J. Michael Feazell: Thanks for joining us on another edition of You’re Included , the unique interview series devoted to practical implications of Trinitarian theology in today’s complex world. Our guest today is Dr. Paul Louis Metzger, professor of Christian theology and theology of culture at Multnomah Biblical Seminary at Multnomah University in Portland, Oregon.
Dr. Metzger’s passion is integrating theology and spirituality with cultural sensitivity. He’s a member of the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton, New Jersey, and has developed a strategic ministry partnership with Dr. John M. Perkins called Drum Majors for Love, Truth, and Justice. Dr. Metzger is author of several books, including The Word of Christ in the World of Culture, Sacred and Secular Through the Theology of Karl Barth, and Consuming Jesus: Beyond Race and Class Divisions in a Consumer Church. Thanks for joining us today.
Paul Louis Metzger: It’s great to be here, Mike. Thanks.
JMF: In your book, Consuming Jesus, you have an afterword by John M. Perkins — you have a strategic ministry partnership with him. In the beginning of the book especially, you have some extensive quotes from him, and one is, “We have substituted a gospel of church growth for a gospel of reconciliation.” Tell us about that.
PLM: Dr. Perkins is saying that our emphasis is often on quantitative growth, and while there is a place for that (the early church had 5000 right off the bat), we’ve taken the focus off of qualitative growth and discipleship, and have put our focus on quantitative growth. So he says we’ve replaced the gospel of reconciliation with the gospel of church growth. He’s calling for a more holistic spirituality and a church that gets beyond issues of race and ethnic division and the like, and that’s the context for that statement.
He also says in that same context that the American evangelical church is the most racist institution in America, and at least one blogger raised questions over that statement, and really misunderstood what Perkins was after. He’s not saying that evangelicals are the most racist individuals, but institutionally, we’re often blind. Because of our emphasis on individual people, we often don’t account for the structural dimensions.
Even in church growth, we structure religion and spirituality by way of, what I have said elsewhere, along the lines of this “homogeneous unit principle,” of working with people, targeting people of a certain sociological, social, economic bent, if you will, sort of demographic. That’s not expansive enough. We need to take into account people’s whole stories, their contexts, and I’m for a focus on language and location, but not likings. To work by way of preferences gives rise to separating people in America today along consumer lines, and that often tracks with separation by way of ethnicity and economics and other related matters. That’s what I think Perkins is after.
In the evangelical movement, we have no idea, at least by and large, about a prophetic voice of what Dr. Perkins is calling for. We write books on how to grow your church and make a profit in religion, but we know very little about prophetic voices such as what Perkins offers. We need to reengage the Scriptures in terms of its call to a holistic spirituality.
JMF: Most evangelical churches are going to have white faces, predominately, and be more of a middle-class constituency as opposed to reflecting the whole culture, and you’re proposing certain ways to address that. How do you suggest churches begin to look at things, and what should they do differently?
PLM: I think that’s where we’ve been as a movement. But if we’re going to have growth, we need to be concerned for diversity. Not in some kind of politically correct manner, because that’s where a lot of people will raise questions… is this just trying to be PC, fit in with American culture? That’s not it at all.
Are we really missional in our orientation? Do we have our eyes open? Are we reaching out to the communities around us? America is not becoming increasingly white. America is becoming increasingly brown, if you will. I don’t look at that as a threat — I look at it as a great opportunity. In the years ahead, the growth is going to come, by and large, in non-Caucasian contexts. That’s already happening in certain contexts, but the dominant evangelical superstructures are not there.
Our leadership, in our institutions of churches and education and parachurch, are largely white. I happen to be a white person, and I’ll often joke with people when I’m speaking to them, remember I’m a white guy. I’m not out here to attack white people, but we need to be missional. We need to open our eyes. We need to be concerned for doing church, as I said earlier, based on language and location, not likings. If we have eyes to see, we’ll see that there’s more diversity in our communities than we’ve often been able to or willing to acknowledge. It’s there, but are we being intentional about looking to see how diverse our communities are?
