I was honored to be invited to participate in UMC LEAD (a conference on innovation and the future of churches) this year. As a participant with the others who came, I was invited to speak on something I had learned about in my ministry. What intrigued me most about participating in LEAD was that everyone involved, from those producing the event to to those hosting it, were asked to participate as learners, not as experts.
That included the speakers.
I love that; breaking the baby boomer model of bringing in the expert from “away” to enlighten the crowd. And, for the most part, that is what happened.
Because I’m not sure there is an audio recording of my time of sharing, I thought I’d share my manuscript here. Hope it’s insightful to my journey, if nothing else. We’ve spun peoples faith into such a game of measurable and productivity that it’s almost impossible to separate the hustle from genuine community building.
I’ve said it before, and it bears repeating; when I finally tap out on ministry, it will be because of people, not God.
Any way, whatever. Here you go.
What the f*** is happening?!
“I was witnessing the logical conclusion of an evolutionary convergence between coolness and Christianity that began at the dawn of the millennium, when progressive-minded Christians, terrified of a faithless future, desperately rended their garments and replaced them with skinny jeans and flannel shirts and piercings in the cartilage of their ears, in a very ostentatious effort to be more modern and more relatable. Which is why, today, you can find ironically bespectacled evangelicals in Seattle and graphic designers soliciting tithes with hand-drawn Helvetica flyers in San Diego. You can walk into mega-churches all over the country where the pastor will slap on a pair of leather pants and drop the F-bomb BOOM how do you like me now?”
Taffy Brodesser-Akner, “What Would Cool Jesus Do?”, GQ, Dec 17, 2015.
This was Taffy’s assessment of her time with Hillsong Church in Brooklyn New York, and thus her worldview of the new American Christian experience. Fearful of a Christianity that didn’t represent their version of faith, churches have strategically coopted/mimicked culture to stay relevant. Instead of encouraging the natural evolution of the expressions of faith in local contexts, there has been a reaction to the lack of static replication of churches, and so we see:
- A pastor’s spouse has their own security detail and talent trailer to stay in between services.
- A private Christian college president’s instructing students to arm themselves.
- A certain denomination offering headhunting bonuses for baptisms.
- “Bring your Neighbor For a Chance to Win an Ipad” Sunday.
- Constant social media posts about how hard we are “Christianing”
- A priests using a hoverboard during their Christmas Eve recessional.
- The growing occurrence and cancer of “Christian Celebrity”.
- A church that is named WTF Church (Word That Frees, get it?).
- A guest being turned away from a worship service because they don’t fit the brand of that church.
I could go on, literally, for another 30 minutes, but so could you.
And so we are witness to a logical conclusion; the shift of Christianity from the Constantinian age in which the Church directed culture, into a time in which it is on the outside of culture making, looking wistfully in. And just like that strange Ex- you dated in high school, the church is trying everything to get it’s former love back; changing their hair, their clothes, and listening to more of The Cure.
This then, is the Jesus Hustle.
The Jesus Hustle
The threat of the Jesus hustle is twofold:
- It relegates ministry to gimmicks, props, and programming.
- It hinders authenticity and community building.
In order to grasp at some sort of sustainability, the church has become susceptible to offering the world a McSavior; a low commitment, high reward divine experience for the low cost of attendance and regular tithing.
Instead of encouraging the natural evolution of the expressions of faith, there has been a pushback to the lack of replication of the religious landscape of the “golden years”. Thus the institutional church adopts the Jesus Hustle as a result to a mindset of scarcity rather than abundance. The Hustle is truly the rearrangement of deck chairs on some sort of famous giant boat that is sinking in the ocean.
Remember this little nugget from the rabbi Jesus?
“Be careful that you don’t practice your religion in front of people to draw their attention. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.
Whenever you give to the poor, don’t blow your trumpet as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets so that they may get praise from people. I assure you, that’s the only reward they’ll get. But when you give to the poor, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing so that you may give to the poor in secret. Your Father who sees what you do in secret will reward you.
When you pray, don’t be like hypocrites. They love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners so that people will see them. I assure you, that’s the only reward they’ll get. But when you pray, go to your room, shut the door, and pray to your Father who is present in that secret place. Your Father who sees what you do in secret will reward you.” – Matthew 6:1-5
We see no deep dives in the Hustle, no asset based community development, no posture as learners to the contextual narrative, no organizational alignment with others who seek the mending of community. We see instead territorialism, metric mongering and gimmicks, vision cast as aggressive growth models and evangelism.
Who should we be?
In December, entrepreneur Mark Bittman wrote a piece for Fast Company about what he was and wasn’t willing to do for the sake of his startup’s growth. While I am often hesitant to parallel business thinking with church thinking, I think here Bittman offers clarity that we need to hear.
He argues that believing that your product is unusual and terrific trumps the ad campaign. he says,
“I can see Purple Carrot becoming truly defensible by having a mission that is strong, wise, and believable. We need to attract customers to our company because they have the same goals as we do: creating food that is fair and green and nutritious and delicious.”
Are you existing in a space where you and those around you are joined not by branding, or denomination, but because you are anchored in the same deep convictions that get you up out of bed in the morning? What is unusual or terrific or transcendent about that thing you do? Why is it worth anyone’s time?
But maybe this biggest question of all is this: Are we willing to fail for the sake of authenticity and integrity?
The true work of the gospel is riskier than anything else we could attempt. Are we sold out enough on our vision as to live as leaders who can (and often will) fail?
The root of the Jesus Hustle is fear.
We don’t trust ourselves,
We don’t trust that God trusts us,
We don’t trust God.
And so we create an angle in the story, so as think that the Christian life is one of levelling up and achievements, rather than a pouring out of our lives in response to the primary actor, the compassionate Divine one.
Dr. Richard Beck says this,
“My point in all this is that contemporary Christianity has lost its way. Christians don’t wake up every morning thinking about how to become a more decent human being. Instead, they wake up trying to “work on their relationship with God” which very often has nothing to do with treating people better. How could such a confusion have occurred? How did we end up going so wrong? I’m sure there are lots of answers, but at the end of the day we need to face up to our collective failure. I’m not saying we need to do anything dramatic. A baby step would do to start. Waking up trying to be a little more kind, more generous, more interruptible, more forgiving, more humble, more civil, more tolerant. Do these things and prayer and worship will come alongside to support us.”
You and me? We are artists.
We were made to create, to weave stories, to paint pictures, and stand in the gap. We breathe life into spaces, we point to the one that is greater, and we cast wide nets of vision and hope, not because we profit from it, but because we believe.
Its when we get scared, or tired or feel alone… we fall into human systems of thinking and defending our work in order to try to appease the pagan god of productivity. We lose our reach and our artistry of the divine mystery.
So, please, keep creating, keep advocating, keep risking for the sake of the Gospel. It is messy and risky and amazing and mystical, and it just might save us from the religion we’ve bound ourselves down with.
You have GOT to kill the Jesus Hustle before it kills you.