Unflattering Mirrors: Tag clouds reveal content…or lack thereof

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Tag Clouds make good Advent and Easter mirrors. Who knew?

Episcopalians, in our neck of the woods anyway, are a small and remarkably insulated bunch from the goings on in the wider Christian community. That was why I was surprised to be fielding questions from the outside world regarding a blog post that amounts to Episcopal insider baseball.

Father Robert Hendrickson, a bright light of a young priest working in a diocesan cathedral, recently made a tag cloud of our Presiding Bishop’s Christmas message. He compared the key words revealed by her cloud to those of Pope Francis’ recent Lumen Fideiand described her sermon as “bordering on gnosticism.” Last year he compared tag clouds of her Easter sermon to those of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Pope, and even Ricky Gervais’ atheist Easter message. Let’s just say that, from the tag clouds, even the atheist’s message appears to have significantly more Christian content. In cloud format our Presiding Bishop’s sermons appear to be long on insider lingo and social engagement and low on Jesus…that there just isn’t much “there” there.

Pointing out your national leader’s theological shortcomings is a gutsy move for an up-and-comer…a move that caused friends outside of the Episcopal Church to ask, “What’s that guy thinking? ” Would I have criticized our national leader’s sermons online? My strategy in criticizing sermons that I don’t appreciate has generally been the same strategy I use when my wife tries on something that just doesn’t work for her at the department store and asks,  ”Do you love this as much as I do?” I will pretend to have a conversation with a mannequin if necessary to maintain, “If you can’t say something nice.”

But Father Robert’s tag clouds, for all the conversation they are creating, illustrate much more than sermon content…

For one, they reveal a very odd concept for those not of our tradition to grasp: That Episcopalians, as a rule, crucify neither our orthodox nor our gnostics. Our Presiding Bishop will not, as my evangelical friends would like, be charged with violating Christian orthodoxy, nor will her critic’s career be harmed, as many of my progressive friends would like. The ability to stomach dissent, although under fire, is a historic and endearing quality of Episcopalians, a group theoretically not together on theology as much as on the agreement to pray the same words.

However, the theory that “we need not agree” has limitations. I am no fan of Confessional statements, but if there is no real creedal and quadrilateral agreement binding us together as Episcopalians, around what will we orbit when we write the prayers we will pray in unison? There is a core to the faith that makes us recognizably Christian. Or not.

Father Robert’s tag clouds also reflect a growing awareness that our missional strategy – the Episcopal church as “Christianity lite,” a doubt embracing, culturally accommodating, theologically easy onramp for those wanting to consider a practice-based rather than a propositional faith, has not worked very well…in many places we appear to have a creeping universalism that seems lumpy and out of date. Like a microfiber sofa, public doubts about core teachings (resurrection anyone?) and “all roads lead to God” do not make an attractive invitation to come check us out. Our Sunday attendance numbers since our last national leader was selected bear this out: 765,000-640,000 from 2006-2012.

Finally, in Father Robert’s tag clouds we see a hint of what is for me, a person who has spent his adult life working with people from 18-35, a seismic and positive generational shift: Young Episcopal clergy and bishops are both more progressive politically and more traditional theologically. And they are not content to sit on the sidelines and wait for the boomer generation with its (and I do believe this is missionally-motivated) theological fuzziness to get out of their way.

Out of curiosity I made a tag cloud of my sermon for this weekend. I preached out of Isaiah 35 as part of an Advent series, so I expected its references to Jesus to be lowish. Also, my purpose was to sneak up on the Christian message: That just as the Holy Spirit had dropped Isaiah 35 as seemingly a word out of place in the middle of Isaiah’s judgments on Israel, Jesus is God’s Word out of place, dropped into history where least expected. Still, my references to God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, were minimal enough in the key words that it caused me to cringe like a glance in a mirror at a look that just doesn’t work. Missing too was any indication of our need for a savior. I tore the sermon up and went back to the drawing board.

