The Church Without Christ and the Ghost of Christmas Future

I am an American Christian, however little I sometimes want to own that label. God, preaching, […]

Adam Morton / 1.4.17

cdf82b9fa155ad936dada1b91eb03e10I am an American Christian, however little I sometimes want to own that label. God, preaching, and proper theology may matter to me, but I know there is a business side of the church that demands pragmatic response. Bills must be paid, complaints satisfied, and attendance must be kept up, and all these things seem to ask technique of this pastor far more than faith. Pragmatism is rewarded, and this pragmatism easily hardens into cynicism when one knows how the ecclesial sausage is made.

I serve two congregations and converse daily with an assortment of other insiders, and I have to watch my tongue around those uninitiated into the deep mysteries (e.g., organ repairs). Recently I was upstairs chatting with our musician while some mild construction was going on in the next room. Another pastor walked in to update me on members in hospice care, noting that Myrtle and Lorna had been visited yesterday, and Kay would be this afternoon. “She’s still alive?!” I blurted out, much too loudly for two surprised and amused faces not to pop out from behind the door frame. Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints, but in the sight of the pastor sometimes it’s just work.

Work–skills and systems–these are the things I am trained to rely on, and so I can hardly help seeing the church as a creature of the same. The future of both my congregations is often on my mind, along with questions as to whether I bring enough to the table to ensure their ongoing vitality. As I said, I am an American Christian, and part of that birthright is pragmatic trust in technique to resolve any problem. If we can put American astronauts on the moon, we can put butts back into the pews–it just requires knowledge of the right demographic trends and the right emotional buttons. The great German theologian Oswald Bayer offhandedly remarked a few years ago that American seminaries and divinity schools–conservative and liberal–seem mostly to be doing sociology. I consider that as penetrating an observation of the American soul as any from Twain or Tocqueville.

This is the season for visits from Christmas ghosts, prophets of futures that will be, or at least may be. In the long run, I know the future of the church is nothing but Jesus himself, but in the medium, I have a few concerns. This year’s visit came by way of Mark Oppenheimer’s New York Times piece on Bart Campolo, “The Evangelical Scion Who Stopped Believing.” The subtitle immediately pricked my ears up: “The son of a famous pastor, Bart Campolo is now a rising star of atheism–using the skills he learned in the world he left behind.” I’m usually not all that interested in stories about atheism (I find the subject dull, akin to discussion of flavorless food), but the invocation of Campolo’s transfer of “skills” was just too intriguing.

If Bart Campolo sounds familiar to Mockingbird readers, it is likely on account of Scott Jones’ podcast interview and brief follow-up piece from August. However challenging the interview subject, Scott drew a wealth of interesting material from Campolo, and the product is worth a careful listen. It reveals much of what the NYT article only hints at, but the two are consistent. In brief, Bart is Tony Campolo’s son, a former “professional Christian” who found his faith diminishing until a bicycle accident afforded him the realization that he didn’t believe in God at all, and probably should be open about that. These days he is the (volunteer) secular humanist chaplain at the University of Southern California, having adopted a rather ambitious project of organizing unbelieving students to connect them in community and help them lead better lives.

There’s something deeply American about Campolo’s story, something that ought to unsettle us. I do not here speak of Campolo’s loss of faith–that is neither to be made light of nor analyzed, but is simply a fact. It is the Spirit’s business to bestow faith; it is mine to preach. What is distinctly American is the remarkable sense that even atheism could receive ‘the best evangelical techniques.’ How stunningly pragmatic, but historically plausible. Since at least the days of Charles G. Finney, the unspoken ideal of American Christianity has been the religious entrepreneur’s power to manufacture religious experience on a mass scale. Enormous swaths of our church and cultural life are built around just this proposition, that gifted manipulation of the heart’s levers can open it to faith. Campolo was clear-eyed about the task in his Mockingbird interview:

“I actually try to manufacture group experiences where people will feel connected to each other in a transcendent way…Now I’m really open about ‘Here’s this thing that I’m doing. Here’s the mechanics by which it works…’ Like there’s no manipulation, like there’s no smoke and mirrors involved…”

Why study theology when social psychology will do the job? Campolo may rest more squarely within the American church tradition than he realizes. That tradition has always had an uneasy relationship with theology. Casting away the chaff of doctrine to at last dig into the wheat of charisma and technique for the sake of community sounds at once scientific, optimistic and strangely shallow–and is altogether common. Questions of truth need hardly be touched. I do not doubt Bart Campolo’s intellect, but his approach seems to studiously avoid the intellectual rigor of Spinoza or Freud, or for that matter the confrontational scientism of Dawkins. It was not Joel Osteen but Bart Campolo who said,

“The fact of the matter is that what people respond to is somebody who seems to be thriving, somebody who seems to be excited about life and seems to be living with purpose and meaning. Whenever people do that, they attract people.”

