AN ANALYSIS OF: THE SAFEST PLACE ON EARTH

AN ANALYSIS OF: THE SAFEST PLACE ON EARTH

Authenticity is a rare commodity.  As a value however, being authentic isn’t a top priority within the lives of many people.  There are many factors that create this platform of self-indulgent hypocrisy.  Consumerism and the rise of a culture that allows most of those who live within its boundaries to be found in the possession of great quantities of material substance is one such factor.  When an excessive abundance of possessable items exists as a possibility, external substance tends to become more important than individual issues of openness, character, or sharing, particularly when it comes to transparency on a personal level. There is simply too much risk of loss involved.

Materialism can easily mask internal items of substance, replacing the need for introspection and personal areas of inner discipline.  Character can be crowded out by clutter.  Things, rather than operating as servants for the satisfaction of genuine material needs for life, can quickly become external solutions for internal inadequacies, especially when the entire culture shifts toward an over emphasis on the peripheral gathering of substantive material objects as an indicator or personal value.  Wealth, by virtue of its ability to gather, replaces the need to be truly seen as a person, due to the blinding influence of that which wealth allows into life.

What has been the outcome of this mad dash toward the accumulation of stuff?  The answer to this question is complex and strays far beyond the purpose of this paper, but one glaring problem that has surfaced in this race for the custody of consumable products is a culture that has abandoned the notion of personal safety.  Rather than creating a community that values and protects people, the focus is on valuing and protecting acquisitions.  This has produced a toxic mental state that devalues people, while conversely exalting that which is inanimate or nonhuman.  Possessions become the modern day equivalents of the ancient Greek masks of the muse, allowing others limited access to that which lies behind the artificial barriers of protective insulation that possessed objects become.

Identities can be reformed, changed or created in varying configurations, thus allowing the individual multiple opportunities to project an image that is personally pleasing, yet substantively artificial.  Belongings become, in essence, make-up for the soul’s deficiencies and lack of fabric.  The new measure in a mindset transfixed on the external nature of a persons worth is found in the price of clutter, witnessed by the ability to satiate carnal impulses, and dominate those who are not in the same strata of existence.  This renunciation of character as a supreme value has created a moral vacuum that has produced alarming consequences.  The dissolution of the family as an integral unit may be the greatest victim of this dehumanization of the individual.

The position of Kinship is no longer seen as a place to express loves’ most stellar by product: committed communities or refuges. Rather than creating an atmosphere of warmth, safety and surrender, the typical familial unit is viewed as a means of satisfying the need for personal desires of pleasure.  The individual’s value in the family is seen through the prism of accumulation.  The operative mode of existence centers around a selfish question: What is the contributive value of the family’s components?  What is brought to the table for consumption become successes fulcrum, not communal advancement.

It is no wonder that there are so many discarded pieces of familial units in this cultural adaptation.  When one unit begins to lose its productive value, the need to discard and replace takes overwhelming precedence.  Personal pleasure and the need to consume that which is new becomes the overriding impulse.  Age, financial limitations, educational disparity, and sexual boredom: all operate within this paradigm shift that perceives others as items for consumption, instead of valuing them as individual entities.          The dog eat dog pandemic mentality is indeed very destructive.  Social neurosis is the inevitable outcome, lending itself to an overindulgent expressionism that takes upon itself a posture of self preservation and self satisfaction at any and all means possible.  Taboo’s and culturally repugnant activities become moot, as long as there are bank accounts large enough to buy that which brings pleasure and silence those who would raise a critical voice of opposition.  But woe to the person whose financial well being no longer exceeds their ability to pursue opportunities for gratification with little or no regard to the cost of creating the vacuous place of indulgence.  Social backlashes can readily rise to the surface, pushing the indulgent off of the highest peak that they were capable of climbing up to, in their purposeful drive to succeed.

A new form of sacrifice has been created in this pantheistic exaltation of pleasures pursuit.  Instead of casting virginal individuals into the chasm of the unknown in order to appease primeval fears, the modern version creates a sacrificial system that exults in the demystifying atmosphere of public exposure, when the ability to purchase silence as an insular is not longer available.  The social pariah becomes the modern leper, an object to be held up in derision, viewed in a Promethean manner. A schizophrenic psyche is the emergent cultural core product.  Those who dare to gain that which is possessable and are then held up as public spectacles can have a cowing effect on the multitudes however, limiting the drive of indignant petulance, when the risk quotient is perceived to be too extreme.

Larry Crab addresses this social neurosis in The Safest Place on Earth[1] by countering the objectification of individuals through a reemphasis of the value of communal existence.  Crabb’s premise is simple: the church should be the one place on the planet that offers refuge from this chaotic bent toward consumerism.  His analysis of the problem isn’t encouraging, however.  A posture is taken that advances the notion of the churches capitulation into the quagmire of trade.  The emphasis of a programmed version of Christianity that caters to the social impulses of its surrounding culture is viewed as a problem, when spiritual community is a perceived goal.  Cultural relevance, coupled with the need to produce tangible external results, may be the greatest enemy the church has faced in its long and storied history according to Crabb’s view.

