Mark Driscoll, St. Francis, and the Megachurch

By Jarrod McKenna 5-01-2009

I rarely agree with Mark Driscoll. Yet he points to something when he said:

This generation can be a whiny bunch of idealists getting together in small groups to complain about megachurches and the religious right rather than doing something.

You don't need to have read René Girard to know it's easier to unite "AGAINST" than it is to let God develop in us the humility to risk ourselves in being "FOR" the kingdom. The reality of this hit me again last week after sharing with a young Christian leader that I would be preaching on "loving your enemies" at Riverview (apparently one of the largest churches in Western Australia.) The young leader's response was one of horror... and it left me thinking of St. Francis of Assisi.

Most interesting for me is what scandalised this brother. This person knew I had been involved in outreach work seeking to disarm and transform a militant Islamic group in Indonesia, who were said to have been connected to fundraising for the Bali bombing in which a friend of mine was murdered in 2002. Yet God's grace transforming terrorists wasn't a stumbling block for this young "alternative" Christian. But God's grace transforming a megachurch was. The horrific tragedy of Bali was somehow trendy to this guy. Saving terrorists for him was sexy, "cutting edge," and "radical." But God's grace transforming a megachurch wasn't very "hardcore." This for him was a scandal.

My sharing in Driscoll's sentiment comes out of grassroots experience in Australia, being part of establishing The Peace Tree Community and Empowering Peacemakers, and working across the Christian spectrum with my generation of Christian young adults where I have repeatedly heard the twin despairs of "idealism" and "whining" (or as we'd say in Australia, "whinging"). The idealism, the whinging, and the scapegoating of "what I'm not" reveals our crisis of discipleship and our need to undergo formation in a kingdom imagination.

Whinging and Idealism: The Twin Despairs

The whinging might be easier to understand as despair than the idealism, but it's no less divorced from the hope of the resurrection. As N.T. Wright has brilliantly made the case, biblically, the hope of resurrection is a call to action. It can be easier to see how whinging can lead to inaction and put us in the place of the self-righteous/self-assured religious type in Luke 18 (:9-14), thanking God that we are not like those "other" [insert group you have disdain for here]. But idealism will lead us to the same place. Instead of hearing Jesus' commandments as dynamic-transformative-grace-empowered-practicalities of God's new world, ideals turn Jesus' teachings into static goals, divorced from the biblical narrative and the good news of God's future Shalom being a now reality in Christ. Instead we are left with dry and stale "must do's" for the "the hard core" where we can judge others from. As I spell out in the last chapter of Dave Andrews' new book, "Plan Be," the practicalities of grace that are Christ's teachings are lost on us when they become "ideals." The focus soon becomes "us" and we miss the gracious invitation and empowerment of the Holy Spirit to lose our lives in seeking first the kingdom. What will always quickly follow from a focus on "us" is the need for an "other" to compare ourselves with.

St. Francis and the Mainstream/Megachurch

The temptation of our identity not being formed in Christ but in reaction to what we hate, to what we are "AGAINST," was masterfully resisted by that amazing imitator of Christ, St. Francis of Assisi. There was a megachurch in his day too, Rome, but instead of breaking the relationship with the establishment in reaction, he sought to live in the prophetic tension, embodying a costly alternative even if it meant losing his community to the Powers and going the way of the cross. How desperately today does the church need new saint Francises who hold the prophetic tension and call the church to be the church.

Recently I've encountered two very different expressions of the paradigm we encounter in St. Francis. Both examples embody the "less sexy" scandal of believing God's grace can transform "the mega and mainstream church." Urban Vision, a new monastic community in New Zealand, has intentionally chosen to stay connected to the mainstream church. Justin Duckworth of the community is quite explicit in St. Francis being a model for engagement in transforming the church. The other example will shock some. Australia's biggest megachurch, "Hillsong," has a youth worship band called "United," which has turned its back on the false doctrine of "prosperity gospel" for a gospel concerned about the poor. While some might be quick to point out that they have yet to critique the structures that cause this kind of poverty, their latest video shows they are on the journey and questioning their own involvement.

For some of us today, St. Francis scandalises us by his identity so radically grounded in the Crucified that he would love his enemies and travel to call the sultan Melek-el-Kamel and the crusaders to put down their weapons and take up the cross. But for others of us maybe St. Francis' identity so radically grounded in the Crucified scandalises us in the way he takes transformative steps toward the megachurch of his day with all its injustices. Rather than reactionary bitterness, Francis responds with prophetic tears that long for repentance and real change. Rather than name-calling and finger-pointing, Francis creates and embodies in community an alternative that can put flesh to a kingdom imagination. St. Francis' is a paradigm for Jesus' way forward, were we respond not with idealism and whinging but in imitation to Christ. We too are invited to risk the way of the cross, trusting in the power that raised Jesus from the grave can transform us, terrorists and megachurches.

portrait-jarrod-mckennaJarrod McKenna is seeking to live God's love. As a Vine and Fig Tree Planter, he plants "signs" on military bases that draw the connections between God's kingdom, militarism, and climate change. He is a co-founder of the Peace Tree Community, serving with the marginalised in one of the poorest areas in his city, heads up Together for Humanity in Western Australia (an interfaith youth initiative serving together for the common good), and is the founder and creative director of Empowering Peacemakers (EPYC), for which he has received an Australian peace award for his work in empowering a generation of (eco)evangelists and peace prophets.

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