could do if Oprah were converted as though God is in some way dependent upon us to build his kingdom. Then there are always those who come into the church and for the short term at least seem to be the "answers" to all the church is missing. The process is comical to me sometimes because it always brings to my mind the process of imprinting that occurs in the lower animal kingdom. Just like the little duckling these people seem to follow the first conspicuous object it sees. With time these celebrity types always show their true colors which are pretty much the same as the rest of us, but as the imprinting has already occurred the followers scramble around aimlessly for a while looking for another to follow.

  2. Thanks Melanie. It's just the product of pondering, and dealing with Fashionable Northeast Jackson and its sad results in people's lives. So many make peace with it. I can't!

    Anytime we try to "help" God, we wind up screwing things up. We ought always, instead, to be about the substance --the surpassing greatness of the power of God is fidelity to the gospel and the word, and loving people --that's it!

    It is somewhat funny, I will grant, and sad at the same time. Frankly, I think the Jackson VIP (and its multiple lookalikes) are hilarious things. I mean --who cares who was at what party? Who cares who knows whom? None of it matters to God --imagine how he must laugh at all our foolishness.

  3. Well Piper says the real growth that you want is the slow, measured growth that results from the transformation of the word, not to trival confromation to the world.

  4. And for me, I always have to watch that I don't then become like the Pharisee who was so glad he was not like those people...

  5. Amen, brothers and sister. Another question that always comes to my mind is, how much time do I want to devote to something which will burn up in the end? My struggle is frequently one of balance. Some of the accoutrements of our culture, about which I may not see much benefit, may require a nod in an attempt to be "all things to all people." For example, I have a tendency to want to "cut to the chase" in conversations, but I have learned from Southerners that there is often a more gracious way to approach matters. I have learned that my bluntness is often taken as being rude. It's not always easy to walk the line with veracity.

  6. I've gotten to the point that when I refer to church growth, I'm referring to spiritual growth and not actual numbers. I have found, having lived all of my life in Jackson but traveling outside of it and befriending many who are outside of it (and making choices that at times set me at odds with the society), that many times insecurity is hidden behind the upward, mobile, "wealthy" appearance. But often, when you get behind the appearances, you find people who are hurting, impoverished and needy, in many of the same ways as the poor. It can take a lifetime to get beyond the appearances, though.

    The Gospel is beautiful on it's own and has the power to get behind the facade. It doesn't need anyone who's pretty to further it. We attended a church of the beautiful before we came to where we are now. The ONLY people who mattered there were the pretty, the wealthy, the super-talented. But we found ourselves leaving on Sundays hungrier than we were before we came -- not satisfied by preaching based on the Word, but malnourished by messages geared to make everyone happy. The one thing lacking was the unapologetic presentation of the Word. You can have all the earthly beautify in the world and it won't matter a thing when this world is reduced to ashes...

  7. *Beauty*, not beautify. It's early. I don't think the coffee has made it to my brain yet... :)

  8. Everything in America is "dressed up, made to sparkle, polished and accomplished." It is the American way. Even foreigners in other countries don't understand why we have to biggie size everything, yet women are only expected to be super skinny and polished at all times (i.e Jackson) If unbelievers in foreign countries recognize this and think it odd, then why don't believers in America find it odd? Simply because as you have made mention of earlier, the gospel has been Americanized. How sad.. The Americanization (is this a word?) of the gospel has attempted to package God into a biggie size deal with loud music, lots of money, flashy presentations, and well dressed motivational speakers. But this only cheapens the gospel. And we wonder why America is not growing spirtually? If America is indeed spiritual at all.