Market-Driven Mission (Jobs, Spahr, and the PCUSA)

October 6, 2011

Three topics converge today in a swirl of reflections brought on by the day’s news: 1) The death of Steve Jobs, founder and innovator of Apple, 2) the announcement that Janie Spahr has again officiated at a wedding of a gay couple, and both in light of 3) the missional calling of the PCUSA.

First, a disclosure:  I am an “Apple person.” I have owned an Apple computer since 1990 and introduced two church staffs to its wonders. Something about the right-brain utility of Apple products, the intuitive user interface, has worked for me all these years.

Perhaps because I went to Stanford and lived on the doorstep of Silicon Valley during the 1970s and 80s, the innovations of locals like Steve Jobs caught my attention early. Steve Jobs was simply brilliant, bold, and value-driven. His mind could reach into realms beyond anyone else’s imagination, in the areas of computer design and the desires of the end user. Part of his brilliance, and the innovation of the company he founded, was to create new markets for products that were, well, more expensive than anything comparable at the time. He sold style, and people wanted it. They didn’t even know they needed some of the technology being introduced, but shortly after new products came out, the people couldn’t live without them. He capitalized on the narcissism of the American psyche by providing personal computers (iMac), individualized music delivery (iPod, iTunes), and personal digital assistance (which eventually morphed into the iPhone and iPad). Not to mention what he did for Pixar Animation Studios (Toy Story, Up). Honestly, I do not know how I lived before I got my iPhone.

In another realm altogether, the Rev. Janie Spahr, a retired Presbyterian minister awaiting an ecclesiastical appeal after conviction for solemnizing “marriages” for gay couples, is in the news again, having conducted another ceremony in New York this week. Her commitment to this action is couched in missional language. What I hear from some San Francisco presbytery colleagues (addressed by Jack Rogers in 2008 here)  is that in order for the church to be missional (a favorite value to evangelicals, and a concept you will see me exploring in this blog), it must affirm and celebrate the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered folks in our midst. Or stated another way, the church can reach LGBTs with the gospel only if it professes and demonstrates that unrepentant homosexual practice is not an impediment to salvation and full inclusion in the life of the church (contra 1 Cor 6:9, 1 Tim 1:8–11, and others). Or to put in marketing terms, for the PCUSA to be successful, it must determine what the customer (potential convert) wants and provide it. The cultural tide is turning toward LGBT rights, and for the PCUSA to remain relevant it must ride that wave, too, and take the prerequisite of repentance off the table.

By contrast, in God’s economy, the proclamation of the gospel is not market driven. The message is not determined by polls, market research, or social trends. We’ve been through a period when styles of ministry were developed in response to these methods—though I don’t necessarily endorse that approach—but the content of the message is authored by God for God’s sake and the demonstration of God’s Kingdom. The apostle Paul told his protégé Timothy that market strategy would be a serious temptation in his ministry:

I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. (2 Tim. 4:1-4)

Activists within the PCUSA have come to the erroneous conclusion that to be missional, the church must satisfy the world’s demand to affirm homosexual practice. But from God’s perspective, articulated by the apostle Paul, capitulation to the world’s demands is not in the missional interest of the church. Until we regain our distinctive set of Kingdom values and demonstrate repentant obedience to God’s revealed Word, we have no transforming gospel to share with anyone. A key element of the Presbyterian message to the world, historically speaking, has been that all are welcome and invited to believe in Christ, to receive his transforming power for a new life free of sin, and to share that life with the covenant community. This is God’s sales pitch:

            Ho, everyone who thirsts,
                        come to the waters;
            and you that have no money,
                        come, buy and eat!
            Come, buy wine and milk
                        without money and without price.
            Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
                        and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
            Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
                        and delight yourselves in rich food.
            Incline your ear, and come to me;
                        listen, so that you may live. (Isaiah 55:1-3)

Tomorrow: How the church is to be salt and light in this generation, and why evangelicals are losing heart in the present PCUSA context.

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7 Responses to “Market-Driven Mission (Jobs, Spahr, and the PCUSA)”

  1. William L. Goff Says:

    Mary,
    You continue to confuse being and doing. We all need to repent of actions that violate the will of God. We do not need to repent for who we are. I think you would agree that a celibate homosexual or heterosexual person could be ordained to ministry in the PCUSA. You believe that a person who is in a committed loving exclusive relationship with someone of the same gender should not be ordained and needs to repent. Apparently you are so zealous in perusing your interpretation of the Bible that you are willing to slander those who disagree with you. I believe that the PCUSA as well as the larger church should grant equal rights to Christian believers who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender because it is the right thing to do, not because it is trendy, popular or “missional”. Since I have come out to actively support the inclusion of LGBT Christians I have been vilified by those like you who are committed to excluding them from full participation in the life of the church. I have been labeled a liberal who doesn’t believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God. Now you accuse me and others who believe like I do to pandering to society, caving in to culture.
    It is possible that Galileo was pandering to a few scientists when he asserted that the earth was not the center of the universe. Perhaps Abolitionists were pandering to slaves when they wanted to disrupt the traditional economy of most Southern states. Maybe women were simply conforming to the voices of feminists in asserting that women should have the right to full participation in the church including ordination as Presbyterian ministers.
    Based on my personal experiences, careful examination of Scripture (I believe every word is the inspired word of God), reflection on theology and history I concluded that I had been wrong to believe that homosexual practice was a sin. Now I believe that LGBT Christians need to be held to the same standards of behavior as heterosexuals, but not excluded on the basis of who they are.
    You are an energetic and engaging writer, Mary. I wish you would follow your own standards of speaking the truth in love and not slander those of us who respectfully disagree with you.
    Sincerely,
    Bill Goff

