Why Preachers Should Listen to Arlo Guthrie

If you aren’t a premillennial, pretribulational, dispensational, separated, King James Only, 7-Day-Creationist, Bible-believing, evangelistic, NRA-card carrying, Republican, fundamentalist Baptist who has Sunday School at 9:30am, morning worship at 11:00am, an evening service at 6:00pm and Wednesday prayer meeting – then you’re going to hell. (And if you don’t sing hymns during those services, you might be getting into heaven but you won’t know the choir specials.)

OK, not really.

But conservative Christianity certainly does have a lot of identifiers and specifically defined doctrinal positions. I’ve often wondered how all of this came about. It’s not just about the doctrine. Admittedly, creeds play a major role in the development of Christian enclaves, but there is something much bigger at work.

Or rather, something much smaller.

If you want my two cents on this issue of division, I think it comes down to our attitude toward human leaders in the Church. Every characteristic doctrinal belief or distinguishing characteristic can usually be traced back to an influential leader or group of leaders who started a movement.

This applies to the ‘old school’ movements as well as the contemporary ones. It is just as easy to identify a Willow Creek Association church as it is to identify a Ruckmanite one. It does not matter what the distinctive is, it almost always goes back to someone who started it.

In Arlo Guthrie’s wonderful flow of consciousness ballad, “Alice’s Restaurant”, he sings:

If one person does it, they might think he’s really sick and they won’t take him…Can you imagine three people walking in and singing a bar of “Alice’s Restaurant” and walking out? – they might think it’s an organization.
And can you – can you imagine fifty people a day – I said fifty people a day – walking in and singing a bar of “Alice’s Restaurant” and walking out? And friends, they may think it’s a movement!
And that’s what it is, the Alice’s Restaurant anti-Massacree movement, and all you have to do to join is to sing it the next time it comes around on the guitar – with feeling.

Sadly, Guthrie understood organizational psychology much better than most pastors and church leaders. His description is more or less how I perceive most of the movements in Christianity getting started.

Sometime in the past, someone came up with an idea. Before too long, a couple of other notable people agreed with him. And then they taught a generation of seminary students who turned the entire thing into a movement. But with each degree from the original idea, the concept gets changed and altered – it sometimes gets bigger and sometimes gets smaller. Either way, the movement rarely represents the intent of the original idea.

Why bring this up in this series of articles?

Because we need to understand that many (not all) of the divisions among local congregations, movements and denominations have their origin in a human process and not in any Scriptural precedence. When you ask, “Why don’t we help that church down the street?” and the answer that comes back is, “Because they’re not like us”, it is time to realize that this is a humanistic way of doing things.

The other day, someone asked me a doctrinal question that a decade ago would have caused me to launch into a huge diatribe. It was so relieving to say, “I don’t know that there is a single answer” and leave it at that.

The Kingdom has tremendous space, and there is room in there for wonderful diversity.

EXTRA: Here’s Arlo Guthrie performing “Alice’s Restaurant” in 2005.

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