UPDATE: My friend Uri Brito and I had a conversation about the impetus behind (and reaction to) this post here.
Several days ago, Kent Dobson, successor at Rob Bell’s famous Mars Hill Bible Church, stepped down as teaching pastor. He opened his announcement/sermon by reading the Scriptural story which gives name to the church, the account at Mars Hill. Dobson says when he first came to Mars Hill, he was animated by Paul’s example of cultural engagement. Paul quoted the poets of the people; he spoke their language. Dobson said he understood Paul to be preaching a traditional gospel message but using different, more relevant, packaging.
Likewise, he said the church was meant to have the same gospel but deliver the message in a more hip way. Specifically, he wanted a “cool church” with “cooler shoes” than the traditional church down the road. However, Dobson said he not only began to question the packaging of traditional “church,” but also the message – the gospel. To fully understand his evolution he says, “you’ll have to read my memoirs.” The CliffsNotes version, for those of us who can’t wait, goes thusly:
“I have always been and I’m still drawn to the very edges of religion and faith and God. I’ve said a few times that I don’t even know if we know what we mean by God anymore. That’s the edges of faith. That’s the thing that pulls me. I’m not really drawn to the center. I’m not drawn to the orthodox or the mainstream or the status quo… I’m always wandering out to the edge and beyond.”
If you don’t have time to watch the whole sermon, just picture Portlandia doing a Dane Cook spoof. Slouched in his flannel shirt, he swivels on his chair as he muses about his restlessness, his angst, and his exploration into the unknown. I don’t know how he actually came off in the room, in the moment. But watching from a distance, he seemed like a romantic vagabond, a sensitive soul longing for a home he’s never known—perhaps like Huckleberry Finn if Huck were super into Spiced Chai Lattes and self-indulgent journaling.
Of course, I’m not opposed to someone discerning a vocational shift. Not everyone who leaves the pastorate does so out of cowardice or sin. What I am opposed to is the supposition behind his departure—the reason he gives for leaving. For Dobson, he’s been on a journey which started one place and is leading him to another; specifically, to the edges of faith. In actual fact, he’s exactly where he’s always been. His self-professed goal was always to be the cool pastor with the cool shoes. It’s not that he’s journeyed away from the “center” of faith. No, he’s just stayed in the center of the zeitgeist—in the “mainstream” of a culture which is rapidly leaving Christian orthodoxy behind. He’s not energized with a boyish, effrontery audacity, he’s paralyzed with fear.
To his church, he paints himself like a modern-day Ferdinand Magellan, ready to explorer the great spiritual unknown. Motivated by nothing but curiosity and bravery, he’s boldly setting his sails toward the choppy waters which stand between what is and what could be. This is the point at which I take issue. When was the last time Pastor Dobson talked with someone on a college campus, in a gym, or in a coffee shop? Does he really think the “open” and “inclusive” vision he’s casting is novel? Is the “status quo” really Christian orthodoxy among Dobson’s peers? As a young, fit, white, upper-middle class male, Dobson’s sermon is not a rebellion to his culture. It’s a product of his culture. The mystery and romance he attempts to conjure around his spiritual evolution is laughable to anyone with a television. He’s not moving forward into the unknown; he’s sitting perfectly still in the safe, cozy space where Oprah is queen, tolerance is the law, and anyone with a firm opinion on just about anything is suspect.
Perhaps this whole episode wouldn’t be as disconcerting if there weren’t pastors in other parts of the world who actually are venturing into the unsure world of faithfulness to Christ, at the risk of their very lives. It’s difficult to hear a shepherd spin his actions as brave or noble when he’s hiking up his tunic and making for the hills, leaving his sheep for hungry wolves. While our brothers and sisters in the majority world continue to meet in caves and barns in the face of imminent danger, many of those called to the shepherding office in the developed world lack the gall to hide the sheep and stand before the wolves with staff in hand. They can’t stomach the sound of fur parting with flesh—the whimpering is too much. They would rather let the sheep be eaten than seem like boring, dorky-sneaker-wearing shepherds. The prophetic voice of the American church has gone hoarse.
In a world where pastors wait with bended knees and clenched eyes for their heads to roll down the sandy slopes of a Libyan beach, the complacent, comfortable, Western church must reset her vision of bravery as it relates to the pastorate. There was a time—even in the West—where cultural capital was gained by being a Christian. In those days, there were indeed men who risked everything to leave orthodoxy—one thinks of the great George MacDonald. However, those days are long gone, and Dobson is no MacDonald. If he wants to be known as an adventurer, Dobson is a couple decades late to the “I’m just not into religion” voyage. That land has been claimed and settled. Dobson’s predecessor is already giving surfing lessons to the tourists who want to visit.
These days, the real adventurers are those who set sail for the risky land of Christian orthodoxy. The real brave men and women are those who consistently go to church, observe the sacraments, hear the word, and submit themselves to the discipline of the church. In an age of autonomy, it’s those who subject their thoughts, behaviors, and passions to an exclusive Sovereign that are the brave few. Those may not be the memoirs we’re interested in today, but they’ll be the ones that last tomorrow.