Sarah and I had the priveledge of hanging out in Grand Rapids with some good old friends. On Sunday the 2nd, we attended their church, Mars Hill. It was a mega-church stereotype waiting to happen… that didn’t.
The church is a daughter church of another large, established church in Grand Rapids. It’s in a converted strip mall. The “sanctuary” is stripped of most Christian icons and the music was contemporary and rockin’. The church was originally founded for younger people (and older people who felt this way) to experience a totally different concept of church and worship. For seven years, it was mainly that: a stereotypical mega-church catering to the felt needs of the po-mo generation.
But this post is about optimism, right? Mars Hill is currently embarking on moving its 3,000 some attendees and members to project their faith in a holistic way out into the community of Grand Rapids. Two days before July 4th, the high holy day of civic religion and patriotism, the young, energetic preacher talked about the US-sponsored, directed, encouraged coup in Chile in 1973 that overthrew the democratically elected Salvador Allende and ushered in 20 years of brutal repression in the Southern Cone. Granted, he didn’t delve into specific details of US involvement (check out Christopher Hitchen’s The Trial of Henry Kissenger for some shocking revelations) but the point is is that this church chose, whether consciously or unconsciously (I’m guessing the first) to not wave the flags and sing God Bless America on July 2nd. Rather, they talked about the God of the oppressed. The preacher held up a sign that said “Donde” or where in Spanish, the sign that the mothers of the disappeared held up in Chile and Argentina during the 1980s and 1990s. He pointed the where at the church and at the people in attendance. “Where are the friends of God when injustice happens?”
Wow. I don’t know if I can fully express the revolutionary implications of what’s happening at Mars Hills. I confess that I’ve become highly burned out on evangelical culture: first from immature contrarianism in college and then, more deeply, from my experience in Guatemala. The sense of the evangelical church fiddling while the world burned was never so strong for me as it was in Guatemala. I kept coming back to passages in Isaiah where God expresses His hate for empty ritual devoid of concern for justice and the oppressed. I saw a movement co-opted by the messengers of hate and oppression and dominated by a cheap grace piety that had no relevance for the poor and downtrodden.
Even in the depths of my cynicism, there were inklings of hope that I should have, and sometimes did recognize. There exists and has existed (Mars Hill being the prime example) an undercurrent of dissatisfaction among younger evangelicals with the church. It was frustrating to see that dissatisfaction express itself mainly in worship styles and coffeeshops, which made me quite leery of the much touted “emerging church movement.” But huge numbers of my graduating class at Wheaton went on to charity, relief or missions work. That made me optimistic because as Howard Zinn so famously claimed, it’s hard to stay neutral on a moving train. Some decry the focus of evangelical groups on charity and their lack of sociological and political analysis. True. But I say, wait and watch and see.
True commitment to radical social change and the God of the oppressed comes through the fire of experience. I went to Guatemala a wishy washy liberal. I came back a committed pacifist and believer in the necessity of grassroots action for empowerment of the poor. While I do not claim that everyone involved in charity, relief, and poverty relief work will become an anarchist, people with good intentions, with open hearts and minds can not help but be changed when confronted with the reality of the world outside our enclaves of wealth and comfort.
So good lookin’ out to Mars Hill. We can only pray that the commitment to being a friend of the God of the oppressed will continue to grow in all of us who have chosen to be part of the task of building God’s Kingdom.