The Church is Full of Dymschitz
Why missional austerity is more Soviet than Scriptural.

"We can't support that?" the campus ministry leader informed us. "Not unless you include a tract or share the gospel in some way." My college roommate Dave and I had requested some material and volunteer support from the parachurch organization for a new project Dave had initiated. He wanted to show God's love on campus by raking leaves, cleaning frat houses, and providing hot chocolate on cold mornings. The ministry leader would have none of it. Showing kindness and love was not enough. For these acts to carry real value, he said, they had to be accompanied by something more.

That experience 20 years ago was my first encounter with the evangelical value of efficiency. One of the blessings of the evangelical tradition is it's commitment to proclaiming the gospel–a call that many other streams of Christianity have abandoned. This missional focus, however, is often accompanied by a tyrannical urgency that results in the devaluing of every other call. If the direct missional value of an activity cannot be demonstrated it is often dismissed as useless or at most a distraction from the saving of souls. The result is what I call "evangelical austerity"–the shedding of all activities and investments deemed unnecessary for soul-saving.

Evangelical austerity not only explains the campus ministry's refusal to help us rake leaves or clean up beer cans, but also the dreadful architecture of many evangelical buildings. A few weeks ago I was privileged to preach at the U.S. Naval Academy chapel in Annapolis, Maryland. The building is a soaring cathedral of stone and stained glass that seems out of place on this side of the Atlantic. The beauty of the space not only assists but also provokes worship. I can't remember the last time I felt similarly inspired within an evangelical church dominated by screens and theater seating.

Beauty, whether in the form of actions or architecture, is not a high value for most evangelicals.

The urgency of the mission doesn't afford the allocation of the time and resources necessary for the cultivation of beauty. Sure, we appreciate a well composed hymn or an excellent song in worship, and we would never denounce a beautiful act of Christian kindness, but the expectation is that our songs, art, and actions carry some practical missional purpose. The song must communicate a theological truth. The painting must have an explicitly Christian theme. The provision of a cup of cold water must include an invitation to attend Wednesday's Bible study.

In this regard evangelical austerity has something in common with the Soviet Union. In her book about the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, Iron Curtain, Anne Applebaum explains why the Soviets feared abstract art. "Art was supposed to tell a story. It was supposed to teach. It was supposed to support the ideals of the party." Abstract art, however, was open to interpretation and carried no discernible message. Therefore the Soviets went to great lengths to display only art, music, and architecture that conveyed a clear message.

March 01, 2013

Displaying 1–10 of 14 comments

Judith Hougen

March 13, 2013  12:21pm

Skye, I very much resonated with this post. While comparing many conservative faith communities with Soviet utilitarianism is a bit shocking, it's mostly deserved. Our churches often resemble tractor sheds, and our music can be little more than a clever rearrangement of three guitar chords with vapid lyrics. Having said this, there are hopeful signs of change in many corners. After reading through the comments, I have a few remarks to toss into the conversation. First, let's understand that beauty is not synonymous with pretty or winsome. True beauty is one of the transcendentals (along with truth and goodness), qualities that God has in such abundance that they become a part of everything God creates. Beauty, goodness, and truth are inextricably linked together—that which is good is also true, and that which is true is also beautiful, etc. Also, there seems to be a presupposition behind some of the comments that God is not overly interested in beauty. Think about the exacting construction and ornamentation of the Ark of the Covenant. Exodus 28 reveals God's design for the priestly robes—specific colors in the fabric , the gold, gem-studded breastplate. God relayed this plan to Moses, saying, "And you shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother, for glory and for beauty" (Exodus 28:2). In addition, Moses selected Bezalel, a skilled craftsman, to "devise artistic designs" in the construction of the tabernacle. The furnishings had to be artful and beautiful, not merely functional. A second presupposition I see is that that beauty and the Gospel and worship are naturally poles apart and do not intersect. Beauty can fulfill a missional work in the world. French philosopher Simone Weil wrote that even the most secular people are drawn to beauty. In her own spiritual journey, the arts were her entry point to relationship with God, and she notes, "The beauty of the world is almost the only way by which we can allow God to penetrate us." In addition, beauty has the power to enable us to be more missional people. Beauty helps us to pay attention and can evoke in us a greater sense of compassion and care for the world around us. And my life as a writer testifies to the worshipful aspects of both creating and enjoying art. Writing is a prayful act for me. Last, Genesis 1 and 2 provides an artistic manifesto of sorts, supporting the idea that the capacity to be creative, to create, is one of the ways in which we are made in God's image. The creation story itself demonstrates that when we create or enjoy that which is created (as God surely did when he surveyed all he had made and declared it "very good") we are, to use Leland Ryken's words, "exercising the image of God within us." Just a few thoughts. Thanks, Skye, for creating some helpful conversation around this issue.

