Just Say No

I read this post recently. I was particularly struck by her regular blasting of church programs. I have half a mind to pass it along to one of our pastors to perhaps give some expression to my own misgivings about our church’s ways. If nothing else it might help explain my rather sarcastic and terse decline for the latest U2-charist. The other half of my mind will probably win, and I probably won’t.

It reminded me of how all these years I have made a conscious effort to keep my own children away from almost anything to do with what I consider church culture, counter-balanced with a high-view of church membership and participation. Different from the usual arrangement amongst most religionists, my inclination is to be more suspect of what happens in the church than what happens in the world. This is not an easy task. Not only can the line between cult and culture be a blurry one for me, I have a lot stacked up against my project, including my own temptations to be legalistic and over-reactive. But I’m nothing if not reasonable. After all, what harm can a week at Camp Geneva really do? I like to think I have learned to lighten up over time.

I wasn’t raised in a church culture, so it is naturally alien to me. My wife was though. She speaks fluent Christianese. Her problem is that she got tangled up with a crank like me all those years ago and has herself now grown suspicious of what came so natural. I have a mixed response to this as I have discomforted her comfort zone. But I have no template for fear of the world due to its inherent badness. I’m comfortable in it.

She gets things like AWANA and Vacation Bible School. I never did, even as I joined her all those years ago in teaching the tykes. The Reformed version of AWANA is something like GEMS and Calvinist Cadets. I still don’t get it. If my girls showed an interest in camping and cookies my first response would be to point them to the local Girl Scout outfit. My oldest is showing signs of being quite artistic. Despite our church’s inclination for all things high brow and artsy culminating in the annual Art Show exhibit, there are no programs for that at church. But it’s not as if that would matter. I would still sign her up for Saturday classes at the Kendall School of Art and Design. The other night at the service I had had to take one of them out to the restroom. As I waited I perused the “Youth Group” bulletin board. I found my thoughts filled with the sort of resistance and hesitations I often hear fellow believers exhibit as they contemplate their children doing something “in the world.” Mine aren’t old enough for all the trips and lock-ins yet, and I don’t relish the notion of them asking if they can attend all that…stuff.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle, though, to my effort to resist church culture is the fact that we public school. In Little Geneva this doesn’t compute for lots of reasons. Whatever my wife and I don’t share in being able to speak Christianese to one another we make up for in our shared public education advocacy. When we go to church our girls are somewhat disenfranchised from their peers, since they all see each other through the week. I see this is as a benefit since it helps nurture the signal that we are not at church to sort of continue this long week of glorified socializing, we are here for a very distinct reason. I have often remarked figuratively to my wife that I prefer to meet my Christians at church, not on every street corner. The other line I use is that when it comes to this world give me a secularist, when it comes to the next one give me a Presbyterian. My hope is that my children understand that God is Lord over all things, and that when we say this we really mean it, no fingers crossed.

My goal in resisting church culture is to help nurture in them a better sense of the nature of and relationship between the two kingdoms. There is plenty of perfectly good culture to be had. There are legitimate ways to participate in the wider world and not-so-legitimate. Church culture sends the signal that the world is somehow to be avoided and that we need to construct a safe-zone away from all that might encroach upon us. I can’t think of much else that is sub-Christian. From the notion that creation is a place to be avoided and replaced by a feigned one to the idea that sinners in some places are less vulnerable to sin than others, church subculture works against everything that true church actually believes.

It is quite fashionable to be about the business of criticizing the stuff of church programs as they belie a kind of narcissism and self-oriented obsession, and rightly so. Like Julie in the post, if I see one more relevant Jesus-freak hipster dude I think I’ll, well, have to control myself because my city is crawling with them. But church programs are not only functions of a suffocating consumerist culture. I think it goes even deeper than that. They owe to a lot of low views of creation. If we really believe that creation is very good why do we knit together so many sanctified versions of it? Why can’t church be simply about Word, sacrament and discipline? Why can’t we just go to church on Sunday and go out into the world the other six? Whether it’s the book and garden club, GEMS and Cadets, the parceled out small groups meeting every conceivable felt need for every conceivable demographic or parochial schooling, the effort to avoid the real world runs the gamut from the just-plain-silly to the rather sophisticated. Religious consumerism, the way it is usually talked about, is a rather novel phenomenon. But fearing what God has pronounced as very good goes as far back as Eve, who added to God’s stipulation not to eat the fruit the legalistic idea that it was also not to be touched.