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It is not my first rodeo. I know that people come to church quietly desperate for help. If I, as the proclaimer, hold up a fun-house distortion of the Gospel…one that merely reflects back at people what I think they want to see, well, shame on me. I know that the hungry do not need the illusion that we are spiritually well-fed, when in truth we are starving for a Savior. If I fail to hold up a mirror of our deep brokenness and need and then bring the true comfort of the transforming Good News that the Creator of the universe loved us too much to leave us alone, then why bother? God entered our world, not just to demonstrate how to live, but to finally redeem us on Calvary and rise in victory. Christ returned to the Father to intercede on our behalf as his Spirit makes us a people and sends us to extend his Good News in word and deed. Less than the whole Gospel is an unhelpful diet, white bread for the soul. Looking into a mirror that distorts an emaciated spiritual reality may comfort for a while, but eventually hungry people will go somewhere else, some place a meal is served.

I have too many shortcomings as a preacher to criticize another’s sermons. For me, Father Robert’s tag clouds sent me scurrying back to the drawing board to craft a message that better reflects The Message…one that is clear on the reality that, as fourth century bishop, Athanasius wrote,  “It was our sorry case that caused the Word to come down, our transgression that called out His love for us, so that He made haste to help us and to appear among us. It is we who were the cause of His taking human form, and for our salvation that, in His great love, He was born in a human body.”     (On the Incarnation)

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When did evangelicals get popes?

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The big trend in American evangelicalism: the multi-site video-venue church. It promises to leverage the teaching acumen (not to mention star power) of big name preachers to extend the Kingdom of God.

Has anyone stopped and asked, “What in God’s name are we doing?”

Think about it – we started the Reformation over one man having too much authority in the Church, yet today hundreds of thousands meet in “multi-site” video venues watching preachers like Mark Driscoll or Craig Groeschel or Perry Noble in a box. The new gold standard of this movement is 3D holographic Andy Stanley, complete with security to keep people from going up on stage to play with it…or him.

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Think about it while detaching yourself from your favorite multi-site, mega big-box preacher: Isn’t hitching ourselves so fully to one man’s teaching just a little odd? Doesn’t it smack, just a tad, of man-following? Even idolatry?

And, if “it isn’t about me,” as one multi-site preacher is fond of saying, then why not take your nine sites and train up eight new young preachers? Wouldn’t that be a healthier model? What happens to the church if the guy it “isn’t about” gets hit by a bus?

I am not saying that these preachers are not really, really great communicators. I am not saying that they wouldn’t be great guys to get a beer with and talk football or soteriology. But what does it say about us that we spend a million dollars to make Andy Stanley into the Sunday morning version of Tupac at Coachella?

How is this not worse than what we condemn our Roman Catholic brothers for? I don’t know a single Catholic that would be ok with the Pope being piped in for the sermon every Sunday. They laugh at the idea. I know. I asked.

How is the evangelical world embracing 7-10 brand-name preachers across the country not the ecclesiological version of GMO crops? Let’s just call it like it is: these men are de facto evangelical popes.

Some will say, “Yeah but Mark Driscoll and Perry Noble don’t speak ex cathedra.” Really? Their devotees quote them as if they do. In a nod to mega-pastor Steve Furtick’s statement, that they are “making Jesus famous,” doesn’t it seem as if Jesus isn’t the only one they are “making famous”? Not to mention rich.

To be clear, I am not attacking large churches, or video screens. I am not even attacking the bloated clergy salaries paid by churches whose boards are made up of other mega-church pastors – although someone should. I AM attacking a model of leadership: The multi-site, big personality church that trades the Ephesians 4 model of equipping others and giving leadership away for a model that makes “the man” a black hole of money and Kingdom energy.

Evangelicalism’s strength has always been its willingness to engage the culture to make an impact on lives. The backside of that coin can be an amazing short-sightedness. Does no one wonder what the unintended consequences of our new evangelical popes might be?

So before we cast stones at our Catholic friends for man-following, perhaps we should remove the video screen from our own eye.