That is what I would want to maintain in addition to other principles, even in how we do theology, what we preach on, how central the Lord’s Supper is in our worship services…not as a placebo tablet with the Supper, but more that it’s not simply about individuals before God — it’s about persons in communion with God and with one another. The Lord’s Supper in Corinth was meant to break down class divisions, and yet the Corinthian church, 1 Corinthians 11, was dividing people even at the Agape Feast by way of social class. Paul says, “not on my watch. That won’t happen here, because it is the Lord’s table, where all are equal, where all are welcome.” We need to make sure that all people are welcome to the bountiful harvest of God’s communion.
JMF: Even if all people are welcome at a given church, wouldn’t it still work out, in general because of the way people are, that churches still build up around racial and ethnic similarities? Don’t most people feel more comfortable worshiping together with others who share their cultural and ethnic background and history?
PLM: People feel more comfortable with that orientation or with that framework, but that doesn’t mean it’s most biblical. That’s what the Corinthians were doing. They were doing things based on comfortability. The rich were in their dining rooms in the house church eating with each other, because the Greco-Roman culture allowed for that, and the poorer Christians were without. They were not able to have anything of the feast. They were, so to speak, in the courtyard with their faces plastered to the glass looking in.
Paul said that’s not going to happen. Even though that’s your comfort zone, that’s not going to happen at God’s table. We need to replace comfortability with the comfort of the cross — and all are equal there. That might sound pious and super-spiritual, but I don’t mean it that way. It’s a matter of, do we really have a heart for seeing the church look like what the kingdom of God would be?
In another book that just came out, Exploring Ecclesiology, my co-author and I say that we need to live now in light of what will be. As a friend of mine has said elsewhere, if the kingdom of God is not divided, how on earth can the church be? We need to live now in light of what will be in God’s eschatological kingdom before the throne. As that kingdom and community now, we need to look different, because Scripture calls us to do that. It’s not to beat ourselves over the head if there are no people of different colors in our community, and we don’t have to bus people in from hundreds of miles away, that’s not the point. But are we truly seeking to be missional?
I want to get beyond what I like, and my preferences with worship services (this is a lot of where the generational divisions occur). I don’t necessarily like a lot of the worship in churches with the praise choruses. I like a lot of hymns. I like liturgy. But I’d rather put down my own preferences for the sake of worshiping with people of different generations.
We have the generational gap, the worship wars and generational divisions. I think that’s going to hurt us long-term. It’s already hurting us long-term, where young people don’t feel connected to churches and they leave churches for their own type of church later. We need to worship as a family. My concerned about all these services (contemporary or traditional) is bound up with the same kind of consumer preference. It’s subtle, but it ends up with very destructive tendencies in the long haul.
JMF: What is a way around that, though? In a given church…you take a black church or a Korean church, typically a white person is not going to feel comfortable there, likewise a typical Korean worshiper is not going to feel comfortable in a white church or a black church. They’re going to prefer to go to a Korean church. You’ve got rich people, young people, generations as well as socioeconomic levels. There can be an effort to make everyone in the generations and the rich and poor welcome in that context, but how do you go about it? It’s one thing to be welcoming, but will it really happen where churches begin to become missional to the degree that all races can enjoy and meet together as one body? Will that ever become a reality?
PLM: It’s a very long process, and it’s a hard road. It’s painful, because those wounds are still deep. A lot of people think the wounds have gone away, the racial tensions for example, but it’s often from people who haven’t even engaged in the issues. They haven’t asked the questions. They haven’t come alongside of others from different backgrounds and really started to ask questions and live life together. If we do, we’d see that these things are real issues and open wounds in many contexts. It depends case by case, but they are there. They are very much present in American culture.
