Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

On Being Observed

Written by: on February 14, 2019

Disclaimer: I’m visiting a niece in Carnforth, England and have little to no internet access. I wrote this on the train hoping to add in quotes and such once I could get on line, but I’ve been having trouble connecting. I have a window here, so I’m going to post what I have and hope to add quotes later! Sorry!

Reading T.M. Lurhmann’s anthropological study of American evangelicals made me feel a bit like I imagine a gorilla might feel in the zoo, were he given a book written by a zoologist who had observed him for a few years. That’s assuming, of course, that the gorilla could read. And from Luhrmann’s perspective, it seems a literate gorilla wouldn’t be any more far-fetched than a God who speaks.

I bounced back and forth between happily and proudly relating to the people she interviewed and feeling deeply embarrassed and ashamed by the same. Though she tries to maintain a scientific perspective—stating observations and findings without assigning value or judgement to the experience—she lets certain words and phrases slip into her writing that reveal her personal stance. She strongly rooted in Taylor’s imminent frame. Though she mingled with the Vineyard church members for several years, it’s clear she never became one of them. Throughout her book she maintains an outsider’s voice, slightly antagonistic and bordering on condescending. She seems to use her extensive engagement as proof that what she witnessed was valid, but is careful to distance herself from the true believers, lest she be mistaken for one of them.

She may have spent years visiting the zoo, but she’s making it clear that she did not become a gorilla.

Someone once told me that reading the Bible without the Holy Spirit is like reading somebody else’s mail. You might understand all the words but you’d have little understanding of what it all meant. Luhrmann’s interpretation feels like that.

And yet, this gorilla was drawn to reflect on some of her observations. Because there were some things that she said that made me cringe precisely because they rang true. Particularly this idea of how individualized and self-centred American Christianity has become.

I am particularly aware of this when listening to modern worship songs. While the hymns of old were theological proclamations about who God is, the latest worship choruses are all about who I am or how I feel or what I need.

And when in worship in the States, I have the impression that we close our eyes and each go into our own little individualized worlds, praying our own individualized prayers, which are mainly focused on our own individualized needs. Luhrmann’s observations confirmed my suspicions.

The part that killed me was when she talked about how a woman shared that she had gotten angry with God (a sentiment I can understand) because it had rained on the day of a church picnic (a reason for being angry at God that I cannot understand). I was reminded of a story that Rachel Held Evans told in her book, Evolving in Monkey Town. She had just come home from visiting her sister, who was a missionary in India. There she had a met a young girl who was praying for her mother to be healed of a deadly (but curable) disease. If her mother died, the girl would be left a destitute orphan. Rachel had begun praying fervently for the recovery of this girl’s mother, and continued praying even once she returned home. That first Sunday back home, she went to church where the pastor praised God for his great faithfulness in having provided all the funds that they needed to resurface the parking lot. As she left church, Rachel received a note from her sister in India—the girl’s mother has died. Saving her would have cost a fraction of what it was going to cost to resurface the parking lot.

Rachel was left questioning what kind of God would prefer parking lots over mothers.

I’ve long stopped praying for parking spaces. It’s not that I think that God doesn’t have the bandwidth to deal with such minutiae, it’s that I think God has already provided me with everything that I need in order to figure that one out—and that I can honour him by using the brain that he gave me. And the choosing of clothes or painting of the kitchen table? I can almost feel God rolling God’s cosmic eyes at the silliness. Except God is even nicer than I sometimes I imagine God to be—and always free from snarkiness. So God doesn’t roll God’s eyes. Or face palm. Or sigh. God is patient. But I do wonder if we might encourage USAmerican evangelicals to rethink their prayer priorities.

I’m a fan of the Vineyard church. I’m a tongue-speaking charismatic that knows in my knower that God speaks to me. I love that God is personal and available, that God is intimate and approachable. I relate to many of the experiences that Luhrmann describes. But as she holds up a mirror to this individualistic behaviour, I’m bothered by what I see.

And the problem is not only in the USA. I was recently meeting with a young woman from church who was telling me about all of her disappointments with God. She asked for this and God didn’t respond. She looked for that and God didn’t show up. She needed such and such and God didn’t provide. I wondered if she knew that God is not her servant, she is God’s. I wonder if we’ve lost the wonder. We’ve brought God down into our imminent frame, praying our imminent requests, and forgetting that God is the transcendent One.

About the Author

Jennifer Williamson

Jenn Williamson is a wife and mother of two adult sons. Before moving to France in 2010, she was the women's pastor at Life Center Foursquare Church in Spokane, WA. As a missionary with Greater Europe Mission, she is involved in church planting and mentoring emerging leaders. Jenn benefitted from French mentors during her transition to the field, and recognizes that cross-cultural ministry success depends on being well integrated into the host culture. Academic research into missionary sustainability and cultural adaptation confirmed her own experience and gave her the vision to create Elan, an organization aimed at helping missionaries transition to the field in France through the participation of French partners.

6 responses to “On Being Observed”

  1. Greg says:

    Hey Jenn. First of all your blog was lost in the new changes so on my Monday morning I get the chance to be the first to respond.

    Your frank conversational approach to this blog had me walking the journey with you. Maybe I need to write more blogs on train:-)
    I do try to not criticize the western church too much for I could easily find ways that I too am a product on my traditions and doing similar things. I am also glad God is not a face palming God with the things we all do and say that we wouldn’t want detailed in a book analyzed revealing our embarrassing moments. From one gorilla to another, thanks for your honest take of someone that sees like many of those we are working with.

  2. Shawn Hart says:

    Jennifer, I am glad you didn’t lose your “train of thought” for this posting. Hehe. Sorry, a terrible pun I couldn’t resist.

    Your post reminded me of a ministers’ retreat I attended with my wife one year. We had just shared a breakfast meal with two other couples when following the meal one of the other ministers pulled me off to the side and literally told me that I talked too much, which failed to give my wife a chance to speak. Though the conversation had him speaking just as much as I had, I could not help but be shocked by his ignorance. After 25 years of marriage, he had no idea who my wife was, nor did he understand that as she attended this gathering of strangers, she had issued me a warning about trapping her into talking in any big conversations; you see, my wife hates talking in public until she is comfortable. For this reason, I definitely talk more than she does in situations like this. The point being; strangers looking in who lack understanding may make observations, but it does not necessarily mean that they have any real understanding of what they see. Luhrmann proved that.

    Next, I am not sure that I agree that God doesn’t roll His eyes from time to time…we know they kind of prayers He hears. LOL.

    Lastly, I too share your frustration with the things we pray for these days; we are so blessed in so many ways, and yet people blame God when they don’t get the dumbest things that they ask Him for. Yes…I am sorry your team did not win the Super Bowl, but perhaps that is not something God deserves getting cursed over.

    Good job.

  3. Trisha Welstad says:

    Jenn, I resonate with and appreciate your post. I stand in a pretty similar place with how I perceived the text. Part of me thought it was really interesting and scientific and part of me was disgusted by the all about me consumerism of Christianity. The big question for me is, “Are people shaping God into their own image or being shaped into God’s image?” It seems we have some light weight theology that does not help people really know God and deal with the challenges of life. What do you think?

    • Trish, I have asked that question myself! Often. In fact, in some ways, the very study of theology is always at risk of doing that. We al tend to see the God we want to see, even when reading scriptures. In fact–going back to your blog–its only when we embrace the mystery that we start to dare to see God as God has revealed Godself to be.

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