God's Word for today

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Are we as a Church just "going through the motions"?

In and out and out and in and up and down and all around.
We're going through it, nothing to it - all you've got to do is do it
Going through the motions - 1,2,3,4
I go you go you go me go, everywhere that we go we'll be
Going through the motions - 1,2,3,4

Bonnie Tyler, "Going Through The Motions", from the album Faster Than The Speed Of Night
At the moment I'm sitting with a take-home examination in the subject "Leading The Congregation", which means that I should in fact be working rather than blogging right now!  But the task we have been set ties in quite a bit with what I've been reading, as well as my interaction with the MCSA Minister's Forum over the past few days.

The examination task is as follows: You are newly arrived in a congregation.  Over the past few years the congregation has been in a rut.  Not much growth has occurred and there are high levels of apathy among the members.  Morale among congregants is low.  A number of people have shared with you their hope that your arrival will bring around a turnaround in the life of the Society. 

No pressure for this particular minister, then!  But while the examination question deals with the formulation of a re-visioning process for this particular (hypothetical) congregation, I started thinking about what causes congregations to get into such a "rut" in the first place.

I think one of the main culprits of a "dead Church" is the concept that We Have The Answer.  Now in one sense this statement is true for Christians, since we honestly DO believe that we have the answer - the one found in Jesus Christ.  I'm not talking about that.  I'm talking about the need to be "right", which comes with the covert (or even overt) implication that if I'm "right", you must, by definition, be "wrong".

A British Methodist minister now based in the United States, who blogs as PamBG, raised this issue in one of her recent posts.  Entitled "Faith In Your Damnation", she questions the attitude amongst many Christians today that we somehow have the "ticket to ride" (to badly misquote the Beatles song out of context) and that everyone else is going to hell.  I could summarise what she is saying, but since she puts it so succinctly, it's best to quote "from the horse's mouth":

[Y]ou might very well have got the impression from many of my fellow Christians that the main meaning we Christians derive from our faith is that you are damned and we are not. And I don't blame you if you've got that impression because I think that's the main message that Christians have communicated.  After all, some would argue, why be a Christian if everyone else is going to get into heaven too?

Source: The Ongoing Adventures of ASBO Jesus
A recent exchange on the MCSA Ministers' Forum has been rather like this.  Yes, I know that the whole same-sex issue is a touchy subject for many, but in many ways the "issue" is not really the point - rather, it is about who has the "true" doctrine; about who is "right".  Both "sides" seem to have great difficulty in accepting that their opposite number may well be a sincere, God-fearing Christian who has come to their particular understanding on whether gays should be "in" or "out" based on an honest, prayerful searching of the Scriptures.  Most disturbing of all are the personal attacks, whereby one side accuses the other of heresy, discarding the Scriptures, etc. with the inference that the other side will go to hell for holding the views that they do.

In the meantime, while the protagonists continue to draw their battle lines, the Church looks on with increasing apathy.  Quoting fellow blogger Allan Bevere, PamBG hits the nail on the head once again in another post:

The three great things that in my opinion we have to let go of are the following.  First there is the compulsion to be successful.  Second is the compulsion to be right - even, and especially, to be theologically right.  That's an ego trip, and because of this need churches have split in half, with both parties the prisoners of their own egos.  Finally there is the compulsion to be powerful, to have everything under control.  I'm convinced that these are the three demons Jesus faced in the wilderness. And so long as we haven't looked these three demons in the face, we should presume that they're still in charge.  The demons have to be called by name, clearly, concretely, practically, spelling out just how imperious and self-righteous we are.  This is the first lesson in the spirituality of subtraction.

To quote PamBG again:

We've made the "good news" into the message "Good news!  God will love you if you are just like us and believe exactly what we tell you to believe."  But the flip side of that belief is "Bad news!  God doesn't love you for who you are." 

The only people who can't seem to see through this message is us.

That's a funny kind of faith - a faith that mainly focuses on the question of who is outside the Holy Fence.  To talk to a lot of Christians, it's as if there isn't actually any meaning, reconciliation with God or salvation to be found inside Christianity, so we need to find our meaning in the idea of "Thank God I am not like that sinner."  (Oops, didn't Jesus have a parable about that?)

