early 20th century pulp fiction quote and the church

from thirty feet away she looked like a lot of class. from ten feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from thirty feet away.
-raymond chandler

i ran into this quote in a book i’m reading right now, and, initially, it just cracked me up. raymond chandler was a defining author in a massively popular genre of books in the early part of the 1900s called pulp. eventually this spawned all the stuff we would currently call “pulp fiction”, but, at that time, it was all crime fiction — and, more specifically, slightly-outside-the-law private investigators.

anyhow, that’s not the point of the post (just the original context of the quote).

within seconds of reading the quote and laughing to myself, it struck me that the quote is an excellent metaphor for so much of what’s going on in the church (at least the american church) these days, as well as, more specifically, the arena of youth ministry.

i’ve blogged about this before in terms of both church and youth ministry. i attend a seeker-sensitive church (they don’t use that terminology anymore — does anyone?), but they’re reasonably free-spirited and not willow- or saddle-clones. really, there have been SO many good things that have come as a result of the seeker church. that’s important to remember. but there are also, unfortunately, so many natural results that suck.


focus on programming over people (which is a semi-ironic and truly sad outcome, since it’s the exact opposite of what this movement set out to do)

obsession with numbers

re-introduction of the idea that the building is the church (most seeker-types would violently disagree with this. but here’s my thinking: by placing so much emphasis on the parking experience, the lobby experience, seating comfort, lines of vision, big screens, kick-butt lighting, bullpens, crazy-high stages, disney-esue play places [or at least mcdonalds-esque], we’ve created a new blind embracing of the pre-eminence of the space. it’s not about creating a worship space like it once was — which was still an overemphasis on the space, by the way — but is still a re-emergence of the centrality of the building in representing the church).

franchised youth ministries

church marketing

acceptance and affirmation of consumerism (this is a tough one, because it’s a vicious cycle — certainly the modern seeker mega-church movement can’t be blamed for american consumerism! but by being so committed to the guiding principle of “what does the church attendee — especially a seeker — want?”, they [actually, i should be saying “we”, because i have been very much a part of this, and can’t stand to the side and lob grenades] have given in to consumerism. in creating programming and ministries [and buildings] that are responsive to the seeker’s desires, they/we have ushered consumerism right into our center aisle [“clean up on aisle three!”]).

boy howdy do i love the church. she’s my life-calling. i want to serve and encourage and resource and nudge.

but i have to figure out to to encourage her to wear a bit less make-up, so we can see her natural beauty from 10 feet away (or, even, 18 inches away), and not just her hollywood/tbn beauty that only looks good at 30 feet.

20 thoughts on “early 20th century pulp fiction quote and the church”

  1. That is one of my struggles with how sometimes the American Church is made to look like a prostitute rather than the pure Bride of Christ. As I finished Rob Bell’s Velvet Elvis …his concluding remarks hit me. Do I want to be bitter, cynical, jaded or reclaim my innocence?

    BTW my next book I’m reading is The Door Interviews.

    Thus I need to be a thinking Christian and change the way the Church is seen.

  2. At the risk of really pissing you off….doesn’t Youth Specialties personify a lot of these criticisms.

    I have been to the conventions, love going to them, but when I took one of young adults who was just starting to jump into working with youth he compared his first nights experience to money changers in the temple.

    Isn’t YS to a certain extent about franchising an image? Even if the franchise is to rail against institutionalism and franchising every once in a while.

    Most of what I get in any youth ministry circles is all about building big numbers in your youth ministries, and if you do not have the numbers then you are somehow substandard.

    As I told my friend who was with me that weekend, it seems like a bunch of men comparing penis size. (with smaller churces saying the equivilent of its not how big you are its how you use it).

    (Sorry if that is a bit too off-color for your blog)

    But…all these things that you criticize could be said of YS as easily as it could of the megachurches. Megachurches are just easier targets.

    The problem is, in your position, I am not sure there is a way around it.

  3. clint, that doesn’t piss me off at all. it does, however, bring a mixed response from me. on one hand, yes, i agree — that’s part of why i said, in honesty, that i can’t stand fully apart from this. but let me clarify a couple things:
    1. my post wasn’t meant, in any way, as a slam on mega-churches. it’s a commentary on some of the potential downsides of being seeker-driven. and i’m not saying being seeker-driven is, in and of itself, a bad thing (as i said, my own church is). i’m just saying the original good motive has resulted in some potentially unexpected negative side-effects.
    2. i don’t think YS ever has (and i can promise we never will) be about celebrating size. just the opposite. we constantly celebrate the small church youth worker (all the onstage affirmations at the convention, as an example, are people in mid-sized or small churches – i don’t think we’ve ever done an affirmation of a large church youth worker). the curriculum we publish is intentionally targeted for youth groups of 20 – 30 kids (which is the average size of groups represented by people attending the convention).

    sure, mega-churches are easy targets. but that wasn’t the point of my post at all.

  4. Thanks for the metaphor. I wonder if it is a plan to wear less make-up, or our understanding of beauty that needs to change? Perhaps if I (we) get better at loving the way I (we) was(were) made to look – I’ll care less about the opinions that drive me to my facepaint and masks.