The drive for growth as an end result of success may be the most telling measure of this slide toward the excessive behaviorisms of modern man’s drive for material possessions.  The church, which has been given an example of servant leadership that extols a mindset which values “the leaving of the 99 for the one,” has instead viewed the one as a liability for the 99.  An artificial spirituality is the net result, creating an atmosphere that allows for value to be attached to the individual in so far as they are capable of serving the needs of the collective unit. Crabb’s approach is very similar to Christian Schwarz in Natural Church Development[2], which swerves as an excellent companion to Crabb’s teachings, as it offers an excellent treatise on the disparity between growth models that function on programmed paradigms alone, versus blind faith reliance on God. Both models tend to pull up short of their objectives, as the individuals who make up the church are left outside the bounds of meaningful relationships. Schwarz’ concepts are fitting for Crabb’s analysis, however.

Introducing the reader to terminology that ultimately becomes germane to the final outcome of the book, Schwarz challenges the inquirer to become familiar with three primary terms: the “technocratic,” “spiritualistic,” and “biotic paradigms” (, p. 14), as they relate to the topic of Church Growth. Found within these three perspectives that are applied to Church Growth understanding, is a vast spance of information and knowledge. Schwarz attempts to reorient pastors and Christian leaders into a new way of comprehension when observing how churches grow and stratify.  The three paradigms Schwarz identifies as being the dominant views embraced as a living reality within most churches, draws attention to the polarization of the majority standpoints pertaining to the structures of church government and operations. The danger of extremism is exemplified in Part 4, which highlights the problems of a spiritualistic worldview and the technocratic perspective (Schwarz, p. 95).

Schwarz correctly points out the discrepancies of only accepting growth in churches as a consequence of faith without human action. It is in this hyper-spiritualisms’ rejection of growth principles, or in this case, a system that: “attempt(s) to do away with institutions all together” (Schwarz, p. 90), that the reader is forced to confront those who use God as an excuse for a lack of productivity.  By creating a division between the churches existence in a very natural world and its proximity to God, a type of Gnostic dualism may be formulated (Schwarz, p. 90) that significantly impacts the churches effective implementation of ministry in a real world. This is a salient problem that apparently exists in many divergent church expressions that needs to be adequately addressed, regardless of personal preferences in style and composition when church life is examined. When embraced as a philosophic approach to life’s tangents, the Corpus of Christ stands in the midst of society as an irrelevant participant in the hyper-spiritualistic model of ministry, rather the holder of truth and the resolver of humanities many dilemmas that are created in a fallen world that has been affected by sins ravaging, stigmatic consequences.  Further research in this application could easily be warranted.

Equally as dangerous, yet diametrically opposite of the spiritualistic paradigm, is the technocratic approach to ministry. As a functional way of doing business, the technocratic system embraces action over spirituality as a primary model of enacting the mandates of Scripture when interaction with society and the various people groups that are composed of the masses that involve the race of humankind. The inevitable result is a church that can easily resemble any corporate business structure over the biblical revelation of what church is meant to be in light of a caring, compassionate community of believers that the Great Commission instructs the church to become Matthew 28:18-20. Or, as Dr. Elmer Towns has stated in 10 of Today’s Most Innovative Churches:[3] “Business is measured by the bottom line profits…when the church is controlled by the methods of business, it is on the dangerous edge…There is a point of balance between the church as ministry and the church as business (pp. 220, 222,223).” Dogmatism, narrow theological understanding, exclusivist action and eccliasticism, are just any number of problems associated with the technocratic viewpoint. The deficiency of this approach is the formation of institutions that can effortlessly exist outside of the boundaries of faith’s expression, while living the context of Christianity’s net of safety. The tragic consequences of this reassessment of what church is by creating organizations that model efficiency over life expressions such as winning souls, caring for the sick, and other ministry aspects, a structure can be erected that is devoid of eternal purpose.

This consumer mentalities’ embrace by the church has witnessed an internal restructuring of priorities that may prove to be fatally toxic to all who drink its brew, according to Schwarz and Crabb. Viewing these two works together, in an integrated format can be an extremely beneficial venture, as they tend to cover each others inherent weaknesses: Crabb’s propensity to be a little to esoteric and nebulous, which leaves him open to the charge of being somewhat Postmodern, and Schwarz’ comparisons between church growth dynamics and the natural processes, which may prove to be Schwarz’s fatal flaw of exposure, if left to stand on its own merits.