As I said before, it’s OK to distinguish language and location, not likings. You can have an immigrant community from Africa, or somewhere else in the world where they’re speaking in their native language the first generation. I’m thinking, okay, second generation, third generation, and are they still seeking to be set apart? At that point, it often becomes a matter of cultural preference.
I’m not trying to do away with cultural distinctiveness. I love and long for church contexts where we celebrate the diversity of our worship styles and the like. We need to be intentional. It’s one thing to say we’re welcoming. Anyone can say that. I never talk about that we just want to welcome people. I want to be intentional about making sure that they really do have a place at the table, and that they have ownership.
So, how do I change structures, even leadership structures, where if I’m a person in a position of authority, how do I use my gifting, my influence, my position to make it possible for people of other gifting experiences to have ownership and leadership? In some ways it’s a death to myself.
When the issue comes back to making people feel comfortable, we’re just going to nurture that same problematic orientation. I do not believe in making people feel comfortable in church. I want to have people know that they’re loved and cared for, but not comfortable as in making sure they feel that all of their desires and wants are met. That’s the consumer problem. It’s giving people what they want, when they want it, at the least cost to themselves. That’s the consumer problem in the church.
If you deal with these issues of ethnic division and economic division and generational division and that doesn’t whet their appetite, they’ll go next door, and that’s very problematic. So how do we change the preaching? How do we change the ideology? The mentality? The spirit of our churches where we’re just catering to people because we want to make sure people come in the door? Again, I don’t mean it by way of false piety or it sounds all good.
To me this is DNA, and it’s partly because this is my own life. My wife’s from Japan, she’s a Japanese national, a Japanese citizen; our kids are dual citizens. I have to hear what my son experiences at school and what my daughter will experience and what my wife has experienced going into an immigration office to get a green card years ago (I talk about it in the book Consuming Jesus; it wasn’t as sexy or as funny as Hollywood’s green card version). It was a very painful experience, and I felt like a helpless hopeful, just like the Mexican applicants looking for green cards and citizenship papers. I felt on the outside looking in with some of the things we had to endure. I saw another side of America. As much as I love our country, I saw another side.
A lot of people experience that in the church. Do we want people to feel welcome? Absolutely, as long as everyone feels welcome. But that doesn’t mean comfortable, because Jesus calls us to carry a cross so that we die, so that we can truly live and find a meaningful life that’s beyond our best life.
JMF: It sounds like there has to be a passion. I don’t see that happening unless there’s a passion in the pastor to preach and educate the church in a way that helps it to see itself in a new light and fresh light, as opposed to just being a church to attend for the various social reasons that oftentimes we attend church, for the friendships and the security in the sense of support and so on, but for the church to see itself differently.
PLM: It’s partly the pastor’s role, but just like the president of the United States, the president isn’t fully in control. There are a lot of other people who have ownership of the issues. The pastor is a major player, as well as the elders or church council, and the lay people. There’s a sense in which we all need to be in a state of desperation.
Perkins says we’ve replaced this gospel of reconciliation with the gospel of church growth. That’s not good news. A watching world looks on us, and it’s not like we’re trying to tickle the ears, it’s not like if we just do the race issue right then the world will like us. I don’t believe that. But I think they see the hypocrisy when we talk about the love of God in Christ and all people are welcome, and yet Martin Luther King Jr.’s statement from way back in the ’50s or ’60s is still true today. The most segregated hour in Christian America, even in a post-Christian America, is Sunday morning at 11:00 a.m. How can that be, in God’s household?
We have to have a sense of urgency and desperation, and that doesn’t come overnight for a lot of people. It would be wonderful if the Holy Spirit would just move in such a way that people would be awakened to it. Sometimes the Spirit does work in that way. Other times it’s a long haul.
I’ve been in church situations most of my life, even talking about these things, where the dominant structures aren’t thinking about moving toward change anytime soon. It’s a marathon race, not a short-term sprint. If I didn’t have this confidence and hope that Jesus will make this reality of the church that is truly unity in his eschatological kingdom, I’d give up hope and I’d despair because it is so painful and it is so slow-going. There has to be that sense of urgency and desperation that our lives must create the space for our views to be heard.
