Wednesday with Michael Spencer
Shopping the Whole Mall (2007)
It started innocently enough. His name was Tim, and he was a Christian at my high school. There weren’t many of us, and we made friends despite those denominational differences that were supposed to matter so much. Tim invited me to a charismatic prayer meeting at a Catholic church.
I’d like the music, he said. I did, and as a side benefit, God ruined church for me for the rest of my life.
These Catholics were reading the Bible, singing worship songs and praising Jesus. They prayed for people with trouble and need. They welcomed me as a brother. They loved the Lord. None of this was supposed to be true. They–”they” being my Baptist elders and teachers–had told me that all these Catholics were lost, enslaved to superstition, praying to statues. They didn’t tell me that some of them acted like they’d just gotten saved at a revival meeting.
It didn’t stop here. Tim introduced me to Jim, Marty and Billy: all Methodists. They asked me to be on a “revival team,” and we went around to different churches preaching, testifying and singing. All Methodist churches, by the way. Another group of people I’d been told were lost and didn’t believe in Jesus.
Pretty soon things fell apart.
I dated a Catholic girl….and a Methodist girl. I went to all kinds of churches that I’d been told weren’t for real Christians. I met people from every denomination you can think of who loved Jesus, believed the Gospel and wanted others to do the same: Episcopalians, Disciples, Methodists, Catholics, Presbyterians, United Church of Christ, Crazy Church of Christ, Pentecostals, Charismatics, mongrels, mutts, whatevers. I prayed, worshiped and witnessed with these folks.
It ruined me, and it was God’s fault.
You see, it’s supposed to work like this: The world of churches is like a big mall, and there are many different kinds of stores. You choose one store–ONE–and you go there for everything you need. You are LOYAL to that store. You BELIEVE in that store and what it’s all about; in the way it does things. You persuade others that your store is the one and only store real shoppers patronize. You buy name brand merchandise at every opportunity. It’s your store. Yes, there is a mall, but you only need one store.
Remember when your dad said he was a “Chevy” man? And you mom said we buy all our groceries at the Blue Bell market? Remember when you decided your school, this college, that team were all “yours?” And you were ready to argue the point of your loyalty? Churches are like that. You choose, and you stay with your choice.
Here’s something I’ve noticed: It felt good to know what you were. It felt good to have a team, a brand, a store, a school and a church. You knew who you were and what you were all about. Things were simpler. Lots of decisions already made; lots of questions already answered.
I know many people who still live in this world. They are shopkeepers in the mall. They are employees and customers of their chosen store. Presbyterianism. Roman Catholicism. Southern Baptist fundamentalism. TBN Pentecostalism.
When you come in to shop, they are very happy. But when you say you are leaving and going to another store, or several other stores, they are unhappy. They want to persuade, convince and bribe. They may be nice or angry. They may insist that it is wrong to go to another store, that you are making a terrible mistake and wasting your money and time. They can make you feel very guilty and uncomfortable, like you are doing something wrong.
They believe, you see, that Jesus came to found their particular chain of stores. Jesus was the founder of their store. It’s right there in the Bible as they read it, and they can prove it to you if you will just stop and listen to their favorite teacher. There are people I know who have bought into this in one store, and another and then another. They are on their third or fourth final choice of a store to patronize. Why shouldn’t you do the same? Don’t you want to be right?
And then there are those of us who, because God has ruined our shopping trip by showing us the good and the not so good in all these stores, are trying to shop in the whole mall and get back home. When God ruined everything for us by showing us the value and the limitations of all the stores, he didn’t give us the gift of feeling great about never really having a “home” of our own.
Do you know that feeling? Denise and I were tearfully talking about it today. It’s grown and grown over our lives. We’ve been Baptist and we are Baptist, but we can’t go all the way with Baptists. We’ve been Calvinists and Presbyterian, but we can’t go all the way. We love the Anglican and Episcopal churches, with their wonderful worship and liturgy. We find ourselves in Catholic churches a couple of times a year, and we are deeply drawn by what we see, hear and experience, but we can’t go all the way and buy into it. Not with any of them.
The more these various groups contend that Jesus is the exclusive sponsor of their stores, the less I want to do more than visit them. I love the whole mall. I feel I belong, in some way, to all of these traditions, but not wholly to any one of them.
When I was a college student, I picked up a book by Robert Webber called The Majestic Tapestry. It is now out of print, though much of the material is reproduced in his Ancient-Future books. In this book, Webber asked if you ever felt you were on a journey through all of the church in all of its expressions in all times and places, and that you, somehow, belonged to all of it. He asked if there were parts of yourself that were drawn to evangelical revivalism, and other parts to liturgy, and other parts to social action, and others to contemplative prayer. Did you feel that the church was a majestic tapestry, and all the strands were, in some way, part of your spiritual experience?
Yes. Yes. Yes. I did and still do. I knew exactly what he was talking about. When I discovered the voice and practices of the ancient church, and the language of the ecumenical church, I resonated deeply. All of the church was my home, but no single room within it made me so comfortable I wanted to stay there and there only.
Webber said that this experience was not always a happy one. The Christian world seems to work better when we find our niche and stay in it. Every kind of Christian with his/her kind and staying in the paths laid out by those who go before you. I grew up in that world, but God ruined it by showing me that all Christians are sinners and all Christians are vitally connected to Jesus. Jesus is the sponsor of the church, but he is not the creator of everything the church is doing or claims is the right thing to do.
I deeply value my Southern Baptist tradition. I “amen” its emphasis on scripture, preaching, congregationalism, simplicity, prayer, missions and evangelism. These are all part of the mission of God that flows from the Kingdom of Jesus. But in that same tradition there is much that I cannot affirm, even as I work for a Southern Baptist entity. I cannot affirm revivalism and invitationalism. I cannot embrace the unethical manipulation of emotion. I do not affirm the shallow, truncated, man-centered Gospel and the rejection of the larger Christian family. I reject the endorsement of the conservative culture war by our leaders. I do not affirm the inherent goodness or necessity of the grand denominationalism Southern Baptists have built. There are many SBC churches in which I could happily be at home, and there are others I could not support or worship in with a clear conscience.
I could write the same paragraph for any portion of the body of Christ that has influenced me. I love liturgy, but not liberalism. I love Merton, but not transubstantiation and papal infallibility. I love Anglicanism, but not apostasy. I want a Catholic church with Anglican theology, Presbyterian government and the Baptist view of the sacraments.
The work of bringing unity in the body of Christ isn’t a work of structure and institution. I doubt if God cares how many different ways we gather, worship, work or do mission. The work of unity is a work of the Holy Spirit in my heart, bringing me to love other Christians and to see Christ in them and for me.
As Webber said, this isn’t always a happy experience even though it is a rich and stimulating one. He also said this is the journey many of us are on. We are living at the end of denominationalism and seeing the birth of an emerging church. We are, many of us, almost homeless in this post-evangelical wilderness.
Yet I am encouraged and press on, because, as I said, it is God who ruined church for me. Abraham met one man in his lifetime who worshiped the God he was following. God works in his own time, and those of us who find ourselves unable to buy into denominationalism are seeing God do a great thing in his church. We need to nurture it in ourselves and pass it on to our children. And yes, blame God, for he is the author and finisher of our faith and of our journey in the post-evangelical wilderness.