Do we Christians really believe that there is
good news at the heart of Christianity?  Can we stand before God, just me and God, and find forgiveness, reconciliation, transformation of life?  Or can we only feel "saved" if we have the comforting knowledge that there are some people who God just doesn't like - not now, not ever?

In the book "Right Of Admission Reserved" by Kevin Light and Frances Rogers, which is a collection of short stories based on the experiences of people who have felt excluded by the institutional Church for whatever reason, one of the stories deals with a person who is "in exile" from the Church because of its dogged adherence to one single way of belief and action - the so-called "We've Always Done Things This Way" syndrome (otherwise known as "The Last Six Words Of A Dying Church".  However, if the example of a young David being sent into battle against the mighty Goliath teaches us anything, it's that there is often more than one way to look at things.  For King Saul, the only way to go into battle was to be fully suited-up in heavy armour, whereas for David, such garb was a hindrance to his maneuverability.  In many ways our blinkered attitudes represent our own understanding of "truth", and God help those who don't see things the way we do...

One thing that clearly stands out in the ministry of Jesus is that he often has to break the letter of the Law in order to honour the spirit of the Law, whether this meant healing on the Sabbath, talking to the Samaritan woman, or sharing fellowship meals with "sinners".  And at the risk of being overly simplistic, we can only call truly call ourselves Christian - followes of Christ - if we follow our Lord's example.  Churches that don't di this will dig themselves into an increasingly deeper rut, and eventually die.


Jenny Hillebrand said...

I'm going to respond 'off the cuff' which I don't usually do (I like to think a bit first). Is it wrong for me to believe that I have a knowledge of the truth? That perhaps I do have God's annointing? The thing is that if we all give in to each other as having equal claim to the truth we will end up in a pretty wishy-washy world. I might not know it all, but I really believe that I know some of it.
Just my thoughts that need to come out!

Steven Jones said...

Hi Jenny

In an equally "off the cuff" response, I believe that no, it's not wrong to believe that one has a knowledge of the truth. For example, Jesus truly represents for me "the way, the truth, and the life", which means that I couldn't for instance be a Muslim.

However, it's when one browbeats others, condemns them, and demands that the other believes the same that they do, that I have an issue. I also don't believe that much of the theological wrangling that we get into, in which we debate "how many angels fit onto the head of a pin", is of much help to the ordinary member sitting in the pew, nor to those who do not know Jesus.

While I'm not for one minute suggesting that "anything goes", a little tolerance for the viewpoints of others goes a lot further in opening up a channel for meaningful discussion than a high-and-mighty "I-have-the-truth-therefore-you're-wrong-and-you're-a-heretic" that sadly often comes across from both sides of the particular debate I'm referring to.

Enjoy your day further, and please think of those of us who are currently wrestling our way through another "Ross Special" examination!


Hanno Prinsloo said...

Amen , my friend. You have (as usual) verbalized a lot of my own thoughts on the subject.

But the flip side of that belief is "Bad news! God doesn't love you for who you are." - SO TRUE.

Hope you and the family are blessed. Looking forward to see you (if even quickly - I know everyone will want to see you) when you come to Uth .


PamBG said...


Thanks for quoting me.

A lot of this is coming out of my current ministry and training. I'm working as a Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) student and Chaplain at one of the US's largest high-acuity hospitals. "High acuity" means that we get a lot of the people that regional hospitals can't treat and we either give them miracles or they die.

I don't say "give them miracles" metaphorically or facetiously. Because I think that a lot of what happens through the hands of modern medicine is genuinely miraculous. And I've also witnessed patients who the medical staff were certain were going to die walk out of the hospital in what some people might call a "genuine" miracle.

I have learned two things by experience that I can't argue or defend in that precious, logical way that theologians often want to do.

1) God is present everywhere. God does not limit miracles or the Divine presence according to religion or any other criteria (age, gender, social status, etc. etc.)

2) The kind of spiritual work we do in CPE (which is kind of like being in AA and psychological supervision) transforms lives and deepens individuals' relationships with God in profound ways. Again, I'm "afraid" to say, irrespective of religion. But it's hard work because we have to want to change and we have to allow God to change us. It can be painful at times. It's so much easier to say "I've got the right formula and I'm going to heaven" and never really let God change us.