NRA: A church without a plan

NRA: A church without a plan April 18, 2016

Nicolae: The Rise of Antichrist; pp. 324-329

Rayford Steele is now in the third hour of the memorial service for Bruce Barnes at New Hope Village Church and the place is still packed even though Rayford keeps awkwardly telling everyone that they have permission to leave at any time. But we still don’t know who most of these people are.

We know Rayford’s wife, Amanda, and Buck and Chloe. We know Loretta and Tsion, and we know Verna Zee and Donnie Moore, but that’s it. The rest of this crowd remains nameless and faceless, ignored by our protagonists and by the authors who seem to regard them as unimportant. They’re just the props and scenery decorating the background of the important people at the center of this story.

It’s hard not to imagine by this point that this is what it must be like to be a member of the church where Tim LaHaye serves as pastor, or to be a member of the congregation Jerry Jenkins attends. Would they remember your face or ever bother to learn your name? Maybe, it seems, if they thought you might be important or useful for their story. But otherwise probably not.

What do you suppose all these people do for a living? Occupation and source-of-income may be crudely reductive, often misleading, shorthand summaries for the lives of others, but it’s still where we tend to start when first acquainting ourselves with new acquaintances. This is so-and-so, she’s a teacher. He’s in construction. She’s a doctor. He works nights at the Big Box store. Nice to meet you. Peace be with you. And also with you. (That last bit probably isn’t something they ever do at New Hope Village Church.)

It’s always interesting to learn about what those Other People in Church do when they’re not in church. That’s where you know them from, after all, it’s how you know them and what you first know about them. They go here. That woman’s three kids are in the youth group. That man sings off-key. That lady always wears a bit too much perfume. Then, gradually, you learn a bit more about folks from their prayer requests. Her grandson is back in the hospital. His neighbor is back in jail. The test results were positive. (Wait — is that a good positive or a bad positive?)

But eventually, later on — during coffee hour or at a church dinner or some other time of “fellowship” — you finally start to learn about the non-churchy parts of others’ lives. The guy who sings off-key is a top-notch plumber. The woman with all those kids in the youth group coaches lacrosse. The lady with the perfume turns out to be a former WAC and thus, when you do the rough arithmetic in your head, has got to be at least 20 years older than you would have guessed.

We don’t learn any of that about any of the Other People in Church at New Hope. No names or faces, and no occupations. But surely all of these hundreds of people must be doing something when they’re not sitting here listening to Rayford and mourning Bruce. And since they’ve all got to eat and pay their bills, I can’t help but wonder what they all do for a living.

That’s a complicated subject here in the post-Rapture world of the Great Tribulation. Everyone can’t be like Buck and Rayford — with a spiffy new job working directly for the Antichrist. So what do all these other people do?

A suburban Cook County church would probably have a whole bunch of members who work in the city. Most of those commuters probably survived the nuclear annihilation of Chicago, since it seems to have happened after the evening rush hour, but does that mean they’re all now unemployed? If so, they’re not alone in this congregation. All of the former elementary-school teachers and daycare workers and Kids ‘R’ Us salespeople have been unemployed ever since all of the world’s children disappeared in the Rapture. I suppose the junior-high and middle-school teachers may have hung in there for another year as the last of their students matriculated, but in year two of the Tribulation, they’d all be out of work now too.

I know an insurance agent from church, so I can’t help but wonder if there aren’t a few people in that business there at New Hope. They’re probably still employed, and busier than ever. (Do insurers pay out on life insurance policies for the Raptured, I wonder, or is the whole literal habeas corpus problem still being litigated?) But considering that Rayford is about to tell them — apparently for the first time — of the massive global earthquake “prophesied” in Revelation 6, these folks may be about to decide that it’s time to get out of that line of work.

