Issue number seven has arrived! We really love this one and think you will too. Needless to say, the theme this time is a potent one. Yet as laden with history and hope and hurt as the subject may be, that didn’t stop us from having some fun. Below find the Opener from the Editor, and our Table of Contents. And, of course, you can order your copy here.

We’ll Leave a Light On For You

Screen Shot 2016-03-30 at 9.26.24 AMWhen you think of the word “church,” what do you think? What images spring to mind? Old stone, baptismal fonts? Dim stadium lights, hands raised? Pews? Prayer circles? Choir robes? Small plastic communion cups? Felt boards? Pot lucks?

One image that does not spring to most minds is a Black Rain AR-15 automatic assault rifle. But, according to a 2014 article by Vocativ, that is precisely the kind of imagery Heath Mooneyham wanted to elicit in his church in Joplin, Missouri. During a Father’s Day service, Mooneyham, the executive pastor of Ignite Church, raffled off two of the military grade weapons during the service for “one lucky dude” and his son to “double-tap a zombie in style.”

Ignite Church is a “church for dudes by dudes,” a church that seeks to reach a male audience between the ages of 25 and 35, and does so by reminding them of God’s call to manliness. His sermons (with titles like “Band of Brothers” or “Grow A Pair”) call for his congregation to live a Christ-centered, and thereby high testosterone, life of faith. Obviously opposed to the “Jesus meek and mild” of many a traditional church, Mooneyham preaches the good news of a macho Messiah: “If you’re a guy standing for Jesus, you don’t have to line up to be castrated.”

Ignite, which is located in the heart of the Ozarks, is unapologetic about the marketing strategies at work. In the national news, they have been lambasted for billboards they put around Missouri, announcing that God’s will for men was more adventurous sex lives.

As Mooneyham described, “You need to have a little swagger, because people love winners.” And it seemed to work: the church experienced significant growth over the years and, whether or not the image of “being kicked in the nuts by Christ” resonates culturally with in other parts of the country, new church plants were cropping up all around Missouri. Many young men in the Ozarks felt like the language of this church, and the Jesus it presented, had something relevant to say to them.

It is so easy to thumb noses at this. It is just one example of celebrity pastor churches and their efforts to rebrand a very old message. I, for one, am the first to roll my eyes at a church whose primary colors are black and “zombie green.” But any church (and any churchgoer) buys this branding, to some extent. In some form, the churches we attend (or in superior diffidence opt not to attend) are purchases of a particular kind of sinner that we believe God has enlightened. Attending a “farm-to-table” kind of church or an inner-city monastic kind of church is just the left side of the same coin: We go to church. We thank God our church has the market cornered.

Jesus told a story about this kind of worship. There were two people that went into the church to pray. One was a pastor who, in his piety, thanked God for everything he’d been saved from, and yammers on about the great light his church family was to the world.

Jesus then mentioned the pitiful one, the caught philanderer, the broke businessman, who stumbles into a church—any church, the nearest church—from the wrong door and tumbles down the steps into the baptistery. At the end of his rope and at the bottom of these steps, he looks up to see the crucifix, and weeps for just another chance.

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The Church has both of these men—as much as it has been a private interest group for the moral insiders, it has also always believed in the God who “seeks and saves the lost.” And the Church’s story is much the same as the story of humankind: we haven’t been the publican for long before we begin to inherit the trappings of the Pharisee.

This happens because, once our moments of weakness and drunkenness are done with, we are embarrassed to have once needed so much. We look again to our hoped-for moral rectitude and theological technicalities to more sensibly order the matters of life. Now that God is in our lives, it’s time to get with the program. Church programs, to be precise.

The purpose of Jesus’ story, though, is that the Pharisee’s need is the publican’s need. In God’s eyes, there is no distinction between the need of the sinner and the need of the righteous. In God’s eyes, they are both sinners, and the Pharisee’s blindness to his need condemns him. And so the cycle goes—from death to resurrection to death again—for the Church and the sinners who sit in her pews.

It makes sense, then, that a church might raffle off machine guns and preach new life under a badass Christ. Whether we are evangelicals or mainline Protestants or third-order Franciscan monks, the Church will always seek to alleviate the central difficulty of Christ’s message—that no one wants to be the publican. We must brand a church that people might strive after.

On the other hand, the one ungimmicked message the Church has to give is surprisingly always relevant. The very thing we so long to aestheticize with programs and beautiful spaces and impressive liturgies is the “one thing needful”—the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the love of God for sinners. For the man who fell into the baptistery, not even a machine gun will do. That man needs what he came for—absolution. Thankfully, it is still on offer, regardless of the door he enters from.

unnamed-1A few years ago, The New Yorker published a previously unpublished story from F. Scott Fitzgerald, called “Thanks for the Light.” In it, an out-of-town businesswoman has had a terrible day. She’s a smoker surrounded by non-smokers, and every time she attempts to light a cigarette, she gets a disapproving glare from the businesspeople around her. Finally, in her desperation, she winds up sneaking into a church, where hopefully she won’t be seen. Unable to find a lighter, she nears the candles at the front of the nave, but is thwarted by the sexton who is putting the candles out. He leaves her to pray, unlit cigarette in hand, in the pews. She must have fallen asleep, but when she awakes, a miracle has happened:

She awoke at the realization that something had changed, and gradually she perceived that there was a familiar scent that was not incense in the air and that her fingers smarted. Then she realized that the cigarette she held in her hand was alight—was burning.

Despite herself, the Church continues to carry the light it is not worthy to carry. Despite herself, the Church continues to offer mercy in a world often bent on defying it. In this issue, we look into her life, where it has been and where it is going.

We have an interview with Molly Worthen about the history of American evangelicalism and its relationship with modernity. We speak with Dr. Rodney Stark about the purported “decline” of worldwide religious belief. We have essays on the Benedict Option and the perfect sermon; the church according to N.W.A., and the church according to the apocalypse. We have a sermon from Nadia Bolz-Weber and some amazing poems, too. And that’s certainly not all.

The doors are open and there’s a light for you here. Come on in.

Ethan Richardson

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Straight Outta Corinth: What the Church Can Learn from N.W.A. by JACOB SMITH

For the Record: The Bride of Christ Goes to Hollywood

Church of the Deconstruction by ETHAN RICHARDSON

“Of Course”: A Poem by PAUL HOSTOVSKY

Raising My Hand in Church by ERIC HANSON

Culture Wars, Religious Identity, and Authority Problems in the American Church
An Interview with MOLLY WORTHEN

For the Record: Great Church Reads, How to Shrink Your Church

A Splendid Failure: A Preacher’s Guide to the Pulpit by PAUL WALKER

“In the Church of All the Answers”: A Poem by NINA FORSYTHE

The League of the Guilty Explores the Benedict Option by DAVID ZAHL

“The Good News”: A Poem by PAUL HOSTOVSKY

For the Record: 5 Non-Embarrassing Church Songs

Church Shopping in the Apocalypse by C.J. GREEN

For the Record: 13 Bloopers in Pastoral Care

America’s Changing Religious Landscape? A Q & A with RODNEY STARK

The Kyrie, Peter’s Own Smell of Shame, and the God of Easter: A Sermon by NADIA BOLZ-WEBER


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All attendees of the NYC Conference will receive a complimentary copy.