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March 13, 2013  12:45am

I found this so interesting I decided to translate it to spanish. Thing is, I'm from Argentina, and I really wanted to share it with my friends.

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Steve Skeete

March 10, 2013  3:24pm

I agree with one response to this post that say it lacks balance. Pitting "worship" against "evangelism" makes very little sense from a biblical perspective. To worship is to meet with God. The presentation of persons to God after they have committed their lives to Jesus Christ is, according to the apostle Paul in the epistle to the Romans, also an act of worship. Acts of kindness by Christians are not necessarily evangelism; non-Christian charities show kindness as well. "Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God". In other words for evangelism to take place both the "preacher' and the "Word" must be involved. Most Christians find it easier to give the "cup of water" than to fulfill their missional role. "Effective evangelism" is "beautiful worship", since both necessarily involve obedience, submission, a desire to be used of God, and a longing to see the day when "all nations worship Him".

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March 07, 2013  12:26pm

I really enjoyed reading this article. I think that it is really sad that your ministry leader wouldn't let you do those various acts of service. I understand how he said that it needed to be accompanied with something more but I personally feel that when you start off little the better it is. You don't want to scare a person by telling them that you want to start doing yard work, etc... I think that you start off small and then gradually do more and more, then wait for them to ask you why you are doing it to tell them the reason behind it and that you want to display God's love through your actions. I think that is when it is more meaningful. In all honesty though, when you go out of your way to do something for someone, that person will know that something is up, causing them to ask questions right away. I think that would have been a neat experience to be involved in and had the opportunities for others to be blessed by blessing others as well. Sometimes, people over think a situation and don't make the best decision either because they have thought too much or maybe even too little. We are to glorify Christ in all that we do.

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March 04, 2013  2:52pm

Karen: I don't disagree with your comments. There are many faithful prayer warriors and worshippers in hundreds of 'churches' throughout this land. There are 24x7 prayer movements and several areas where the furnace is burning. Generally though, that is not the case. I'll paraphrase Psalm 45:10-11 Forget about your father's house, forget about your people, He is the King, He is the Lord, He desires your beauty, worship Him. There are so many times when you just need to get straight who is God and who is not - and just forget about all of this other stuff - and just go after Him.

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Dave Randall

March 04, 2013  10:01am

I had mixed feelings as I read this article. It brought to mind one experience I had a few years ago in a church board meeting. The item being discussed was a youth activity. The youth program was designed for fun as well as for learning. After the study portion there were games in the gymnasium. Some of the youth who were athletically awkward or for other reasons couldn't participate in physical sports wanted to be able to have some non-athletic alternative games. One of the members thought this would be all right, but only if the games were religiously oriented like Bible trivia. (It struck me odd that he had no problem with the fact that basketball had no "Biblical" content.) That being said, I found that the article was perhaps one-sided and did not have a particularly helpful tone. To draw the comparison to Soviet Russia was extreme to say the least. To say that evangelicals do not appreciate beauty or kindness outside of an overt religious context is simply a straw man. While the evangelical church appreciates kindness and beauty wherever it occurs, it also recognizes that it has a unique mission, to "go and make disciples". This mission statement was not made up by the modern evangelical church, it was given as a charge by our founder who is none other than God Himself. That is why evangelical churches support all sorts of good works that include the gospel, but shy away from the same activities that are devoid of the gospel. Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, introduce him to the one who created both him and the fish and he is sustained for eternity.

