As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. Then I remembered what the Lord had said: ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?”
-Acts 11:15-17 (NIV)
If you’re my age or older, maybe you remember the old Kentucky Fried Chicken commercials, with Colonel Sanders walking around in his white suit, with his smile and a bucket of chicken, bringing joy to the people and teaching them what “finger-lickin’ good” meant. The commercials were played straight, almost solemn, with the image of the restaurant’s founder.
If you’re younger than me, though, then maybe you don’t even know what Kentucky Fried Chicken is. It’s more often branded KFC now, just one example of how the restaurant has tried to rebrand itself. (The name change, official in 1991, was apparently to distance itself from the unhealthy connotations of “fried”. Most everyone called them KFC anyway.)
Another example is their treatment of the Colonel’s image. In a series of increasingly ridiculous commercials, the Colonel (played by, in succession, Darrell Hammond, Norm MacDonald, Jim Gaffigan, George Hamilton, and Rob Riggle) has been portrayed in a comical and satirical way. To adapt to a changing market, KFC has played fast and loose with their name and even the mythos of their founder.
To KFC, there are apparently no sacred cows. Or, well, chickens.
In a previous post, I identified three of the cultural shifts of the last few decades that I believe are most affecting churches trying to minister in our world today. While there are other factors, I identified the easy availability of information, the loss of institutional loyalty, and the distrust of biblical authority as perhaps the most significant. In this post, I want to say more about the loss of institutional loyalty.
In our world, especially among younger people, longevity is not seen as a positive thing. This is especially true where institutions are concerned. In our world, long-lived brands are increasingly discarded as irrelevant in favor of newer ones perceived as more in touch with today’s world. Internet startups and small, independent businesses are seen as preferable to large, established corporations, which are increasingly thought to be soulless and impersonal. Local, artisanal; that’s where it’s at for large segments of our society.
This distrust of large, established companies extends to other institutions as well. Government, of course; much has been said about the declining trust of Americans for their government. Charities and social service organizations have to work harder to be transparent and deemed trustworthy. And the same is true for the church. Folks assume now that the hierarchy and rules of any institution, including the church, conceal corruption, abuse, and malfeasance. Otherwise, why not just be transparent?
Check out this list of the 100 fastest-growing churches in America. Notice anything? Look at the top 20. The top 50. The whole list. How many of those churches contain the name of a denomination? Some of them are affiliated with denominations. Many of them, even. But very few are advertising that fact in their name.
Why? Distrust of institutions. Gateway Fellowship Church plays much better to those suspicious of what they perceive as institutional corruption and abuse than would Gateway Assembly of God.
Is that fair? Of course not. Many, many — most — churches with more traditional-sounding names are made up of good people who love the Lord and want to serve him. But, fair or not, the lack of institutional loyalty that has built up over the last several decades in our society means that churches with those more traditional names are perceived as irrelevant, out-of-touch, and more interested in propping up the institution than in taking the gospel of Christ to the world, or making a difference in the communities in which they’re located. At best.
What do we do about that, then? How do we get past that suspicion and distrust in our society of the institution known as The Church? Should we all change our names? Well, maybe, but that’s just a gloss that might not really change anything.
We do need to acknowledge that the church as a whole deserves some of the distrust we’re getting. We haven’t always been trustworthy. We’ve sometimes been rigid and stubborn. We have sometimes seemed more interested in the survival and prosperity of our favored versions of “Church” than in the work of Christ.
We need to be transparent. People need to know where the money and resources they commit to the work of the church goes. Leaders need to be transparent about who they are. We have to guard against our tendencies to want to police the boundaries of the Kingdom on the one hand and to tell people what they want to hear on the other. We have to be genuine and honest and absolutely scrupulous, because any perception that we’re hiding something, obscuring the truth, or even playing a role, just the hint of a facade of any kind, will only feed into the distrust that many feel toward the church.
We need to be open to the unexpected. When questions are asked, plans are second-guessed, ideas are raised that upset the existing order of things, and long-loved ministries rejected, we need to resist the tendency to fight. It will only feed the perception. Not every new idea is a good one, and not every tradition needs to be thrown out. But we need to hear each other. There is a “faith that was once for all” given to the church, but it doesn’t include every hymn your church ever sang.
This is what the early church had to deal with from the moment Peter baptized a non-Jew. They asked tough questions when they heard. There were concerns about Peter’s faithfulness. Anger that they were so easily welcoming among them the very people from whom God had called them to be separate. What they couldn’t question, though, was the action of the Holy Spirit.
Sometimes, when the Spirit moves, the church’s assumptions are the first casualties. It wasn’t easy for them to accept that Peter was only going where the Lord was leading him. It isn’t always easy for us to see it now. But folks are right to doubt the intentions of churches that quench the Spirit because we can’t tell the difference between the work of God and keeping the institutional machinery of the church operational.
So we need, finally, to be prayerful people. Pray prayers that welcome God’s work among us, even when it’s destructive of what’s easy and familiar and comfortable. Increasingly, what’s comfortable to church people is not to the unchurched. Pray prayers that help us remember that we serve God, and that his Son bought us with his blood, and that the energy for what we do is the Holy Spirit. We need God to help us let go of self-preservation so that we’ll be free to grasp the work he gives us to do with both hands.
May we never play fast and loose with our Founder and his story. He is, after all, our reason for being.
And never may our unwillingness to change as the Spirit leads us keep others from knowing him.