  2. Viola Larson Says:

    Mary,
    Thank you for this. Your analogies are very helpful. We are all driven in this country to be relevant to the culture, but we must not, as a church go that way, rather we follow the Lord in his Kingdom- the only real Kingdom.
    When the German Christians were saying that the German church must conform to German culture in order to bring the people into the church, Barth wrote:
    It is not the Church’s function to help the German [American] people to recognize and fulfill any one ‘vocation’ different from the ‘calling’ from and to Christ. The German [American] people receives its vocation from Christ to Christ through the Word of God to be preached according to the Scriptures. The Church’s task is the preaching of the Word.”
    You postings, however, are very relevant to the needs of the Church.

  3. David Stearns Says:

    In spite of 10A, the Book of Order still defines Christian marriage as being between a woman and a man (W-4.9001). Ms. Spahr was previously disciplined for doing this, and she has again shown her lack of regard for the law, not just in who she is but in what she does. If she were already ordained, this repeated refusal to follow the law could be grounds for revoking her ordination. I wonder if it will prevent her from becoming ordained in the first place.


  4. I find this a peculiar attack. It’s unlikely that very many leaders of the PCUSA have any illusions that a liberal approach to Christianity is going to be more popular than a conservative one.

    I believe the church is taking the approach is it knowing that it’s going to cost us members and support, and that we’re doing it because we honestly think that’s the direction in which Jesus is calling us and are willing to accept the cost.

  5. Whit Says:

    Charles, I think those who support GLBT ordination in the Church have, and express, multiple motives for their position. Some see it as a way to become relevant, or acceptable, within their progressive local communities. Others might see it as a way to set themselves apart, and be “counter-cultural” within a more conservative local culture. Some may see it as a way to boost membership among like-minded people, and discourage membership of folks less enlightened than themselves. Some see it as a matter of “justice” based on the culture, or a culturally mediated interpretation of Scripture. Still others see it as a way to “reach out” to the “marginalized” in society. Yet others may simply acquiesce thinking that it will bring peace to the denomination.

    In other words, some support GLBT ordination in the church because they believe it is right, some because they think it will move the denomination Left politically and theologically, and others primarily because they think it will be good for the denomination in human terms (membership, money, social acceptability, etc.). Many will have mixed motives.

    But Mary’s main point remains. As the Church, we are called to follow Our Lord as found in Scripture regardless of the social, financial or personal costs. Believers in the United States are not, yet, called by God to give up their lives for their faith as they are in much of the Islamic world. But we are called “to put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, [we] may be able to stand [our] ground, and after [we] have done everything, to stand.”

    And where we are to stand is upon Scripture, for all else is sinking sand. And it is not for us to interpret Scripture based on our own feelings and prejudices which can be “tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming.” But rather, we are to examine it objectively and “speak the truth in love.”

  6. stushie Says:

    Allowing the culture to dictate our theology is not a very brave or courageous thing for Christians to do. Syncretism is one of the oldest and most corrupting community sins in the Bible.

    Thank God that the majority of Christians throughout the world do not accept our mistakes and continue to worship, serve, and follow Christ faithfully. After the ashes of our cultural assimilation has destroyed our denominations, missionaries from other lands will come and rekindle the faith – that’s the missional moment that I yearn to see.

  7. MSN Says:

    Bill, when you write, “I believe that the PCUSA as well as the larger church should grant equal rights to Christian believers who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender because it is the right thing to do, not because it is trendy, popular or “missional”. I agree. But when you interpret “equal rights” as a right to sin without challenge, question, or hint of repentence I have to disagree. We do need to repent of “who we are” Reformed Christians and all Christians know.
    We are sinners in need of grace – so we repent of who we are. We are enemies of God and the Cross but we stand in need of the love of God fully revealed on the Cross – so we repent of who we are. God tells us to change (Mt 18:3), to repent (Ac 3:19), to be born again (Jn 3:3), to become a new creation (2 Co 5:17).
    The stubborn inststence of “progressives” that we can come as we are and serve the Church is, like so many liberal notions, only half true. The doors of the Church are absolutely wide open to any person in any situation, condition, or class without exception. But everyone who enters as an enemy of God and a slave to sin should expect to find an encounter with the living Christ that absolutely and completely transforms their very being.
    Everyone equally should be led by the Church to a transforming encounter with the living God. Any church that leaves people as they are has failed to teach the Gospel. All of us deserve better than that – equally.

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