(My photo. NewYork skyline in cloud. Lower West Side. September 2018)
I was planning to follow up on a recent post in which I wrote:
“I’m going to be blunt and say that more than a few churches in western societies are not worthy of the name ‘church’. I’m going to be even more blunt and say that the message they have for the world is not a Christian message. Instead it has been domesticated, diluted, compromised, and emasculated to the extent that it now bears little resemblance to the life transforming Gospel of the early church.”
I think that while it is provocative, what I wrote is true, but sadly though, it’s a tough ask to defend it in a short(ish) blog post. Better to focus on a bite sized chunk and leave the rest for another time.
Pretty much of what I am about to write is my personal opinion. My theology is a bit thin, and my academic skills were never much to write home about. Isn’t that what blogs are about though? Personal opinion?
I’ll draw on a wide range of stuff I’ve read and thought about over a long period. I won’t deliberately steal anyone else’s ideas, but neither will I be referencing them properly.
That’s the disclaimer. What could possibly go wrong?
What actually is the Christian message? Does anyone know?
If I were to ask that of passers by in any shopping mall, I would not expect many (any) coherent replies. Mothers would pull their children closer and walk quicker; I might get a few pieces of pithy advice about where I should travel; perhaps a couple of reminders about hypocrites and child abusers in the church. Most people, I suspect, would walk by without changing pace; their eyes fixed on some point in the distance. Sooner or later a nice security person would approach me and invite me to leave quietly.
If I were to ask family or friends, I would expect some embarassed shuffling and evasive replies. The best I could hope for might be something like:
“Do unto others etc.”
The conversation would pause awkwardly, before changing direction. At least I probably wouldn’t be asked to leave (hopefully).
My local woodworking club has a good cross section of people and opinions. I’ve not broached the question there, but I’ve been treated to the wit and wisdom of more than one old timer who has volunteered their disgust and contempt for anything ‘religious’. It seems in this club, at least, it is ok to bag ‘religion’ without holding back, but completely out of order to mention anything positive about it. ‘Keep religion out of the public sphere’ seems to be the watchword here, but not if you are denegrating it.
I guess the club will not be a good place to pursue any survey about the Christian message.
Social media is another impeccable source of information and I’ve done my own informal research on various platforms. I’m not going to release my primary data, but suffice it to say that the bulk of views on the Christian brand name are not all that positive. I’m not hopeful of getting any clearer understanding on social media than that the Christian message is something about following the Ten Commandments – not (I suspect) that many of my research subjects would be able to list more than 3 or 4 of them.
Where to turn then?
Surely my own local Christian congregation would be a fount of information about what the Christian message actually is!
Now, I admit I haven’t done any surveys there. I’m in enough trouble already for asking inconvenient questions and (as I’ve been told) speaking out inappropriately. I have had many, many conversations with other church members though, and inevitably, the Christian message features now and then. Generally, in my experience, church members are not as reticent as the general population seem to be in discussing what the Christian message is. That will surprise no one I guess. They also, in my experience, have a more sophisticated theological vocabulary and a deeper understanding of Christian stuff.
Are you still with me? I know none of this will be a revelation.
Church members (at my local church) will readily talk about things like the undeserved grace and mercy of God in the light of our own brokenness, and the responsibility we all have to love our neighbour and work for peace in our families and neighbourhoods, as the central truths of the Christian message. All of which, in my opinion, are indeed good elements of the Christian message.
The problem, for me, is that actions speak loudly and drown out words, no matter how beautifully those words are expressed. There was a time when the Christian message was powerful and subversive. People who heard it changed their lives around and often lost them, so deeply changed were they. The Christian message made sense to them at the deepest level, in a way that nothing else in their lives ever had done. They turned away from lives of obligation, ritual, power imbalances, materialism, and exploitation, and considered themselves free to be who they were meant to be.
In contrast, in our western culture, we have tamed and emasculated the Christian message. We have made it to serve us and our convenience, and in the process, lost sight of its significance.
Those of us who are regular church attenders console ourselves that we follow Jesus, and many of us make a fair fist of it. We follow the traditions of the church year: Lent, Easter, Advent, Christmas. We pray. We sing songs. No one from my local church has lost their life because of their faith, to the best of my knowledge.
We value our friendships in the church, but are too busy to socialise with others who are lonely. We raise money for the poor, but have no time to spend with the poor. We decry poverty, crime, alienation and injustice, but do little about those things. We struggle to balance the church budget without letting it affect our own holidays, cars and toys. How often do we sacrifice our own comfort and luxuries to help others? When was the last time we church members came together to serve our local community; to argue or demonstrate for an end to things like homelessness, injustice, and the countless ways that people are routinely stripped of their humanity?
We have made Christian faith comfortable. We have domesticated it. We who speak a lot about the Christian message do least about it. Our lives, by and large, are indistinguishable from those of the rest of the population. We do not touch our culture or influence it. Instead we have allowed it to touch and influence us. In return for an easy life, we do not involve ourselves in politics. We are great supporters of the status quo. It’s just that I’m quite doubtful that the status quo was ever on Jesus’ list of priorities.
As a result we have nothing to say of much value to those outside the church, and we should not be surprised that few are listening.
There was a time that the Christian message changed people’s lives. It spoke to the surrounding culture, unsettling it, shaming it, and intriguing it. People were attracted to that message and many embraced it at considerable cost. Today we no longer speak to our society. It is we who are unsettled and ashamed.
The Christian message is still there. It is just as subversive, unsettling and ultimately attractive as it ever was. It speaks to our culture in ways the prevailing powers and idols can never do.
I write the following words with trepidation. Nothing I write will ever do justice to the Christian message, but I felt I should at least try. So many people think they have heard the message, yet they haven’t. So many people think they are living the Christian message, but they aren’t.
No doubt there are things below that should be expressed differently and also no doubt what I write will make me a heretic in someone’s eyes. So be it. Here is my best shot on this January afternoon:
You are not God. The idols in your life are not God. Your wealth, intelligence, power and influence are not God. All attempts to make yourself the centre will ultimately lead you nowhere. You are a created being and therefore have innate inalienable worth. You were created for relationship with God and your fellow creatures. However, although you are created by God, you are also innately flawed by sin.
Jesus Christ is the only way to see and know and experience God. He has transformed creation through his death and resurrection, so even though you are sinful, you are now reconciled with God.
God is not keeping a record of your sins. That is not a license to do what you like, but permission not to be weighed down doing things that you think will earn you favour.
The powers of this world are not in charge. Whether or not they are aware of it, they operate under God’s dominion. You do not need to fear them, even though they can kill you. Death no longer has any power over you, just as it ultimately had no power over Jesus. Jesus shows a new revolutionary way to deal with evil; very different from the way the world teaches us.
You will find your purpose in serving and caring for the rest of creation, rather than yourself. Nothing you have done or can ever do will make you more deserving of God’s love, so do not try to earn it. Live as who you are created to be: a fearless and gentle child of God.
I recommend “Simply Good News” by N.T. Wright if you want to investigate further. It is available on Kindle.
I have written this humbly and with due respect for my fellow church members, many (most) of whom want as I do, to live as if the Christian message matters to them.