Rayford emphasizes that the coming earthquake of the Sixth Seal will be a clear sign of God’s power, and thus will afford an evangelistic opportunity for the congregation. But he doesn’t seem terribly concerned with the other, perhaps more pertinent, implications of the idea that this is something they should expect to happen within a few weeks:

There [will be] a great earthquake; and the sun [will become] black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon [become] like blood. And the stars of heaven [will fall] to the earth, as a fig tree drops its late figs when it is shaken by a mighty wind. Then the sky [will recede] as a scroll when it is rolled up, and every mountain and island [will be] moved out of its place. And the kings of the earth, the great men, the rich men, the commanders, the mighty men, every slave and every free man, [will hide] themselves in the caves and in the rocks of the mountains.

Hiding and sheltering from this massive cataclysm isn’t simply a matter of prudent preparation, it has been prophesied that this is what will happen. Everyone will hide “in the caves and in the rocks of the mountains.” And that includes, of course, everyone in Mount Prospect, Illinois — an area not known for an abundance of caves or mountains.

Here again the figure of meta-Loretta reasserts herself. She’s usually portrayed as a simple, earnest, somewhat dim old lady with an erratic Southern accent. That version of Loretta might be wholly unprepared to face the inevitable catastrophe of the Sixth Seal earthquake. But we also get glimpses — often accidentally, it seems — of Loretta as a shrewd, omnicompetent leader and the force that holds this congregation together no matter what. That version of Loretta would surely have been making plans to deal with this foreseen event.

Meta-Loretta, I’m certain, knows what every member of this congregation does for a living. You’re a nurse? Good. We’re going to need nurses. And you’re a real estate agent, so how’s that list of vacant properties coming? And you still have keys to the old Chuck E. Cheese where you used to be assistant manager? Good. We can use that, and we can use you now that you’ve got more time on your hands. Don’t worry about how you’re going to pay the bills. Just talk to brother Derrick, he’s a loan officer at CitiBank and head of our Plunder the Egyptians Committee. …

I imagine some version of this diagram is hanging on the wall in Meta-Loretta’s office.

In Meta-Loretta’s plan, I imagine, every member of this congregation has a role to play and something vital to contribute. They’d have to, because there’s so much that urgently needs to be done. This congregation has to prepare for war, famine, pestilence, the earthquake, a poisoned water supply, demon locusts, and the coming Mark of the Beast. Everyone’s skills, experience, resources and efforts will be required if any of them hope to survive the years to come.

Whether or not any such mass-mobilization of the congregation might hope to be successful isn’t the point. Maybe if they all pull together and if everyone plays their part they can create a slim chance of surviving the seals and trumpets and vials of divine wrath to come. But whether or not they’re capable or competent enough to pull that off, it should be obvious to all of them that they have to at least try, because the seals are about to hit the fan.

But while this mission may seem obvious when we think of Meta-Loretta and read between the lines, there’s no mention of it at all in the actual story LaHaye and Jenkins have written for us. This congregation just sits there, passively, listening to Rayford as he imagines the coming earthquake only as an opportunity to proselytize to the dying. This congregation doesn’t have a plan and doesn’t even seem to realize that they need one.

This is a failure of imagination by the authors, but I don’t think it’s entirely their fault. They’re just writing what they know, depicting the congregation of New Hope Village Church as no different from any other congregation they’ve pastored or attended — as no different from most of the congregations of most of the churches any of us have ever attended. The Meta-Loretta scenario we’ve described here — in which every member has a vital role to play, no matter what their occupation may be — isn’t something most church-goers have ever encountered or imagined encountering in a local church. Most churches don’t have a plan, or need a plan. Because, unlike Meta-Loretta’s New Hope Underground, most churches don’t have an urgent mission on which their very survival depends.

I’m not suggesting that our churches ought to imitate what Meta-Loretta and Co. should be doing here in the midst of a fictional Great Tribulation. Our mission doesn’t involve becoming Doomsday Preppers, getting ready for the world to end. Our mission should be bigger than that. We’re supposed to be getting ready for the world to begin.

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