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15 Responses to Just Say No

  1. Darryl Hart says:

    Speaking of hipsters in your town, I went to “the gathering” at Mars Hill on Sunday night. Rob Bell is on sabbatical. Ed Dobson and his son did tag team talking/preaching. Yes, the Ed Dobson of Jerry Falwell and Cal Thomas ties. How hip is that?

    So the question is, is Girl Scotts any better than AWANA or Calvinettes (I still prefer that name to GEMS — so reminiscent of the raisinettes)?

  2. Zrim says:


    I thought you had a higher view of the Sabbath than that. But to answer your question, yes Girl Scouts is better than AWANA any day of the week except that one.

    By the way, it was the damndest thing, I ran into Gandolfini around the corner after you left the other night. He wasn’t pleased to hear your review of The Wire over Sopranos. But don’t worry, I didn’t tell him you were in town.

  3. Darryl Hart says:

    Zrim, and I ran into Rob Bell. He isn’t pleased with your blog.

  4. Zrim says:

    How do you run into a guy who’s on sabbatical? At least Bell won’t deploy goons all up on me (will he?).

    But I am used to being displeasing–it’s an Outhouse, remember?

  5. Lori says:

    In your Monday-Saturday world do you ever feel like a stranger and an alien?

  6. Darryl Hart says:

    My chances or running into Bell were better than yours of running into Gandolfini.

  7. Rana says:

    so what was the Ed/ Kent Dobson conversation about at mars Hill? did you stop by Play World on your way out?

    eeewww! didn’t know that Ed has Falwell and Cal Thomas ties.

    were they wearing Prada shoes? i will only believe that you really went to Mars Hill if you tell me that the Dobsons were in expensive hipster shoes. apparently it is part of the uniform and was mentioned by Kent himself in my 1 Mars Hill visit.

  8. Zrim says:


    Yes and no. You?

  9. Darryl Hart says:

    Rana, I didn’t see the shoes because I couldn’t get past Ed’s beard. Yikes!

    The played tag team preacher on the last shall be first and vice versa passages. It wasn’t bad to have people think about those incredible teachings. But they gave them no theology in which to interpret it and allow them to leave and still strive to achieve in the world, all the while knowing that those achievements don’t count for the world to come.

  10. Anonymous says:

    What’s wrong with singing “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for” at the Table?

  11. Zrim says:


    You should have seen his pork-chop sideburns back in the day. Yeow. There was a time when Ed could slink along the stage like nobody’s business–the absence of theology you mention made a lot of room to be creeped out by the slink and sideburns. In all seriousness, I thought Lou Gerig’s had slowed him down recently?


    As a devoted U2 fan since 1986, I still like my sacraments to be made out of bread and wine, not vinyl. It’s an exasperatingly two-kingdom thing, I know. Besides, how can those who seek a better country really say they haven’t found what they’re looking for? We just haven’t arrived yet.

  12. heldveld says:

    Speaking of Rob Bell and Mars Hill. It sounds like his new book will be just what you’re looking for… or not.

    Preview by Ben Witherington

    Good post as well.

  13. Rana says:

    Darryl, I agree with you 100%. When I went to Mars Hill I enjoyed the conversation but felt like it was just that a conversation, no theology nothing to hold onto. It was purpose driven meets international development and the environment. All things I care about and would like others to care about if I had a choice, but not why I go to church.

    More than anything I felt like the young people who are so attracted to Mars Hill are being cheated by hearing the social gospel than hearing about God.

  14. Rick says:

    I’m here late. (tending to a new little lad).

    Good post.

    “Saved” was the first movie I ever reviewed for radio. I gave it a mostly positive review – and that raised a few eyebrows.

    Anyway, the church culture stuff just won’t go away. We just have to live with it and choose our battles (silent submission at church). I’d like to keep my daughter out of GEMS or Rasinettes when the time comes but its just not worth the hassle (from others in the church and from her).

  15. Zrim says:

    I don’t know, Rick. I mean, when I was told I would never be nominated for office because we public school, it makes me think some hassles are worth it, since they seem worth it to others. Seems like neglecting Word and sacrament is just plain different from neglecting church culture.

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