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Gretchen Eula del Socorro

March 03, 2013  9:12pm

Thank you for the interesting post. Communication is a two way process and it is not always in agreement. Indeed the true meaning can only be conveyed by seeing it as a whole. Just like a jigsaw puzzle you must put the pieces together to see the truth behind the chaos.

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March 02, 2013  7:05pm

"The provision of a cup of cold water must include an invitation to attend Wednesday's Bible study." Rewards 40 "Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. 41 The one who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet's reward, and the one who receives a righteous person because he is a righteous person will receive a righteous person's reward. 42 And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward." Skye, your cup of cold water doesn't match up. See the context. This is about rewards for believers helping fellow servants of Christ, not witnessing to unbelievers. Or as it occurs in Mark 9 refers to anyone who helps Gods servants. "The building is a soaring cathedral of stone and stained glass that seems out of place on this side of the Atlantic. The beauty of the space not only assists but also provokes worship. " Do you have a proof text to support beauty in buildings assisting in worship of God? I think Stephen clarified this for us all in Acts the day he was stoned. God has a higher plan for worship than buildings made by hands. Please include this reality in your future works.

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March 02, 2013  10:54am

Jerry, I like your reminders about the pre-eminence of prayer and the realities of the true worship of the true God depicted for us in the OT and fulfilled in the Christian Eucharist. I believe what you say about what happens many times in modern Evangelical worship is often true. At the same time, I have a difficult time outright condemning any particular quarter of modern Christendom, because I have noticed there are real prayer warriors and pockets of sanctity everywhere. There are many "salt of the earth" folks I have met over the years, and probably most of them worship in the kind of modern Evangelical format you have described. I have also encountered attitudes in myself and others holding to various Christian traditions (including groups that shunned any remotely traditional institutional forms of Christianity, which they considered utterly corrupted by paganism) that in no way reflect the perfection commanded by Christ or the fruit of the Holy Spirit. I completely agree with your closing comment.

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March 02, 2013  7:52am

Sky: This is a thoughtful post. Davis implemented 'praise and worship' as a 24x7x365 event. You can see this in 1 Chronicles 25. There were 3 fathers with 14,6, and 4 sons. Each son had a team of 12 singers and musicians - and had a 1 hour time slot every day that they performed their 'temple service'. 24 time slots (24 sons) a day - 7 days a week - 365 days a year. Heb 13:15 - "Continually offer to God the 'sacrifice of praise". This is a 'continual' offering - the New Testament equivalent of the Old Testament 'continual sacrifice' - the Burnt Offering. (you can see this is various scriptures - but 2 Chronicles 29:27 shows them side-by-side) Interestingly - this was implemented by David - and 'The commanders of the army". Why would the 'commanders of the army' be so interested in this lavish display and expense where much of the purpose was to 'Gaze on the beauty of the Lord and admire Him in His temple" ????? The Israelites knew well that when they went into battle with the ark - they were invincible - and they were invincible - until under Saul the ark just became a shallow symbol - instead of the reality of the presence of God being in their midst. In most places - 'praise and worship' is just a shallow symbol that's used as pomp to introduce the much more important dignitary (the pastor) and his message. The lavish 24x7x365 has been replaced with 20 minutes x 1 x 52. Hours gazing at the beauty of God has been replaced by minutes of gazing at the back of someone's head. Unfortunately - Saul's lack of understanding of the presence of God proved to be fatal to him. The American church is dying from the leadership of Saul. This 'evangelical' movement should be named Ichabod - because the presence of God is not there. But even more discouraging - the "commanders of the army" - or the evangelists as we call them - aren't seeing too many large victories these days - in fact mostly they are getting the snot kicked out of them. Evangelism without prayer is like an army without weapons.

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