When we have a segregated church economically, ethnically, and in other ways, what are we saying to the world? Are we really salt and light? I don’t think so. I don’t see it from the standpoint of wanting to put a guilt trip on people and be moralistic. It’s a longing for something more noble, more profound, a Christianity that really gets at the heart of God. That’s what I long for. I’ve seen what it can be like. I’ve been in situations where it’s more beautiful and more profound, and I long for us to look like what God calls us to be as his church.
In John 17, “May they be one as we are one, Father, that the world might know that you have sent your Son.” So we’re telling the watching world that God hasn’t sent his Son if we’re not truly one — and that’s not just ethnically, economically, it’s not just generationally. It’s in a host of ways in which we don’t have unity. The turf battles we have in churches and beyond. The denominational warfare and the like, turf. It’s often ego-related.
Paul challenged that completely head-on in 1 Corinthians. They were saying, “I am of Paul, I am of Apollos, I am of Cephas,” and they weren’t of Christ. The ego problem is usually the biggest problem along with, in American culture, the comfort-zone problem. Those things need to be dealt with prophetically and passionately, calling people to something more beautiful and noble. (Because if it’s guilt-tripped, that doesn’t help anyone.) It’s helping people to repent, but to repent so that we enter into something more profound together. I’m part of the problem; I want to be part of the solution. I know a lot about these things, the question is, what am I doing about them? I have to live them out all the more fully.
JMF: Paul wrote that 2000 years ago. Here we are 2000 years later, and we still have the same problem. In your book, you propose a few concrete suggestions about moving from here to there. Can you talk about those?
PLM: I’ll talk about the kind of preaching that needs to occur, and I had already mentioned that aspect of prophetic speaking. And the kind of theology we’re teaching, what kind of theology we foster. Trinitarian theology is communal, it’s relational, it’s not individualistic.
There are many practical principles that the book sets forth from different angles—some theological, some in terms of worship: how we do the Lord’s Supper, how we view the Lord’s Supper. Also, as it relates to community development work, we mentioned Dr. John M. Perkins before, and even how we engage as the church in the broader community. He’s talked at length about principles of relocation, reconciliation, and redistribution. Perhaps we’ll have time to talk about those things, and it’s bound up with our partnership that he and I have developed.
Third, there’s a network called the Mosaic Global Network, which is helping churches move toward being more multi-ethnic. There are a lot of things that can be done, developed, different models for how to be integrating, even how we do (and this is beyond the book), but how do we greet people? What does our literature indicate? What does it suggest? Again, how do we do worship? Who are we targeting? I don’t like the word “targeting” because it’s too narrow in its orientation. I want to be missional, but often targeting is, “I’m going to focus on this niche group.”
Our whole community should be who we’re seeking to minister to. Jesus’ band of disciples was diverse. Even though it was Jewish men, it was pretty diverse. Jesus always had his sleeping bag between Simon the Zealot and Matthew the tax collector every night, because tax collectors were hated by Zealots. Given the chance, who knows what Simon the Zealot would have done to Matthew the tax collector? Paul rebuked Peter for not associating with the Gentiles and he talks about it in Galatians. In the early church, James talks about the economic, what we would call class divisions today, with the leaders giving preference to the rich and despising the poor.
Who makes up the boards of our churches? Is it the power brokering of the world that we have, or is it the cruciform existence of the cross? Not many of us who were called to Christ were great or noble by way of the world’s standards. Where is greatness to be found? A theological, a spiritual, a missional perspective, is all-encompassing. It takes years to develop. It takes a lifetime to live out. It is costly, but it’s more profound in terms of what God is calling us to.
JMF: How did you meet John Perkins?