  5. Maybe the real trick to longevity at a church is being able to love its “sins.” If a church is a personality, it will have attracting parts and ugly parts. When we get to a place where we can talk about both in love… we’re in a good place.

    Perhaps the problem is that most people become a part of a church staff out of lust (i.e. a job, experience, status, etc) instead of Agape for the Church.

  6. What you say makes sense.

    You make a strong point with the honoring on stage and all that stuff. Size is all a matter of perspective too.

    If I ever built the youth group to average standards compared to the rest of the country where I am now I think they may erect a statue of me. Attendance wise that is.

    Yet, the same attendance at the church I was at before would have been cause for serious evaluation of my skills and effectiveness as a minister.

    Thus my dream of writing a book like Narrative Driven Youth Ministry–about finding ways to help a youth ministry and a church grow in the context of its story…..about the youth pastor understanding their mission and vision in light of the churches story and measuring his/her effectiveness by that instead of by numbers or bible trivia questions etc…a book I am sure about 5 people will read.

  7. On the other hand I’m so frustrated with our building right now, that if I didn’t work for the church I’m not sure I would atttend. Not because I don’t understand what the church should be, I would just wonder, do these people even care? I’m sure I could find a cleaner, more up to date facility for my kid (parent speaking here). Our church is a plant and it was built by the church people on a shoe string budget a few years back and it seems like everything is falling apart right now. I kind of like it and it kind of pisses me off too. It’s dorky but lovely too. Hmmm.

  8. Great metaphor and discussions!
    The great majority of our students grow into a culture that will always look for and promote the glam, the pulp, the shiny. Keep pointing people the way of life that is counter-cultural, that is deeper.

  9. just wanted to say that ys is one of the “religous” organizations that has kept my hope alive that the church could be more interested in a person becoming who god already sees her as, rather then a list of do’s in order to succeed at growing a large ministry. as i looked over the seminars this year i was intrigued by the lack of how to “grow” your ministry seminars. they are more about knowing god, knowing self, and knowing others. i think the comparing comes from within the individual people who feel the need to become something rather than knowing they already are something. i know this was true for me back in the day of trying to “do” ministry. i am thankful for you y.s. even though i’m not involved directly with ministry right now. you encourage me to find who i am in christ, not just what i can do for him…

  10. It’s the CHURCH…people. Wide variety, different styles. I think the people of the church are (in my circle anyway) becoming more transparent and vulnerable. We’re learning to love each other in spite of ourselves. Maybe the church as a whole will follow suit, take off the mask and just be.

    You’re involved in leadership (even if not formally) at your church. I’m not. I just go. what ever is there for me is there. It’s your job to analyze and critique. Not mine. It is what it is. I hear lots of criticisms about my church, and.. what’s a person to do? Now, at the same time I say this, our church staff is working on a different kind of service from what at my church has been pretty traditional, and I’m praying like heck that it will be just what I want! I’m sure if it is, there will be lots of others that will find fault with it because they are human, and the church is made up of human beings.

  11. We don’t need to do things to make Jesus more attractive. We don’t need to attract people to Jesus. We need to show Him as He is and let things be as they may.

  12. I picked up this article off churchmarketingsucks.com. I was just a little frustrated with this post because it shows the weakness of the BLOG and posting world. I would like to argue the points of this, but its so poorly developed and explained that I would like to see it removed for its lack of integrity. One point, franchised youth ministries, was just a link. I clicked on it and in a few minutes wasn’t able to determine that is was a frachise or just some interesting youth ministry. Thats my two cents, take’em, leave’em, but I would never spend them on anything from youth specialties after this.

  13. craig — i’m at a bit of a loss as to how this little post would lead you to “never spend them on anything from youth specialties after this.” all i said was that, while i love the church and even the seeker church movement (i attend one), i think there are some side-effects that weren’t originally intended by the shapers of the seeker movement. the “franchised youth ministries” thing was a bit of a tongue-in-cheek poke at a large youth ministry that does just that (franchises themselves).

  14. I too, picked this up from the Church Marketing Sucks blog and wanted to drop it here…

    The fact that YS, and for that matter a lot of other churches and ministries, fall back into practices that they say they don’t want to do is an indication of how thick and sticky our “church culture” or “christian culture” is.

    A culture in any context is the product of values and practices being used over and over again–usually with success–without evaluating whether the form is still relevant. There was a time when programs really worked for connecting people to each other and to Jesus. Youth groups grew by sharing “best practices.” We still have these forms people love today and we call them “small groups.” (The value is biblical community the form is small groups).

    If you practic these forms over and over and over they produce a culture. One of the hardest things to change is a culture because it is the product of lots of this over a long period of time. So we shouldn’t be surprised when we keep slipping back into it. It’s comfortable, known, and can be very successful and helpful.

    Want to change your culture? Make sure your practices reflect your values and then work them for a long time with consistency and care. They will produce a different culture. But guess what? Even then they’ll become familiar, comfortable, and just like the boomer churches we like to slam, we’ll trust in those forms more than we should, and a new generation will come along and slam our practices. Which is fine and right–we’ll need a wake up call.

    So for now what YS and others need is not a finger pointing at them but encouragement to excel still more. At least they are identifying the problem.


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