How many times have people gone into a local church and complained that the pastor preaching does not sound like their favorite conservative Bible teacher on the radio? A lot of “traditionalist” folks can look to their favorite Christian celebrity in the media and get frustrated that their local church does not look like so-in-so’s church. Lest you throw stones at Donald Miller since you never really liked him in the first place, examine yourself to find out if you are elevating some famous preacher above the person in the pulpit where you worship and secretly despise your local place of worship.
Back some years ago, one of my favorite singer-songwriters was (and still is) a guy named Mark Heard. Long before “Contemporary Christian Music” became an industry, Mark Heard was with his guitar singing folk songs about life and Jesus. But Mark was out there on the edge. In those days, his style of music was not as acceptable in the mainstream of evangelical Christianity as it is today. Yet neither was he welcome that much in the secular world of music.
From his 1981 album, Stop the Dominoes, you can get a flavor of his existential angst in the song “Stuck in the Middle“:
Well my brothers criticize me
Say I’m just too strange to believe
And the others just avoid me
They say my faith is so naive
I’m too sacred for the sinners
And the saints wish I would leave
From time to time, I love to spin up one of Mark Heard’s albums, but over the years I have come to see also a darker side to Mark Heard’s spirituality. And I think a brief look at his story can show us how often stories like his can get repeated today and relatively few seem to notice.
Mark Heard’s Love/Hate Relationship with the Church
Mark Heard was one of those avant garde kids who made their way out toFrancis and Edith Schaeffer’s L’Abri in the 1970s. The father of Contemporary Christian Music, Larry Norman, stumbled on him playing guitar once and knew that this guy was talented. Norman produced Heard’s first album, and soon thereafter Mark Heard became an underground success among young evangelical Christians like myself. Mark Heard went onto become a major influence on a new generation of songwriters in the Christian music “scene” in the 1990s up until our current era. Tragically, Heard’s life was cut short when he suffered a devastating heart attack at a Christian music festival. Thousands of dollars and a few weeks later, Heard left the hospital, but he died within a few months in 1992.
It was not until a few years after his death that I learned how desperate his situation was at the end of his life. His friends in the music industry put together a fund raiser to relieve Mark Heard’s family from the burdensome medical bills. People really came together to help the family out. But what was missing in Mark Heard’s life?
Sure, Mark Heard had Christian friends. But sadly, I learned from this article here that he was not involved with any expression of a “local” church. In other words, there was no place where he gathered with others nearby to his home on a weekly basis for worship. His Christian community was essentially his fan base and other working musicians. This is clearly better than no Christian support, but frankly, a “fan club” is not a substitute for authentic Christian community. Sociologist Robert Bellah in his classic 1985 edited work, Habits of the Heart, called these type of social arrangements lifestyle enclaves. Sociologically, in my view, what Mark Heard did was to gravitate more towards people who had similar private interests, consumption habits, and leisure patterns instead of being a part of a community of diverse people, albeit sharing a common history.
You see, Mark Heard was a discontent. He loved Jesus but he had a lot of trouble with the organized church. For Mark Heard, it was his out-of-the-box approach to music that did not fit any “church” paradigm that he knew. His story of discontent is a familiar one. Many people can tell their own story pretty much the same way.
And that is the rub of the problem. A lot of people skip out on the local church because of the pressure to conform, hoping to avoid the “cookie-cutter” Christianity mold that they reject in the “traditional” church. Sadly, they do not realize that they are just remaking another cookie-cutter mold that merely reflects their own wants and desires.
The Church is Not a Fan Club… Nor a Lifestyle Enclave
Mark Heard was incredibly creative. He had a brilliant mind and a cracking sense of humor. But he really missed it in his theology of the church. Heard had drawn people like me into his circle of adoring fans, but the church biblically speaking does not really function like that. As Saint Paul has said, the church is like a body, having many different parts. The irony of Mark Heard is that he was fresh and innovative, so it is really peculiar to think that towards the end of his life, his experience of community had been reduced to what appears to me to be a bunch of like-minded friends, fans and colleagues in a type of lifestyle enclave.
I contributed to the problem by fanning Mark Heard’s fan base, dragging friends hundreds of miles to go to Mark Heard’s concerts. Hey, it was a lot of fun, but part of the mystery of the church is that there can be times where we would have no good reason to be together other than simply worshipping God. But according to Scripture, that is precisely the point. The church is not about us. It is about Jesus. This is not about shaming people to “go to church,” it about the reality that God is transforming. The different body “parts” in the church help to enhance the full picture. Unfortunately, the natural tendency is to gravitate towards people who are just like us. I had to learn that I could have genuine Christian fellowship with people who were very different from me , even if, gasp(!!), they were not Mark Heard fans!!
True, if we are thinking of looking for a new local church home, we need to be mindful of a number of factors, such as how good a fit the community is for our family, where we are spiritually at the time, etc. Most importantly, the church needs to be a place that is doctrinally sound and that will challenge us towards Biblical obedience. But at times, our reasons for leaving a church can be less than exemplary.
For example, what typically happens is that we may have an experience with other Christians that drives us simply bananas (I just had one such experience here on Veracity recently!), and then we use that as an excuse to cut ourselves off from that undesirable part of the body. Our estrangement can start off with just one person, only to eventually include our alienation from an entire local church body. Strangely, we then convince ourselves that we are superior to the other and justify our independent existence. In the most extreme cases, we can leave “church” universally altogether, all at the same time telling ourselves that we are being very “Christian” about what we are doing.
The problem is that this is not how we authentically grow in our relationship with Christ. Instead, when we make the investment in getting to know that bothersome “appendix” when we think we are that indispensable “hand”, we realize that true maturity in Christ happens when we stand shoulder to shoulder, bearing one another’s burdens even when we are not all alike. It is very difficult to look down upon your fellow brother or sister in Christ when the ground is level at the foot of the Cross.
So it really saddens me when I see trends that remind me of following the “I-am-done-with-organized/traditional-church” tendency I finally saw in Mark Heard.