PLM: Around 2000, a friend said to me we needed to get John Perkins to come to Portland to speak at Multnomah, where I teach and I direct this institute on the Theology of Culture, New Wine, New Wineskins. So we invited Dr. Perkins, and he accepted, and he came to Portland to speak for our conference on justice issues.
One of the places he spoke at was Reed College. Reed is talked about every year in the Princeton Review as being one of the most godless or non-religious, secular, irreligious schools in America, depending on how you want to word it. It’s not seen as a bastion of evangelical orthodoxy, to say the least. Yet the Reed students wanted to hear this evangelical social-justice advocate civil-rights leader from the deep South, John M. Perkins, which struck me.
When he spoke there, he just shared his testimony, but it was radical and it was transformational to me. I felt, as a Multnomah Biblical Seminary professor, I had come to Christ in Reed College’s auditorium hearing Perkins share his story about how he was led to Christ, how God called him back to the deep South to give his life for the poor, and then after he was nearly beaten to death, God called him beyond bitterness to be broken and holy love for even his oppressors. God called him through that traumatic ordeal where he had a heart attack, and vital organs of his body were shredded. He said God called me through that incident with these white police officers beating me to the point of death, God called me to race reconciliation for all people.
The Reed students gave him a standing ovation for a life so well lived. While they might not have agreed with his evangelical convictions at that point, they knew there was something beyond religion here, that really was an encounter with the living God through this man. Even now, that sends shivers down my spine because that is a more profound form of Christianity than I ever had experienced to that point. I want my life, I want my family’s lives, I want the church of Jesus Christ and of North America to enter more fully into that kind of radical, sacrificial spirituality that is simply bearing witness to and participating in the life of the Triune God revealed in Jesus Christ.
JMF: You are partnering with him in a particular ministry. How does that contribute?
PLM: Around the time of the release of the Consuming Jesus book (after years of reflecting upon his story, theology, my own family’s story, life in Portland and beyond), it was my own manifesto, so to speak. When he read the material, and he had come back to Portland for another New Wine, New Wineskins conference that was geared toward the oppressed, the poor, ex-offenders, how we relate the gospel compassionately to them in a holistic manner.
Dr. Perkins asked me if I would partner with him, and this is one of my mentors. This is a man whom I have the highest regard for, and that he would ask me to partner with him was one of the greatest privileges of my life. Having studied under Colin Gunton in London and then being able to work with this evangelical community development civil rights leader, it’s a great marriage between Trinitarian theology and a life that really lives it out, illustrates that life and how to develop it.
He could sense that there was a theology I was developing by the grace of God that resonated with what God had called him to do as a Bible teacher and as a practitioner for decades. [At the time of the interview] he’s in his late 70s and he’s thinking about the marathon race ahead and the legacy, not in terms of an ego issue, but a stewardship, how these things would be carried on for the long haul. He’s partnered with a variety of people, and I’m one of them. This partnership, Drum Majors for Love, Truth, and Justice, is bringing together a biblical theology of engagement that’s led to his profound practices of relocation, reconciliation, and redistribution.
We’ve spoken in different parts of the country and we’re looking for other opportunities to go out and speak, to inspire people to become themselves, members of the marching band. The imagery comes from one of Martin Luther King Junior’s messages where he wanted to be remembered as a drum major for justice. Love is the driving force of justice and the biblical framework, and there’s a need for justice. There’s so much injustice in our world today, in America, with all the greed that’s bound up with the current economic mess and the lack of concern for biblical truth.
Love, truth, and justice as a catalytic force, they simply want to bear witness to the Triune God as he engages sacrificially through the church in our cultural context. It’s putting together that biblical theology of engagement with what Dr. Perkins has been about with his community-development work for decades.
JMF: It seems like just when we get going, time’s up. But we’ll come back, and maybe we can discuss this some more.
JMF: Thanks. We’ve been talking with Dr. Paul Metzger, Professor of Christian Theology and Theology of Culture at Multnomah Biblical Seminary of Multnomah University. I’m Mike Feazell for You’re Included.