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Lost In The Matrix

Why The Black Church Looks Nothing Like Christ

Inside The Matrix

I am constantly perplexed by how mean we are. My goodness, Church Folk are some nasty people. And many of our churches are unfriendly places of servitude and obligation, of fearsome obeisance to their respective king of their respective donut shop. They are dank, drab, dull, rundown places, typically older buildings in some level of disrepair while lavishing the pastor-donut king with accolades and briefcases full of cash on his anniversary. The dynamics of these places are so antithetical to the ministry and personal example of Jesus Christ that I can hardly qualify them as churches. Even scarier, no one seems to notice. This is likely because most people at most of these Matrix churches are simply drunk with it—with the Matrix. They’re not Christians, they are Church Folk. Christians, you see, worship Christ. Church Folks’ main investment is the church—the literal institution and their little clique/social club.

These places typically exist in some insular time warp where it is perpetually 1965 and function more like Elks clubs or, perhaps, witches’ covens than the way churches were intended to function. Most Church Folk do not even realize how out of joint their worship experience is because they do not know the bible. Unbiblical concepts and behavior seem reasonable to them, and my preaching seems extreme and ultra-conservative. Rolling your eyes and sucking your teeth seems reasonable. Tearing someone down behind their back seems reasonable. Scheming to get that position at church or, worse, to freeze somebody else out of it seems reasonable. Cussing, drugs, alcohol—reasonable. Sexual impurity of all kinds—reasonable. Because you don’t know the bible. Or, even sadder, you don’t believe the bible.

A lot of that is because the bible, the orderly self-revelation of God, has not been modeled for us well by our own pastors. Many of our pastors do not behave much like Christ, demonstrate mostly arrogance and haughtiness and very little if any love. Many of our pastors are only doing what they’ve seen done—the disciplinary patriarch who rarely smiles, who’s always ready to judge and rebuke, who breathes fire from the pulpit. While there are examples of Christ rebuking, those are exceptions and not the rule. For the most part, the record records a gentle Man, a kind Person, Who taught in colorful metaphor and Who won people over with love. This kind of person is rare among black pastors, who are more often authority figures, high and lifted up and unknowable to their own flock. A flock that finds behaving in un-Christ-like ways to be reasonable behavior.

Welcome to The Matrix. A place that seems real, that seems reasonable, but is in fact a lie. And we need to call this behavior what it is—a lie. Antithetical and antichrist. When you, a Christian, behave this way, you crucify Christ anew [Hebrews 6:6]. You are, literally, practicing witchcraft—which is rebellion against God.

Self-deception is what the Matrix is about. It’s the games Church Folk play with one another, the church becoming a social club and evolving into the mess it largely is today.

The Matrix Church
The church, the Body of Christ, should look like Jesus. Regardless of your denomination or your cultural persuasion, just walking through your door, I should be overcome by the sweet perfume of God’s love.

The Matrix church is not evangelical. Evangelism plays but a small role and usually exists as a tiny, underfunded auxiliary among dozens of other more useless “ministries” among the church. The focus of The Matrix church is mostly about The Big Show. Sunday morning is The Big Show, a kind of weekly cabaret/minstrel High School Musical, geared mostly toward the most important moment of the service—the offering. The offering is frequently the most vital part of our morning worship experience, most especially since so many of our tiny, run-down, fractured churches are struggling to keep the doors open. Far too many of our churches are in bondage to finances, to utilities, to capital improvements. We need that offering, and the amount of that offering is typically affected by the quality of The Big Show: the music, the preaching. The offering is also affected by the weather, with some pastors insisting on having church services even in inclement weather, risking the lives of his flock by demanding they make a dangerous journey to the church so he can get their money. This guy is stuck in The Matrix.

In the Matrix church, money is the main focus, the main goal. Rather than show love, the Matrix church most often shows suspicion. In practice, it tends to show contempt for the very values Christ taught, relying instead on a cutthroat hierarchy of overseers, people usually more invested in obtaining power than in sharing love. We’ve so embedded this wrong, unbiblical practice into our cultural DNA, that anyone pointing out how biblically out-of-bounds our practice is is usually ostracized as a kook or a radical.

The Matrix Pastor
A pastor who does not preach Jesus Christ does not know Jesus Christ. It’s just that simple. In our tradition, the pastor’s Sunday message is most often an oblique life lesson in Christian conduct or goals, mentioning Christ only tangentially and usually with either an awkward segue into the invitation to discipleship or no segue at all—just an abrupt end and then the music starts playing. The invitation itself is often drowned out by spirited music and rejoicing, so much so that the articulation of God’s promise is frequently lost to the chaos of the moment, with the seeker having little or no clue what salvation actually is or how to obtain it. Even worse, many of our churches humiliate seekers by forcing them to sit in chairs facing the congregation. I mean, what moron thought that up? Those chairs serve as a kind of Repentance Repellent, discouraging seekers from coming forward.