It is in the area of comparing organic growth with church growth, that cautionary notes need to be sounded. Churches by nature are not natural in composition or creation; they are supernatural in origin when properly submitted to the invisible Lordship of Jesus. It seems to be appropriate to draw analogies from nature, as points of illustration in so far as these illustrative illumines do not become binding principles. This could be viewed as a dilution of Thomistic views of theology from the limitations of nature[4] being super-imposed upon Church Growth thought. Further research in these varied implications could easily be pursued at a later date.

With that cautionary challenge being presented, it is important to also state the value of Natural Church Development, particularly in reference to Crabb’s assertions. As a relatively new paradigm, there appear to be difficulties in the positions as suggested in the book. This however, does not denigrate the powerful observations Schwarz identifies throughout this work. The biotic incorporation of technocratic and spiritualistic tendencies is an invaluable point for due consideration by leaders within the church community as a whole. Altogether, Natural Church Development is a worthwhile read for anyone interested in Church Growth, both as a discipline of study and as a model for implementation into the parameters of the church, principally those who view Crabb’s observations of a depersonalized churches weaknesses as being a relevant word for this current generations struggle to find balance in the midst of a multitude of models that advocate success only in a significant numeric equation.

When external appearance replaces internal discipline, the church and its various components morph into something they were never meant to become: a heartless reflection of a materialistic society that it exists within in the west.  This is not to be according to Crabbs’ solution of the turning of chairs in adapting a position that is willing to embrace change and confrontation, as the means for correction. A powerful and resonant cry has come forth from Crabb’s ruminations that are reminiscent of the prophetic utterances of years gone by. The pointing out of the newfound weaknesses in a church system that is bent on impersonal connections over profound relationships that are made up of vulnerability and compassionate care is evocative.

Identifying a problem of this magnitude does present a telling need for adjustment.  Crabb attempts to rectify the problem by combining his insights into the churches originally intended place of intimacy with an awakened passion that is being expressed as many church groups across the expansive galaxy of Christianity cry for spiritual formation and discipleship.  The net result is a three pronged attack that concentrates on a reevaluation of what it means to be a spiritual community, as Crabb offers a recalibrated view of the endemic problems of humanity and faith. Coupled to this is a reconsideration of how the believer relates to those who exist outside of themselves.  This trinity of activity is an appropriate, measured response to Crabb’s emphasis on these aspects of church difficulties.

The only major gripe that may appear in Crabb’s work is its ethereal nature. Safest Place is a conceptual work that may be beyond the average Christians grasp, let alone the new believer. If this book were to be read by a new Christian, it may prove to be fatal to their belief in the churches ability to adequately safeguard their new found faith.

The concepts are great, albeit the difficulties may simply lie outside the grasp of most readers. This is an excellent book for the pastor or professional minister who is grappling with the inequities of normative church life, but the tone and manner in which it was written may be seen as excessive in its criticism, leaving the less than optimistic with a type of spiritual paralysis, giving up all hope for a church that can be functional and healthy.

Another flaw of Crabb’s view is his separation of the two worlds: the upper room and the lower room. This separation of the essential human experience into two separate and distinct rooms is problematic as one has a much higher valuation than the other. This smacks of a new Manicheanism[5], which has been and continues to be a religion or philosophy of dualism.  It is also is an attempt to blend or amalgamate multiple religious thought or expressions into a cohesive whole. It is true that humanity operates on multiple dimensions. There is a spiritual and a biological dimension to man that is brought together through the soul, but to relegate one over the other is to create an artificial sense of importance to the upper room that causes the lower room’s accouterments to become debased, which flies in the face of the original proclamation of: “It is very good (Genesis 1:31), when humanities divine value is assessed.”

This decree is the very foundation of Christ’ work on earth: to redeem and restore that which has been tainted by sins corruptive power. Mankind has been created in the divine image, made just a little lower than the angels of heaven. The image may be corrupted, but a semblance still remains. The task of the believer is to yield to the Spirit’s formative work within, allowing an internal transformation to occur that in essence, makes allowance for the interaction between the two realms in an equally important forum.

These problems with The Safest Place on Earth are not fatal in their own right. They do not undercut the value of the book. They do however, lead to the need for supplemental readings in order to arrive at just conclusions. Thus, the book may be understood to stand incomplete when left to rest on its own merit thus forcing other materials to serve as a balancing point for Crabb’s view.

 

 


[1] Crabb, Larry, A., The Safest Place on Earth, Word Publishing, NashvilleTN, 1999

[2] Schwarz, Christian A.,  Natural Church Development, Church Smart Resources, Carol StreamIL, 1996

[3]Towns, Elmer, 10 of Today’s Most Innovative Churches, Regal Books, PasadenaCA, 1990

[4] Hesselgrave, David, Communicating Christ Cross-Culturally, Zondervan Book House, Grand RapidsMI, 1991, p. 56-7

[5] Manicheaism website, www.geocities.com/Athens/Rhodes/3991/Neo, accessed 9/2001, 1/1/2005

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