Monday, May 5, 2008

"Two thumbs up"

Doesn’t it seem the toughest (even foremost) critics in most disciplines are often past their prime, out of shape or limited on— even devoid of the talent needed to perform said discipline? Seriously. Simon Cowell couldn't sing his way out of a paper bag. What was the name of that acclaimed film Roger Ebert wrote or produced or starred in? Oh yeah, that's right... there aren't any. Political pundits don't actually govern. No one has elected them into office (though they likely have more power to shape government than any politician). The most ruthless judge in a dance competition is usually the one whose last active partner was Ginger Rogers. To my knowledge, Nobel and Pulitzer prize winning author, Earnest Hemingway, never reviewed for the New York times. It is a rare literary critic who has penned more than a widely published opinion. No matter the discipline, most critics’ reputations are based primarily on their ability to assess what is wrong, not on a proven ability to produce what is right. Maybe the cliché should go, “those who can, do. Those who can’t, critique.” So, why do we trust them? And, how did they become untouchable?

The 1988 film, "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," provides an apt illustration. Lawrence Jameson (Michael Cane), a highly educated, refined, and extremely successful confidence man, imparts wisdom to his half-wit protégé, Freddy Benson (Steve Martin).
Freddy, as a younger man, I was a sculptor, a painter, and a musician. There was just one problem: I wasn't very good. As a matter of fact, I was dreadful. I finally came to the frustrating conclusion that I had taste and style, but not talent. I knew my limitations. We all have our limitations, Freddy. Fortunately, I discovered that taste and style were commodities that people desired. Freddy, what I am saying is: know your limitations. You are a moron.
Sadly, I fear the church remains caught in the same trap. Just because someone will stock our book, put us on television, publish our article, or listen to our sermon, doesn’t make us an expert. True, taste and style have their relative value. But, where the Bride of Christ is concerned, well… Who gets to tell Her what works and what doesn’t? Who gets to decide these things? The only opinion that truly matters here is that of the Groom. And, it would seem He has made His taste with regard to Her beauty quite clear. He desires Her affection and devotion, that She share in His joys and purpose, that She conduct Herself in ways that bring honor to His Father’s name, and that everyone be invited to the wedding. I hear Him express no real opinion on what band to hire for the reception, what color the living room curtains should be, or whether She should wear Her hair up or down. He will clothe Her so She needn’t worry. Pleasing Him is Her primary concern.

Yet, we all have an opinion on the how-s, when-s, and where-s. I have struggled all my life to gain weight. Anyone who has felt powerless to change their body mass understands this frustration. I have read countless weight gain and muscle development theories. Everyone wants to tell you their story. How they gained thirty pounds of pure muscle in three months. The trouble is, what works for one body, doesn’t always work the same for the next. Of course, there must be some givens here. Still, many how-s, when-s, and where-s are relative and only a careful understanding of the individual’s unique genetic make-up can reveal the best course of action for maximum results.

Long time critics of Bill Hybels and the Willow Creek model have had a field day with the recent self-publishing of the organization’s internal study. In the past few months I’ve read at least a half dozen “I told you so-s.” God’s people don’t always hit the mark. So, we self assess and learn and regroup and go again. Bravo to Willow Creek for being self-effacing enough to take a hard, honest look at their values, their measures, and reorganize accordingly. Few, if any, churches in America have successfully, consistently, and for thirty years reached with Christ’s love as many people as Willow Creek and its Association. Why doesn’t this fact alone drown out the “I told you so-s?” I would hardly say the organization has failed God. In fact, all Willow Creek has said is that they are dissatisfied with their effectiveness in making the kind of connections God has charged them to make. Why, instead of learning from this beautiful example of real, humble, honest leadership, are churches and Christian leaders so quick to use this study as evidence for validating their own, ineffectual practices—fuel for catapulting their own opinions and formulas to the forefront? When do we learn that listening carefully to those we serve and being honest with ourselves about what is most valuable by God's measure is an essential part of the success process, not a precursor to resignation. It is carefully setting up the next operation, not a painful debrief after a failed mission? Doesn’t it seem a better focus to lead toward positives, not away from negatives? Might not the former inherently take care of the latter?

Positive feedback is often robbed of any credibility because it isn't viewed as "constructive" criticism. Maybe Paula Abdul knows something about criticism that eludes most of us. People grow when they are encouraged and guided. This may most certainly include some pruning or painful shaping. But most of the time, it means fertilization and watering and the proper balance of environmental elements (light, temperature). I’ve grown tired of church critics so quick to negatively assess what isn’t working. They tell us why/when/where the problem began and who is responsible… but where is the encouragement in fruitful direction? Where is the watering of God seed or tending for healthy soil? Where are the examples of success? Oh wait, I just remembered— those folks are out getting it done and inviting us to come along, not chastising us for missing their mark. Well, not yet anyway. Unfortunately, it seems the allure of becoming the “expert” voice sometimes intoxicates the effective servant. Maybe it’s more inadvertent than that.

I have a young friend in his first year of Bible College. Earlier this year, he asked for my opinion regarding what he felt to be the growing prevalence of believer-centric worship. He was starting an “underground” newspaper with a friend “to critically examine Christianity at [this] school and how it can be improved.” I formed a careful response to his question, giving him history and context for my observations. Then I added…
Be careful. Before you go criticizing worship practices in the American church (something you have EXTREMELY limited knowledge of) or any aspects of church for that matter, consider that you are criticizing Jesus’ Bride. You are criticizing the way She expresses Her love for the Bridegroom. If there is something She is missing, ways in which She may be incomplete, it would be better for you to seek to instruct, encourage, support, complete Her than to criticize Her. Jesus will defend His Beloved. I wouldn’t want to be on the other end of that.
I didn’t hear from him again for weeks. I don’t think my answer set particularly well.

Don't get me wrong. Not all feedback should be positive. Not all criticism results in warm fuzzies. But God's instruction for His Bride, though it may at times be hard to take, always has Her triumph as its inspiration. This is a proper litmus test for church criticism.

So, it would seem the "expert" may not always be one's most valuable assessor. Outside-in objectivity has its place. But, the insider, the one who knows what it smells like in the trenches, the one who looks for the wins and then celebrates them along side you— that is the "constructive" critic. The person who helps you categorize the losses, disarming failure, guarding hope; the person who helps you navigate around potential pitfalls and warns you before you turn down a dead end street— this is the esteemed voice of a godly guide. God, Himself, is not objective when it comes to the Church, without apology. And, when all is said and done, His is the only opinion that counts.