A shiver and a shudder occur anytime Christianity makes the headlines of the news. Articles cast shadows around religion rather than supporting its work and causes. Culture’s perspective on many aspect of life slants differently today.
The breaking story of the past days and weeks revolves around Jerry Falwell, Jr. Falwell served as the president of Liberty University in Virginia, appointed to the role after the death of his father in 2007. His tenure as president spiraled to an explosive end amidst sexual impropriety and innuendo. The university has launched investigations into Falwell’s contract, severance package, trustees’ oversight and business dealings.
From the beginning, Falwell insisted he is not a moral leader. “While I am proud to be a conservative Christian, my job is to keep LU successful academically, financially and in athletics.” He oversaw $1 billion in construction projects, brought online learning that boosted enrollment and put Liberty’s football and basketball programs to NCAA Division 1 competition. Quietly, the budget for the divinity school shrank each year.
Times have changed – or have they?
Reading some of the articles reminded me of a small book written by Eugene Peterson, author and translator of The Message version of the Bible, called Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity. The book was published in 1987. In the book, Peterson trumpets a call for pastors to abandon their preoccupation with image, standing, economic viability and success.
Peterson writes, “The pastors of America have metamorphosed into a company of shopkeepers. They are preoccupied with shopkeeper’s concerns – how to keep the customers happy, how to lure customers away from competitors down the street, how to package the goods so that the customers will lay out more money.” Peterson could have penned those words yesterday instead of 33 years ago.
Was the world all that different three decades ago? Religious issues attracted the attention of the media around the world in 1987.
The world watched with hopeful eyes, peering into Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies, desiring they would result in fewer restrictions upon religious expression in the Soviet Union. Persecutions and violated human rights stirred outrage and begged for resolution. Previous outcries had been ignored.
Mother Teresa was 77 in the year 1987; she would pass away 10 years later. In 1950, she founded the Missionaries of Charity, a religious congregation that had more than 4500 nuns and was active in 133 countries. In 1979 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Her charitable work was admired. Her theological opinions were both praised and criticized.
In the United States, the Supreme Court upheld free religious speech at the Los Angeles International Airport. Tracts and messages supporting religions could be passed out and supported. It also supported a church’s right to discriminate on religious grounds during its hiring practices. You had to support the beliefs of the religion to be hired. At the same time, it disallowed the teaching of creation science in the public school systems.
But 1987 was also a year of television evangelists. Reports of sexual immorality, extravagant lifestyles and irresponsible fund-raising techniques plagued the church and dominated the headlines. Jim and Tammy Bakker hosted the PTL club and immorality resulted in its reins being turned over to Jerry Falwell, a fundamentalist Baptist preacher. Oral Roberts appealed to prayer partners for financial support for his ministry and university. The Jonestown massacre in Guyana of 1978 was still providing a horrible taste on our lips.
Falwell on the other hand was making news of his own. Falwell was the preacher for a church whose television broadcast was syndicated across the United States. In 1979 he founded the Moral Majority, a political organization meant to advance conservative political and social issues. For the better part of a decade, the group became a force supporting religious beliefs in American politics.
Peterson wrote, “Great crowds of people have entered into a grand conspiracy to eliminate prayer, Scripture, and spiritual direction from our lives. They are concerned with our image and standing, with what they can measure, with what produces successful church-building programs and impressive attendance charts, with sociological impact and economic viability.” Our schedules are so filled with meetings and appointments, there isn’t time to be still before God.
Peterson concluded, “I don’t know of any other profession in which it is quite as easy to fake it as in ours.” It all depends upon what we are looking for, what metric we have chosen to measure. Business defines success in a certain way, economics and marketing reach among many. Education defines success in a certain way, economics and achievement leading the way. But the church is supposed to measure success by a different standard, isn’t it?
How do you measure spirituality? How can you define Christian growth? In what way can you qualify the results of applying the Beatitudes and Fruit of the Spirit to the way a person lives their life?
Liberty University released a statement, “We are committed to learning the consequences that have flowed from a lack of spiritual stewardship by our former president.” We saw the consequences as pictures and articles were put before us on television, magazines and websites. Though we don’t like to look, we see the consequences of sin in our streets, in our cities, on our screens.
Martin Thornton wrote, “A walloping great congregation is fine and fun, but what most communities really need is a couple of saints.” We long for a couple of saints – Christians of integrity, seated in the right positions, and not willing or forced to look the other way.
Peterson urged pastors to return to three basic areas that were critical to ministry: prayer, reading Scripture and giving spiritual direction. While it is vital for leadership, it may have more value when people “in the pew” have the same integrity and hold the pastor accountable. Turning a blind eye has caused the faith to be compromised for far too long. Over the next few weeks, let’s turn our attention to these three important areas of our character.