The following article was penned by Pastor, Doctor, Professor and all-around nice guy Ron Gleason and is posted here with his permission. Ron and his wife Sally are very close friends of my parents and Ron was my pastor back when we were both significantly younger and when we lived significantly closer. You can read more about Ron (and even hear an audio introduction by R.C. Sproul) at his aptly named web site, RonGleason.org. He has written three further articles on Brian McLaren here. From here on out you’re reading Ron’s article:
My good friend, Tim Keller, has written/spoken about the “cultures” in the PCA. He mentioned three and in an e-mail to me suggested a fourth. In this short article, I’d like to espouse a fifth, which is fitting for Presbyterians based on the premise that where four Presbyterians are gathered, there’s usually a fifth.
In a very real sense, I do not feel totally qualified-yet-to speak on this movement (it’s a work in progress), but feel compelled to do so for a few reasons that I’ll explain.
First, I live in Southern California and it’s a well known fact that we are “trend setters” out here. Whatever is going to become the wave of the future as often as not can find its roots and origin in the Golden State-especially the southern portion from Los Angeles to San Diego. Admittedly, this “fifth column” has not spread very rapidly as of yet, but I am fully confident that once the PCA catches the vision, the growth will be exponential.
Second, trends are trendy. That is to say, it’s simply not cool not to leave a legacy, set a trend, or be able to describe a “movement,” especially if you can get your name attached to it. In my intense desire to carve out a niche for myself and have my name inscribed in the annals of the PCA I’m more or less inventing this movement-probably more than less. This longing on my part should not be seen as an excursion into self-absorption, but as a psychological feeling-real or perceived-that PCA churches in Southern California don’t get enough ink. We’re far from Mecca-Atlanta-and few in the southeast of the United States are even aware that we exist. We suffer from a number of serious debilitating psychological complexes, far too numerous to mention in this short article. There is no doubt, however, that we are both neglected and lonely. Blue like-well, depression. It’s tough being authentic when you’re a real person.
Third, this fledgling movement defies explanation. Again, please allow me to explain myself. A number of us on my leadershipless team will meet at a purely secular location to network and to a man we’re perplexed and befuddled that there are actually people still attending our services on Sunday. To this point in the existence of the movement’s existence, our strategic planning meetings have not allowed us to plumb the depths of how WRECK is impacting our society and its culture. In fact, some on my leadershipless team don’t even know the difference between society and culture. We would all smoke our pipes and ponder these matters, but no one on the team smokes, so we just drink tofu smoothies instead. Not much oxygen is getting to the brain.
Briefly-I mentioned that this is a fledgling movement-I would like to trace the contours of this new movement and ask you-when you’re not having your periods of doubt that Jesus actually exists-to put down your art brush, collection of Emily Dickinson poems, and your disposition of being a cultured despiser of Southern California and to listen to what I have to say. It’s important.
The Nature and Characteristics of WRECK
Almost everyone has an acrostic. There’s D.A.R.E., M.A.D.D., and F.S.T.(Full Service Team for the uninitiated). The military is full of them, but we won’t go there because we don’t want to have a discussion about Bush, Kerry, and the war and how we’re not for any of them, but really we are, except that we’re not for Bush. You know, like Jim Wallis, Donald Miller, Anne Lamott, or James McClendon. Oh, yeah, there’s Brian McLaren, too. Sorry Brian.
I was tempted not to use an acrostic for the movement, but my second daughter caught me at a weak moment and talked me into it. It just smacked of being so worn out and hackneyed, but they’re pretty much the same, aren’t they? I’m usually pretty determined that male dominance and tyranny is the way to go, but my daughter’s striving to be a “professional” woman-an opera singer on tour with Dolly Parton-so I caved. At least in part, this is her idea. Having come up with something like this will definitely have its down side for her: probably no one in the WRECK congregation will send in her name as a candidate for Deacon. Oh well.
Deciding on the acrostic was only part of the dilemma. My leadershipless team had to join me in the vision of being ecclesial, missional, visional, and acrostical. I can tell you right now, that was no easy task! Finally, after a period of concerted meditation at Laguna Beach along with fasting (which, by the way, isn’t really that much of a problem after a steady diet of tofu and gourmet dinners) the notion of WRECK was born. What does a WRECK congregation in the PCA look like? Allow me, please, to explain the acrostic to you.
Preaching peace, love, community, and acceptance is for wussies. Each of our services is filled with heavy doses of sin and God’s wrath. My team and I decided long ago that the human preaching methodology of Law and Gospel got it all wrong, so we settled in on Law and Law-and more Law. We read the Ten Commandments three or four times every service.
Whatever my (wrathful) text is for the morning, I tend to return, near the end of the sermon (for application), to the wreck-meta-narrative of Jesus cleansing the temple with a whip. The thought of Jesus opposing the war in Iraq and cleansing the temple brings great comfort. From time to time, I will also focus on Jesus’ disdain for the (Re)Publicans.
Our service follows a set liturgical pattern. You might say it is low, high church, which helps our society understand us and helps us minister to our culture. Not that it really matters. We tend to be neither relativistic nor “beyond” or “through,” but just doggedly absolutistic, focusing on wrath.
