Here’s an article in the New Yorker, a book review of “When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God” by T. M. Luhrmann, an anthropologist who had more than just a slight brush with a couple of congregations of The Vineyard Christian Fellowship.
Through the eyes of the reviewer, Luhrmann draws some conclusions about her experience among a group she characterizes as “Evangelical.”
Another odd thing about the Vineyarders, at least as described by Luhrmann, is that they seem to perform no social service. Unlike other serious evangelical groups, which are making headway as missionaries in Africa, there appears to be very little spreading of the faith, or even just of well-being—schools, hostels, soup kitchens—on the part of the congregations Luhrmann joined. Maybe she left out their charitable projects on the ground that her book, as its title tells us, is about the Vineyarders’ relationship with God. But I don’t think so, because now and then she comments dryly on their self-concern. Her fellow-congregant Hannah, she says, got mad at God, “not because he allowed genocide in Darfur, but because little things happened in her life that she did not like: ‘I was upset with him for making me a dorm counselor.’ ” Vineyarders may implore God to help fellow-members of their church, but otherwise, in Luhrmann’s account, pretty much everything seems to be about themselves.
I can sort of see where she might come to that conclusion, and not just in a Vineyard congregation. I’ve been involved in conversations for a number of years with others in Southern Baptist church leadership over the commitment level of people in the denomination’s megachurches to missions and mission service. From a statistical perspective, people in the smaller churches are almost ten times more likely to be actively involved in some kind of local church ministry, or to volunteer for mission service, than their fellow believers in large congregations, and their mission giving, which is the bottom line that the denomination uses to measure core commitment to its cause, is significantly higher in proportion to the size of their church. There’s also a rift between the way church is done on Sundays, from the style of music to the atmosphere of the worship service itself. We’ve moved from clappers vs. non-clappers to contemporary vs. traditional, shorts and T-shirts vs. suits and dresses, formal or informal sermons and a whole host of other things related more to personal preference than to pleasing God.
Luhrmann looks at the church from the perspective of an anthropologist, and also from that of an interested but somewhat distanced outsider. She observes the experience, has a place in her professional file for the attributions of faith that involved “feelings” or sensations, or seemingly miraculous coincidences, and allows for a relatively high level of sincerity, if not for the actual existence of God, and that he might be interactive with human beings.
I think she misses a few things. There are many emotional experiences, and a lot of stuff that gets attributed to the moving of God or to faith, that is nothing more than Luhrmann describes as the mind sometimes slipping out of reality and imagining things because of some personal predisposition to believing in them. But there are some things that cannot be explained by science.
A lot of what happens in church, for many of the people who go there regularly, is designed for a purely selfish purpose. It either makes them feel good about themselves, or allows them to hide some of their own faults and shortcomings behind a religious facade in which the fervency of expression is directly proportional to the severity of their own spiritual disability. But that doesn’t prevent the Holy Spirit from finding a way inside, and working in someone’s life. You can miss that if you are only looking in from the outside.
There’s a boundary line beyond which self-deception won’t take you. Selfishness, self-righteousness and personal comfort are restrictive in that the kind of commitment it takes to be willing to serve beyond where they will allow you to go is evident in many people who claim to be serving Christ. Giving up the pursuit of personal wealth, or even of a reasonable measure of financial support, is one very clear evidence of something at work in our lives. I’m in a place where I run into young people all the time who are willing to sacrifice their shot at wealth or popularity to pursue a ministry about which they have real passion. I meet teenagers who would rather spend their spring break in the Dominican Republic, helping Haitian refugees in camps with almost no material possessions cope with their situation and preach the gospel than to be at the beach in Florida, or hopping from theme park to theme park in Orlando. I know individuals who have demonstrated the ability to earn a scholarship at just about any college in the country, and major in a subject that is a clear ticket to wealth and prosperity who are foregoing that to attend a Bible college where they can immediately become involved in ministry.
You can’t see that by just looking in from the outside.