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Bargains, Buzz and Bona Fides

I love the scene in O Brother, Where Art Thou? when George Clooney’s character Everett is trying to talk his kids into accepting him back as their father, as the “paterfamila,” in spite of the fact that his wife has told them he was hit by a train and killed. Their main argument is they are getting a new dad, Vernon T. Waldrip, one who is “bona fide” and therefore they don’t need Everett to be alive. His wife Penny chimes in, “Vernon, he’s got a job. Vernon’s got prospects, he’s bona fide.”

Seems to me the church I am part of lacks bona fides these days. And it feels like I have been hit by a train.

Recently we have seen a few individuals and families choose to leave and join other churches. Not any more than “usual,” but it’s really hit me hard because of who has left and for the stated reasons why. None of it makes any sense to me as my understanding of the church continues to be transformed through my study of Scripture and history and more profoundly by my experience. It's all so complex, seriously looking at my own


The Church is called to be costly, sacrificial and countercultural.


misconceptions and culpability along with the trying to find the root causes of the hurt.

It seems to all come down to this: Real community is painful. It takes serious work. It is often extremely costly, painfully boring and lacking all the “bona fides” that society deems valuable. But if we believe that the Church is something deep down, in-touch-with-reality true, supernatural, divine even, then the more seriously we take it. The more we come to understand all the ways that we need to be connected. Connected to God and connected to each other, even to ourselves. I think this is why the Bible talks so much about being “holy.” Not so much in the religious sense of the word, relating to morality or behavior, but in the deeper way that communicates the sacred created role of being connected and integrated in a life-giving way that confronts and conforms our morals and behaviors in the only way that can bring true transformation.

Integrated, connected, giving and receiving, a “body.” But all this comes at a serious cost. It overwhelms us and is so counterintuitive, even “unspiritual.” So we get scared, hurt and overwhelmed, and we replace it with buying and selling, transactional relationships, self-serving motivations, “looking out for number one,” us-versus-them ways of interacting with ourselves, the world, each other. This creates “dis-integration” and whatever the opposite of holiness is.

And we end up doing Church this way. And we are so out of touch with what the Church is really meant to be that we eat it up.

People end up shopping for a church the way they shop for everything else: looking for a place that will give them the biggest bargain, the best buzz and absolute bona fides. Of course we use Church language to justify all this. We owe it to themselves, after all. Our society is all about bargains. We are ruthless in our hunting-and-gathering quest for trophies that maximize our ROI, whether that is on our money, time or talent.

We are also so adrenaline-addicted that we need ever-increasing hits of faster, louder, more unique ways of getting our buzz. Add to this our demand for absolute perfection in our theology, ideology, our concepts of God, society, economics, politics … and, well, you get what we have.

The Church is called to stand in prophetic contrast to all this: to be costly, sacrificial and countercultural. Tough sell, but one that ultimately leads to life and the only thing that will overcome our terminal addition to bargains, buzz and bona fides.

John Ray is a missionary, spiritual director and the elder responsible for teaching at Grace Church of NWA. John and his wife Jane spend way too much time packing and unpacking, vacuuming dog hair and chasing raccoons off their porch. They much prefer sharing good food and good coffee with friends, reading and trying to keep up with their daughters.

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