Part of what my leadershipless team came up with-and I really do have to give them the credit for this-is that our service is designed specifically to be seeker hostile. Each hard folding chair (we have a huge freezer we keep them in until just prior to the service) contains several hymnals and Bibles. Children and infants are required to stay in the service screaming and crying adding to the misery.
Visitor recognition rarely, if ever, occurs and when it does it’s only in a derogatory fashion. Extending the right hand of fellowship or having a cup of non-designer coffee with them is not deemed necessary. One of our ushers has a stopwatch and he times the exodus of first time visitors out of the meeting room and off of the premises. Each week’s time is posted in the narthex. We also clearly discourage attendance by those who are “different” from us, which is just about everyone.
I don’t want to give you the impression that we never do anything for our visitors, however. We do have a bucket of Kool-Aid available for those foolish enough to stay. As you can see, we are entirely serious abut this “no nonsense” approach to “doing church.” We are convinced that this will keep the “cultured despisers” at bay. We do not, however, use Schleiermacher’s name, but tend to go with Alanis Morrisette, primarily because we neither like her nor Canadians.
R: Reformed Over the Radar
I first heard the phrase “Reformed under the radar” a few years back. I was a little perplexed, so I asked for a clarification. I was told that churches didn’t need to tell their “tribes” (Sorry. This is not original. I wish I had thought it up. I felt that I had until someone told me that Brian McLaren did it first. Does that still make me incarnational and depressed-yet-hopeful? At least I’m still acrostical!) what they really believed. Keep it quiet until you’ve lulled them into complacency and then hit them over the head with the truth.
So I decided to take Donald Miller’s advice and to pray that God would show me a church filled with people who share my interests and values. This was-and still is-very important to me as a pastor. Can you possibly imagine a “tribe” that would actually want a piece of your precious time while you’re busy networking? I even heard of a church in the area where one of the tribal clan was in the hospital and wanted either the pastor (tribal, mystical/poetic leader) or one of the leadershipless team members to come and visit. During one of our network meetings at Hooters (or was it at Danny K’s Sports Bar while shooting pool? It’s hard to keep all of our important network meetings straight.) we all decided that we didn’t like going to hospitals very much because they made us feel uncomfortable being around all that sickness. How can you possibly be authentic with the smell of antisepsis or oncology on the air?
So I set out to form a tribe of “Reformed over the radar” congregants. It didn’t take long before the right people started showing up. I built a little confessional booth in the foyer and every Sunday (sometimes on Wednesday nights too, when we were sober) we’d confess the sins of the rest of the world. Of course, being of humble mind and disposition, we’d always end by thanking God we were not like all the other sinners. What a relief!
Since we are confessional, ecclesial, missional, and acrostical, just to mention a few, we engaged in taking our confessional statements a couple of steps further than they were intended to go. Who was going to stop us? The authors were all dead guys. What possibly could they do? In that sense, then, we were-and remain-Reformed over the radar or Reformed Off the Charts. Remarkably, a few have stayed, but I’m convinced that our Scottish revival will continue until our “Reformed over the radar” tribe consists only of me, which is precisely the church that will share my interests and values. Last week my wife joined the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Being “eccentrical” allows you to keep others off balance. For our college and university outreach, for example, we travel to conservative Christian institutions and throw wild parties. This seems only fair, since we have concluded that the Lord cannot possibly be at places where people hold conservative views of God and the Bible. They have been placed in a theological straightjacket by their parents, former church tribe, or whatever else. Some have even been brainwashed through catechism. We feel their pain. This cannot be either helpful or healthy. They need our help and illumination. They need to loosen up a little.
We accost those who possess a “proof-texting” mentality and tell them-emphatically-that they might be wrong, but we’re not totally certain because we have not quite yet gotten beyond or through the absolutistic/relativistic divergence/convergence. As wrathful as we are, we can still sympathize when they wrinkle their foreheads at us. We explain to them that they’ll understand later, but for the time being they need to realize that we are post-everything. Whatever the latest and greatest movement is, we’re beyond and through it-almost. This is truly a great place to be and be in because you’re excused from explaining yourself in an understandable fashion.
You’d be surprised how many professionals-especially women who are not as smart or as strong as men-and college/university students like this approach. In fact, we’ve found at WRECK that the more eccentric and vague you are, the more people like it. That’s at least part of the reason we’re rapidly becoming Anabaptist Calvinists, who embrace professional unordained ordained women Deacons. This, in turn, helps educated, cultured people (actresses, professors; you know, important people who shape our societal decadence) not to hate us but to comprehend that we are actually liberal/conservative post-everythings. Clear?
Normally, people would begin with either an apology or explanation about a word not found in a dictionary. (This isn’t entirely true because the word “bloviate” is not in my home dictionaries, but within the concept of dictionaries as “living documents” we accept the validity of the word.) WRECK people are not like that. Part of our eccentrical/normalal mindset is a reticence to explain ourselves to those less “thoughtful” than we.
