So yesterday at the regular house church meeting some friends of one of the group members came in to talk about The Jesus Film Project (click the link to learn all about it).Basically, the idea of what I’ll hereafter affectionately refer to as “the Project” is to "preach the gospel to all nations" by way of the "Jesus film," which was produced in 1979 and is billed as "a two-hour docudrama about the life of Christ based on the Gospel of Luke." They have apparently shown this film in nearly every corner of the globe, or at least that’s the goal, and not only do they show the film all over the world, including in many places that otherwise have little contact with "Modern" society, but when they arrive somewhere they go to the trouble to translate the dialogue into that local tongue, often by using native speakers. To date, they’ve translated the film into approximately 1,000 languages and they say that "As a result, more than 200 million people have indicated decisions to accept Christ as their personal Savior and Lord." This is clearly a very ambitious project that is spearheaded by well-intentioned and no doubt very nice and hard-working folks. Still, if you haven’t guessed already, I have some deep concerns about it all.
The folks who came to speak to us are a married couple who feel called to serve God by joining the staff of “the Project”- now headquartered on the “campus” of Campus Crusade for Christ, International. They gave a fine presentation, and I trust that they themselves are fine, well-meaning folks. So whatever I say below should be understood to be about the "big picture" of Modern American/Western Evangelicalism and major organizations like Campus Crusade for Christ, which in 2005 had a nearly half a billion dollar budget, including a paid CEO who makes over $70,000 per year. I don’t mean to say anything at all disparaging about those well-meaning folks who genuinely believe that working under the auspices of such an organization is the best way to serve God. So, moving on to my concerns- anyone who truly knows me well may be able to guess that I struggle with the notion of “the Project” itself. Some of this, of course, has to do with money (though there is much more to it), and- by the way- part of the reason the couple came to talk to the house church is because “the Project” doesn’t pay its staff members (or at least not its minions, apparently), and so they have to raise financial support.
In any case, for the sake of my own reflection on all this if nothing else, I want to explore some of my struggles below. “The Project” seems to me to be a classic expression of Modern American (Western) Evangelicalism, and so can be characterized in the following ways:
It is based in "Decision Theology," which for the purposes of this discussion I will define as assuming that a very strict (clearly-defined, hard and fast, rigid) conversion experience is necessary to bring one into right relationship with God. While many (Modern American/Western) Evangelicals might argue the following point, my experience growing up in this culture and as someone who is still connected to it to this day is such that it seems to me that, at least when it comes to "missions," all the focus is placed on leading the masses to having this “conversion experience” to the (near) exclusion of everything else. While some rightly say that there is an effort put forth to make sure that some sort of follow-up occurs- like connecting the newly converted to a local congregation, etc.- this follow-up is so marginalized in the bigger scheme of “winning people to Christ” that it might as well not occur- and in some (perhaps many) cases it doesn’t. “Decision Theology” itself is troublesome to me for several reasons:
- As I’ve alluded to before, it assumes that being in right relationship with Jesus is merely about lending intellectual assent to a series of propositions about God, humanity, the world, the Bible, etc. This process is rational, logical, and born of the Enlightenment. In this view, salvation is wrapped up in having the right information and making the best informed choice, though with the all-important caveat that there is only one “correct” choice, and the consequence of getting it wrong is eternal damnation. Moreover, according to at least one interpretation, decision theology makes humanity the primary actor in the drama of salvation. What matters most is what I do, not what God does. According to this view, what God does is almost an afterthought to the all-important decision that I’ve already made. To borrow a Bush-ism, in decision theology "I’m the decider." I consider this to be at the very least wrong-headed, though perhaps worse.
- Using the “cart-before-the-horse” analogy, “decision theology” gets the horse part right, but then seems to forget the cart and the driver and leaves them all with nowhere to go. So it’s right about putting the metaphorical horse first- that is, it emphasizes the hope that folks come into right relationship with God, but it forgets the cart (everything that should rightly follow from a right relationship with God- like a life of discipleship lived in community) and the driver (God- whose “job” for the sake of this analogy is to orchestrate everything and who rightly should be the star of the show). Likewise, it “leaves them all with nowhere to go” in that it seems to reduce life with God to little more than “fire insurance” (you get to avoid hell now), forgetting the mission of God that we are to be participants in helping to realize right now. Or to use the well-known Scriptural idea- salvation is about being “born again.” However, playing with this idea a bit (and echoing Debbie Blue, whom I first heard express this), who does the work of being born? The child? Or the mom? Of course the mom does; in other words, God does all the work. Furthermore (and in this I echo my friend Jared Coleman, whom I believe expressed this idea the other day), what’s the point of birth? It’s not just about the birth itself, right? No! You want to see that child learn and grow and mature into his or her fullness.
Okay, I’m done for now….
…..except for this (speaking of imperialism- cultural or otherwise):