It isn’t clear to me what then would distinguish Campolo’s secular church from any other mass movement. His intentions are admirable, as is his honesty regarding methods. He has identifed real hurts–his talk of disappointment with God is poignant, as he notes that “nothing fails like prayer.” I don’t think we are dealing with a sly manipulator or scummy televangelist. But Campolo himself cites concerts, sporting events, and gatherings of hobbyists as examples of his principles in action. My own “transcendent experiences” are steadfastly irreligious, and largely follow the pattern–memories of a night in Florence, my first Gogol Bordello show, and a vast assemblage of miniature war gaming enthusiasts stand out, among others. Are today’s youth really so disconnected, so aching for community, that an evangelist (Christian or secular) must forge one for them? Did the students of USC cry out to God to save them from their loneliness? Perhaps they are already finding connection and availing themselves of it. Churches ought to question whether enduring community is ever intentional, or whether it is organic.

3570f4a5aa29a9bce37a77bb1a0b44aaLooking from a wider angle, we might question whether the vessel from which Campolo would copy is even worth the effort. We are used to hearing stories of men and women who lost faith or left the church on account of the harms inflicted by that community. As much as Campolo might represent an extreme form of one strain of American spirituality, its polar opposite is far more common–the “spiritual but not religious” individualist. That figure is appealing precisely because the church this side of eternity is only ever a society of sinners. Were we not bound together in Christ, there would be little to unite us except perhaps hatred of that selfsame Christ. What is finally odd about Bart Campolo is that he has so high a view of the church. Those of us who live in it, work in it, or otherwise endure it know it not only to be a place of forgiveness and mercy, but also cold-hearted savagery, constant backbiting, and unrelenting rivalry. While I am a bit weary of internet atheists who blame every human ill on the church, I at least understand them. I can’t even fathom an atheist who can do without Jesus but thinks the institutional church is grand.

In the end, I am not worried that Campolo’s project may succeed. It does not appeal to me, but whether it proves appealing to others is not my concern. The value of ghosts is not in showing the future, but in showing the present clearly, and here I feel our ghost is owed some thanks. His would-be church shows the vacuity of so much that passes for Christianity. In the end, what is the difference between a church whose reliance on pastoral charisma and technique obviates the Gospel, and one that has explicitly cut God from the picture? Neither Campolo’s methods nor his message are even a little unfamiliar to us–they are desperate human striving and the law. We know these things. We have them already. We do not need “the supernatural” (his phrase, not mine) to pin them in place. We need God to bestow on us something altogether different, which the law cannot comprehend–Jesus Christ in his mercy.

I would answer one radicalized picture of the church with another. Can we imagine something like the photo negative of Bart Campolo-style kindly atheism? Not opposite in meanness or hostility, nor excessively heady, nor still completely disembodied and without institutional form. Rather, obsessively concerned with taking as kernel what Campolo (and the heart of American Christianity, along with the world) takes as husk, and vice versa. God himself, in his Word, in his promise, as the thing. We have God in his word. Everything else can go hang. Technique, sociology, ‘evangelism’ may disappear or become unrecognizable. Truth be told, hearing Campolo speak makes me want to forget every pastoral ‘skill’ I’ve ever learned. I don’t give a damn about those things.

Campolo, our ghost, our prophet, asks, “What do you want me to do? Do you want me to do nothing, or do you want me to organize people?” The world’s answer, of course, is “Do something!” But this is not Christ’s answer. This is not our faith. What holds me to the Christian faith is precisely the Word that sets me to rest on the nothing of my activity, my work, and my ministry. Here, Jesus, is my nothing of a work. Happy Birthday. You’re welcome. Now maybe I’m a crappy pastor and I don’t know the first thing about building community, but I’ve got Jesus. Wherever he speaks, there’s church, and it looks pretty good.