Pastor: your preaching must move people to action. If all you’re doing is entertaining people with your polished oratory, you are lost in self-deception. You are in serial denial about your own purpose. You are stuck in The Matrix. The church experience where Jesus Christ is, at best, a talk show guest, is, by definition, antichrist. The empirical role of preaching is to save those who are lost. Many of our preachers just assume we’ve all heard it before because they’ve heard it before. Many of our preachers feel that Sunday’s message should be more about building Christian character and teaching moral conduct. Christ is pushed aside in favor of clever sermon titles and combustible performances. But, at the end of the day, a great many souls will be lost on account of these men having taken their eyes off the ball: the point of preaching is to bring souls to Jesus Christ, a name which is, far too often, mentioned mainly in passing in our Sunday morning tradition.

The Matrix First Lady
The main focus of worship in the Matrix church is the pastor, followed by The First Lady, who is usually a vain, mean-spirited bundle of insecurity who often wields more power and influence than the pastor himself. In The Matrix church, the Matrix First Lady typically exemplifies none of the personal qualities of Christ and few, if any, of the fruits of the Holy Spirit [Galatians 5], yet she remains a person held in high esteem by the church, who lavish her with praise and expensive gifts because they either don’t know any better (sad) or they’re afraid of her (even sadder).

Such persons in highly visible positions of leadership who behave and sound nothing whatsoever like Christ clearly have no relationship with God. Yet we retain these people, by virtue of some written or unwritten contract, placing legalism over Christian duty. Believing what we chose to believe, seeing what we choose to see. Beloved, these mean-spirited, nasty people are lost. And you are just deceiving yourself, living in The Matrix.

A great many of our “First” ladies are, in fact depressed. She wears it on her face, but we see what we choose to see. We choose to keep our noses out of pastor’s private life, even at the expense of this woman who is clearly suffering right before our eyes. A woman so mean, so vain, with a scowl perpetually on her face and a hair-trigger temper—beloved, that’s a cry for help. This is a person who is drowning. And we routinely turn our eyes from her. We claim to love her, but we let her drown. She is, just as likely, carrying an enormous burden, likely from her husband. From whatever dirt he’s got going on. He seems fine, but she’s this nasty heifer taking heads off—wake up, folks. That’s a cry for help. There’s something wrong, and either the pastor can’t see it himself or doesn’t care. Or, she’s acting out her depression, her loneliness, her weariness from carrying the weight of her husband’s sin in some twisted sense of Christian duty. She’s lost in The Matrix. And, when we ignore this soap opera playing out right in front of us, we become lost in it, too.

Likewise, if the pastor’s children are thugs, drug addicts or thieves, if his daughter is shacked up or knocked up—it is reasonable to assume there are problems with your pastor’s spiritual walk. At the very least, it is reasonable to relieve him of his duties so he can biblically get his house in order, as a pastor who can’t run his own house must not be the head of a church [Titus 6]. Yet we routinely turn a blind eye and deaf ear to this mess, like “conservative” politician Sarah Palin spinning her teen daughter’s pregnancy into some kind of Mommy Of The Year award—complete hypocrisy, most especially from the right wing Christian conservatives. It’s The Matrix—seeing what we want to see. A woman who clearly has problems under her own roof should not be running for high elected office any more than a pastor whose wife is depressed, whose son is locked up and whose daughter is knocked up should be pastoring a church. It’s nonsense. It’s ridiculous. But there are, I assure you, people reading these words who are allowing such men to lead them. These people, and their pastors as well, are lost in The Matrix.

Matrix Music
We also worship the music “ministry,” which, in The Matrix church, isn’t a ministry so much as a street gang: an ego-driven band of thugs who knife each other as they grab at power and cling to power by any means necessary. In the Matrix church, the music “ministry” is, typically, the auxiliary that looks the least like Christ. Like the Matrix church itself, it is usually led by the best performer—regardless of his spiritual walk or lack thereof.

The Matrix In Black And White
I am not advocating, “be More White,” which is all many of my black brothers and sisters hear when I try and discuss this. I am, however, advocating more love. More love will bring us closer to God and God closer to us, which will, in turn, increase our faith. Faith will open our eyes and convict us of stupid behavior—all that eye-rolling and teeth sucking. The Holy Spirit will open our eyes to see how phony our worship experience is, how egregiously antichrist our conduct is. We will begin to see this world for what it is—

—and escape The Matrix.

Christopher J. Priest
18 January 2009

Next: The Matrix Reloaded

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