How do people like the WRECKs get into ministry? It’s simple. We by-pass the normal, modern ways such as studying English, becoming a youth pastor that smokes pot, gets drunk, and has sex with his tribe, or even through parachutal church planting, being sent out by no one, but just appearing one day and announcing that we’re there. WRECKs don’t like parachutists.
No, WRECKs are put off by English professors, artists, musicians, and the like. WRECKs rarely, if ever, listen to classical music or read novels by Pat Conroy, who tends to whine more than write (get over your knob year at The Citadel, maggot!), or frequent museums (or is it musea?). WRECKs enter the ecclesial fray through the unlikely means of actually attending seminary.
This tends to make WRECKs dull, drab, and otherwise non-authentic, which is precisely what I want to talk to you about now. WRECKs are fed up with everything-in a post-everything sense-especially with the notion of being “authentic” whatever that means. They are much more concerned with maintaining the status quo and being part of the Religious Right than being real, transparent, vulnerable, and authentic people. Venerable yes. (That’s why they’re Baptistal/Anglical post-everythings.) Vulnerable no.
Seminary has a deadening affect upon its tribe. Unlike institutions where you can get drunk and run around naked, thereby augmenting your authenticity, seminary requires you to take subjects that take the life’s blood right out of you. Time is wasted learning declensions of Hebrew and Greek verbs, which has little or nothing to do with authenticity by any stretch of the imagination. But, of course, that’s precisely the point. What possible benefit for networking can the conjugation of a verb have?
Authentic people are “out there” on the cutting edge of society, while WRECKs are cloistered away becoming right-wing Republicans and practicing the “missionary” position. Authentic people are not dinosaurs; WRECKs are. Authentic people attend Reed, Harvard, Smith, or the Julliard School of Music. They appreciate the fact that God loves everyone and believe that those who do not agree with them will someday hold their manhood (or personhood) cheap. Why can’t we just dialogue with Buddhists, Hindus, and atheists and learn from each other?
WRECKs have spent too much time conjugating whatever so that they are now decidedly, intentionally covertal. Definitely out of the mainstream. All that seminary training has built a wall of defense. It’s a house with no doors and no windows. Those who are outside never get in and those inside never get out. It’s a wonder that WRECKs can be anything, let alone post-everything. By the way, all that seminary training has dulled the senses to the point that WRECKs actually believe that the gospel can reach anyone, and, in fact, does. Nevertheless, WRECKs have learned through the torture of seminary that they are truly the disenfranchised; those out on the periphery of life. In all likelihood, a large part of their disdain and zest for life was due to the drudgery of seminary, which is akin to a dysfunctional family. It’s far better not to know any theology and sneak into the tribe by teaching at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, by attending Reed in Oregon, or to be a flower child who never quite made it out of the 1960s. What goes around comes around-sooner or later.
To the WRECKed mind, authentic people are wimps. The new wave of the future is to be covertal-at all costs. Getting involved with people’s lives can be both messy and time consuming. You might even have to deal with their problems. I like to call this the Lamisil problem. A nasty case of spiritual athlete’s feet might take 4-6 weeks to cure. Who does that anymore? Churches that aspire to be real families, bearing each other’s burdens, and acting like covenant communities had better sit down and count the cost. Covertal is far safer.
Do you remember those halcyon days of the 1960s when a segment of our country actually went off its rocker? We no longer spoke of “America,” but “Amerika.” I’m not certain any more-I was too busy serving as a tank commander-but I think the “k” either stood for Nazism or the KKK-probably both.
In like manner, the “k” in WRECK connotes the truly radical nature of the movement. When you stop and think about it that really has to be the case when you’re advocating a parsimonious, stingy orthodoxy over the radar. WRECKs are non-extremal/extremists. Let me explain. There are some WRECK churches who advocate no music for the tribe during a service. For WRECKs this does not go far enough. WRECKs want to go beyond and through no instrumentation to a katastrophic point of non-music. We don’t yet know what that is, but we invite you to join us on our creative journey of discovery of fresh constructions, which are mystical, existential, and neo-Barthian, and, at the same time, none of the above (see Eccentric above). People who do not understand what I just wrote need to imbibe of our Kook-Aid-Kool, cool-Aid.
Maybe it’s just me, but this all seems so patently clear and so terribly needed in the PCA today. If there were ever a time for the emergal/regressal WRECK movement it is now! We are facing a pending crisis and I fear if something is not done soon, PCA women will begin to believe that they are human (keep them away from Dorothy Sayer’s articles!) and want to vote. It may already be too late. Church kitchens could conceivably become a thing of the past. Biblical submission (female doormatal) and headship (male dominal/tyrannal) hang in the balance!
I’ve thought about the WRECK Model for a long time but was hesitant to push myself forward fearing the loss of my covertal identity. Drastic times calls for drastic measures I’ve heard. It’s possible that this might be such a time. What if it’s not? you ask. Don’t worry about the consequences. Just leave it up to the next generation to clean up our mess. That mess might be of gigantic proportions, but we can find solace in the fact that we withstood the liminal period of postmodernism without words. Most people think this means silence, but they, obviously, are unaware of the fresh constructions in theology or they just didn’t get the memo. In the meantime, just be a WRECK.
Pastor Ron Gleason, Ph.D.
Yorba Linda, CA