Moving Toward a Counter-Cultural Community, Part 2: Community Idolatry

In the first post, I talked about 11 different aspects of society used a filters or barriers to form or foster community. I argued, “In order for a gospel community to be counter-cultural, we first have to assess what we are encountering in the culture. How does culture and society determine how community is formed and fostered? What are some of the guiding principles and motivations behind its formation?” If part one addresses the external schema of society formation, this post addresses the internal driving forces influencing how and where we fall out in our version of societal segregation.

Dick Keyes, in his chapter “The Idol Factory” (in No God but God) takes about the construction of idols in our lives. He makes the distinction between “near” and “far” idols. Near idols are those that are more specific, superficial and concrete, such as career, spouse, possessions, etc. Far idols, on the other hand, are “farther” from the surface of things and go to the root of why we do what we do. They get to the “sin beneath the sin” and are also referred to as “source” or “root” idols.

Far idols get to our motivational drives and function as basic controlling principles that, unless confronted and challenged by the gospel, will manifest in many outward forms. The four basic “source” idols are power, comfort, approval, and control (there are others, but I will refer to these main four in this post). Here’s what they say:

Power idolatry says: “Life only has meaning /I only have worth if‐‐I have power and influence over others.
Approval idolatry says: “Life only has meaning /I only have worth if‐‐I am loved and respected by _______________
Comfort idolatry says: “Life only has meaning /I only have worth if‐‐I have this kind of pleasure experience, a particular quality of life.”
Control idolatry says: “Life only has meaning /I only have worth if‐‐I am able to get mastery over my life in the area of ___________________.”

John Calvin says the human heart is a factory of idols. Tim Keller argues that idolatry is always the reason we do anything wrong. Paul Tripp agrees, saying that sin is fundamentally idolatrous. So what is the connection, then, with source idolatry and being a counter-cultural community?

Idolatry-Centered Community

Because idolatry is the sin beneath the sin, the motivational fruit for the behavioral fruit of our choices, it stands to reason that a counter-cultural community will come to terms with the idolatry-centered nature of secular society. The societal segregation I explained in part one is fueled by the idolatrous desires of sinful people–a people seeking that ideal community who not only accept but also appreciate one’s idolatry. If at any point idolatrous cravings are not satisfied by a compliant community, there will be a reconstitution of that community in rejection to their nonconformity.

The five components of idolatry-centered community are: (1) self-serving, (2) comfort-securing, (3) pride-protecting, (4) approval-demanding, and (5) control-promoting. In every expression of community building outside of Christ, these components of source idolatry will shape and govern the community dynamic. It is precisely at these points the idolatry-centered community must be challenged by the gospel (more on that later).

Whether we do it consciously or unconsciously, we look to have relationships that feed our community idolatry. Why do we filter people out and create barriers to keep others out? Is it not because we are self-serving and comfort-securing? Why do we build a community of people most like us? Is it not because we are approval-demanding and control-promoting?

These “far” idols are also connected to our “near” idols–the more specific, concrete manifestations of idolatry. We are “driven” by the near idols of time (manifested in busyness), money (manifested in consumerism), and space (manifested in individualism), and the root case of these can be unearthed by detecting their relationship to the source idols of comfort, power, approval, and control.

When people say they do not have time for meaningful relationships due to their busy schedule, they have made an idol out of time (squeezing everyone out but themselves). When people treat others are commodities (goods and services) in a consumeristic fashion, they have made an idol out of money. When people intentionally keep others out and demand autonomous living, they have made an idol out of space. All of these “near idols” are driving forces behind the societal segregation (just like “far idols”).

At the heart of the idolatry-centered community is the attempt of enjoying the “ideal” community apart from the gospel of Jesus Christ. In this broken world where the most fundamental and necessary relationship (with God) is rejected, community becomes a functional savior and “god-replacement” in ways it was never intended. Therefore, the irony of idolatry-centered community is that it can never deliver on the idolator’s idealized dream of community.

