Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The Leadership Summit's Inordinate Triumphalism

I recently caught the tail end of a Willow Creek Leadership Summit and heard Bill Hybels giving the wrap up speech for the day. Even though I greatly respect and appreciate this pastor and evangelical leader and the thrust of much of what he says and does, I must say that he said a few things that really bothered me. I'd heard him say them before, and they'd bothered me before, but this time it clicked in my head and I understood why.

He said: "The local church is the hope of the world."

I've heard him say this before, and I love it because it challenges us to live up to our mission and reminds us that we hold a redemptive (rather than merely escapist) message and are driven by a powerful Spirit. But unfortunately I think this statement not only misplaces our motivation but is patently false.

The local church, or even the universal church is not the hope of the world.

Sorry, it just isn't. Jesus Christ is the hope of the world. It may sound like I'm splitting hairs, but this is very important.

Yes the church represents Jesus Christ and is called to be his ambassador and is called to embrace his mission as is filled with the Holy Spirit who guides it and empowers it to make great strides in that mission, but it isn't Jesus Christ. It isn't perfect. It fails Him and he preserves it and works with it despite all that. But it isn't Him. If it was, things would indeed be a lot better in the world today. When we say the church is the hope of the world we've got a good inspiring statement there, and a proper challenge in front of us, but we are also just setting ourselves up for disillusionment in our own eyes and disappointment in the world's eyes.

We soon forget (and so does society) that the church is first and foremost a people embracing forgiveness, not a people who are somehow better than anyone else.

Another thing Hybels said (or at least heavily implied) was that if the Church (and by that I think he mostly meant the Evangelical West) got together they could eradicate poverty. Wow. That is inspiring. But again, patently false. Don't get me wrong, I'd love it if we could and I think we should try, but let's not decieve ourselves.

This is basically the heresy of Triumphalism all over again. Triumphalism, like most falsehoods, starts with a truth and then takes it too far. It goes like this: It believes that Jesus has already won the victory over sin and death and suffering. Amen. The cross and empty tomb. But it forgets that we will not experience that victory fully until his return. Not yet.

Triumphalism is leaning too heavily on the already without an adequate dose of the not yet. The flip side of it is the lethargy and indifference of what I'll call Defeatism. This isn't good either. I admit that I succumb to it too easily. I think many of us do. I'll also admit that Hybels is rightly trying to wake us up from wallowing in such slumber. But I just wish it wasn't just another error in the opposite direction.

Triumphalism isn't so bad, I guess, when it is merely overestimating the already of God's plan, but it is downright horrifying when it over-estimates the already of us and our ability to achieve it. What happens when we get Triumphalistic like this is that we over-state ourselves, over-estimate ourselves and our abilities, and set ourselves up for huge failure and let down. We get naive. When we do this not only do we set ourselves up for disappointment, but we put our hope and our motivation in the wrong place.

This may sound nitpicky, but I'm convinced it is a huge problem in evangelicalism today. We put it all on our own shoulders, obsess about our strategies and our leadership principles, and then go to town. These efforst aren't bad. It is good stewardship to champion excellence and coordinate our efforts. But thereien does not lie our hope. Therein lies the path to self-reliance. This was the path Adam and Eve chose first.

I'll close this one off with another illustration of the point: I've also heard Hybels say before (quoting Scripture):

"Without a vision, the people perish."

To this I ask the question: What vision? Is it our marketing strategies, our "championing" rhetoric, our seeker sensitivity, and our leadership efficiency training? Is it that vision?

It's not that those things are bad or unhelpful, but I really don't think that's what the Bible was referring to. I think it was referring to God's vision; God's redemptive plan. Sure, that includes the best efforts of his church. But is most certainly is not reducible to that. Too often I think we are using that Scriptural reference to say:

"Without human ingenuity added to the biblical vision, the people perish."

I sure hope we don't mean that. But that's what I'm hearing. And if anyone else is hearing that, I hope we all can recognize it as untrue, or at least drastically incomplete. I don't mean to pick on Hybels. He is a very godly man and I think he is leading evangelicals in the right direction and I think we should follow these initiatives. But to me these statements of his also represent a flaw in our thinking that I think we need badly to get straight. Especially if we actually aim to hit those initiatives redemptively.

I think we should try to eradicate poverty. But out of love for Christ and for his creatures not out of a hype campaign. I also think we carry, testify to, and serve the hope of the world. But we are not it. The sooner we realize that I think the sooner God's grace and power can begin to have its way with us. For without God's vision, the people perish.

God's vision rests is the reconciling power and self-sacrificing love of Jesus Christ. Our hope is the abiding faithfulness and redeeming power of the Spirit. Our leadership summits should focus us on that. By and large I think they do, but then these statements of human triumphalism slip in and divert it back to ourselves. Man is it hard not to do that. I do it all the time. But let's call it like it is.


Bryce Ashlin-Mayo said...

Even our good intentions need a dose of healthy critical thought every once and a while. We are always in danger of doing good things for the wrong reasons. Our orthodoxy and orthopraxy need to be properly aligned.

Tony Tanti said...

I love the word orthopraxy.

On the one hand I agree that it's nice to see leaders trying to wake Christians out of their slumber toward action, on the other it's scary to me how much pressure and guilt is put on the church and the individual and how little dependance is put on God.

erin said...

This post echoes so much of what I've been wrestling with in church lately. I have thought exactly the same thing - the local church isn't the hope of the world. Jesus is. Sometimes I wonder if all we do in church is just present another marketing strategy to sell another product. I really thirst for something authentic that reeks of Jesus. I think you're right on.

Tony Tanti said...

I'd love to reek of Jesus. What a great way to put it.