Blue Jean Jesus in a Graceless Place (by Amy Worley)
I love Jesus. I really do. But he’s neither my boyfriend nor my executioner, and so I am leery of the bait and switch theology in many of the ubiquitous former Piggly-Wiggly-grocery-store-turned-churches across the American South. You know the ones I’m talking about. Rows of rich, white people in $100 jeans, drinking $5 coffee concoctions, swaying and singing rock anthems about Jesus’ love for them (often with graphic lyrics about the crucifixion), raising their hands and professing their love of a forgiving, redeeming God. What is wrong with that, you ask? Hold on to your triple, grande, mochachino, I’m getting there.
Between songs, preacher hops around stage with his cordless microphone headset and explains how God allowed his only son to die on a Roman torture device so that we may be forgiven for our tequila shots and one night stands. If only we’ll ask Lord to forgive us our transgressions. Heads nod in agreement. Thanks are whispered for this gracious offering of redemption for our personal sins. Followers are moved to tears.
Then 1, 2, 3— cue a rock ballad. A love song—all about Jesus’s personal relationship with us.
And I throw up a little in my mouth. So why this bee in my Sunday bonnet?
It’s not the rock band or the blue jeans. I would love to wear a t-shirt and tennis shoes to my frozen and chosen mainline Presbyterian USA church. Trust me, I’m working on them. Seven men over fifty were spotted in Polo shirts during the eleven a.m. service just last week! Praise be to God. Amen.
What bothers me about many of the newly-minted grocery store churches, some of which even co-opt the progressive Christian name “emergent”, is their adherence to Nineteenth Century, literalist, guilt-filled theology. It may be hidden in the laid-back, come-as-you-are, message, but make no mistake, there is arsenic in the venti café mochas. And the people can’t taste it for all the sugar in the service.
These churches recruit aggressively to young people and they do it well. Church members invite young folks to come decked out in their Saturday night finest, smelling of cigarettes, the more tattoos the better. Bring your coffee and cheeseburger. Come hung-over. It’s fine. Because Jesus forgives. All you have to do is ask. It couldn’t be any easier.
Note that the onus of forgiveness in the theology of many of these churches is on the individual. It isn’t on God’s grace. Generally, there is little grace taught. You walk in the door unworthy of God’s love, an outsider and sinner, who is given an opportunity to join the club—the Christian club. And who wouldn’t want to join? Look how much fun we’re having? There is cool music, cool people, and a cool God who will forgive you your transgressions if you just ask.
Except that isn’t Biblical. Not really.
Jesus, and later Peter and Paul, taught that we are all reconciled to God via his unearned and freely given grace. The Bible teaches that God is the Savior of all men, especially those who believe. It is not the will of the Lord that any shall perish, but that all will have life in God. Grace is a God thing, not a people thing. I think Anne Lamott summed it up best when she said, “I do not at all understand the mystery of grace—only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us.” Yes. It is from God to us. It changes us. It happens to us. We do not happen to it.
This is the message of many mainline reformed churches. You know, those frozen and chosen churches whose membership roles are dwindling. They are the old stone or brick churches full of members over fifty, but who can’t seem to draw in the under forty set. Inside these the message is about a truly loving and inclusive God of limitlessness Grace and forgiveness. The same can also be said of many of the authentically emergent church traditions spinning off of these mainline denominations. I closely follow the so-called “presbymergent” tradition that is springing out of the PC-USA church, to which I belong.
Why, then, are these churches wasting away? For the reasons so clearly articulated in Neil Gaimon’s narrative American Gods— where the medium no longer effectively carries the message. Reformed churches need desperately to create spaces where it is easy to hear their loving and inclusive messages. It is an epic irony that the churches with the most exclusive message have created the most inclusive spaces. That has to change. Young emergents are trying to change it. If the mainliners want to stay at all relevant, they’re going to have to join in. Otherwise, the movement will have moved on and the old mainlines will be left standing, empty-pewed, preaching to the dead and dying. A loving message floating on dust and stale air, and falling up deafening and dying ears.
It seems that change is happening.
The question is whether we will acknowledge and allow it to shape us in ways that keep us serving Christ relevantly or whether it will render us Grecian Urns, our heroic deeds lost to the sands of time.
Amy Reeder Worley is a writer, lawyer, wife, mother of two, and sometimes Presbyterian adult Sunday school teacher in a vibrant, mainline, PC-USA congregation in Raleigh, North Carolina. Amy contributed to the second book in the Chalice Press “Banned Questions” series, Banned Questions about Jesus, edited by Christian Piatt. She writes a blog called Honest Conversations that won a 2011 BlogHer Voice of the Year Award. Amy spends her free time (between 4 and 5 a.m.) working on a novel presently titled Girl, Resurrected. She expects to be finished with the first draft before her 1 year-old finishes college.