In part 3, I will provide an excerpt from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together in which he argues the Christianized attempt of idealizing (idolizing) community apart from Jesus actually destroys community.

Read Part 1 here.

Read more from Timmy here.

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Timmy Brister

In the “real world,” I am the founder and president of Gospel Systems, Inc, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization focused on creating and sustaining delivery systems for the advancement of the gospel around the world. In 2010, I started a delivery system called PLNTD – a network for church planting and revitalization focusing on resourcing, relational community, residencies in local churches, and regional networks. In 2012, I started an international delivery system call The Haiti Collective which focuses on equipping indigenous churches through church partnerships in order to care for orphans, make disciples, train leaders, and plant churches in Haiti. In addition to serving as the executive director of these organizations, I have served for 12 years in pastoral ministry with churches in Alabama, Kentucky, and Florida. My passion is to see healthy, growing churches take ownership of the Great Commission to the end that disciples are making disciples, leaders are developed and deployed, and churches are planting churches here and around the world. This is the driving passion of my life and prayer that God would be so glorified in making His name great in our generation.

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comment_post_ID); ?> I am a senior citizen who has lived in many areas of the US, the farthest south being Virginia DC area. There are several church plants in the area--some failed, some doing well. One of the sadist failures was a plant in NW Washington near a large Presbyterian Church (I had been an elder in the church, so I knew the area) where changes in church doctrine was driving many away from the PCUSA churches. There were many mature Christians who lived in the area who were very willing to participate and give generously to the church. Its failure was a loss. The pastor and his wife lived in a VA suburb, wanted something that would appeal to their tastes, which included "praise music". There was a professional piano teacher and several people who had sung in choirs in the area. Their suggestions were completely ignored. Forget that there was joyous participation in singing hymns and silence by many for the praise music. The experienced church leaders that were attending were expected to seek the wisdom of the pastor who did not live in the area rather than have any role in leadership. There is another church plant in Northern Virginia that seems to be going the same way. My take: the pastors should get past their high-school and college days culture and get to know and appreciate the people of the community. Do not try to reproduce Intervarsity or Campus Crusade. Hymns are not a sin and "uneducated" (never graduated from college) should not be ignored as uninformed or stupid. People who have served in and/or live in the area are needed in leadership and not just to serve coffee and give. We all need to pray together and serve God in the community in which there is to be a plant. Glenna Hendricks
— Glenna Hendricks
comment_post_ID); ?> I like it Mac and do agree with your opinions on the matter. Thanks much
— winston
comment_post_ID); ?> In this era, we have the opportunity of professional church staff today who utilize their gifting to shape the image and atmosphere of the church organization. But the 100% real impact on the church visitors is genuine evidence of changed lives by the gospel and the active growing discipleship (just as it was in the first century church). One demonstration is financially rich believers ministering equally together with poor believers (how odd, and incredibly miraculous; all humble and bow at the foot of the cross.). It is the awesome contrast of church members vocations, race, gender, age, maturity, gifting, humility that demonstrates to visitors "there is a Spirit in the place". That first-time guest list of 10 are "physical excuses", not spiritual excuses. Those don't tell the story. The condition of facilities and publicly greeting people have zero to do with it. The power of God in and through believers lives dedicated to impact other people with their relationship bridge-building of acceptance of the lost around them. Empowered believers are infectious, loving, helpful, giving, self-less, dynamic, compelling, bold, Christ-filled. As I have been in many church settings domestically and internationally, the facilities can be poor, and yet the fellowship can still be rich. We need to operate with first church humility. People come to Christ on His terms, not on our human abilities of hospitality. A huge catastrophe in a community, disaster relief brings lots of people into churches – many come to the church in those terrible conditions no matter the physical condition of the local church. Off the condition of facility, and onto the condition of God's people (living stones).... and everything else will grow.... and the other physical issues will be corrected by the staff.
— Russ Wright

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