The Practice In the Church
In an article in The Weekend Australian headlined The Nation goes Godless, Australian demographer Bernard Salt, who is sympathetic towards Christianity, observed that the census figures showing a drop in the number of Christians in Australia does not mean that there are less Christians in Australia. Not at all. It just means that – finally – Australians have become more honest
the religious allegiance declared by many in past censuses was meaningless. We ticked the box that said we were Catholic or Anglican or Uniting but this didn’t mean anything. We did not go to church or identify with any particular religious affiliation, not even when we filled out paperwork for hospital day procedures…
Finally there is relief, there is honesty, there is a break with the religious affiliations of our youth and now in this decade the Australian people are finally being set free.
Note those last words: “the Australian people are finally being set free.”
What we proclaim as liberty is perceived by many as bondage. And their perception is the reality we have to work with.
The irony is sharp. At the very same time our nation is increasingly anxious, driven, less free, haunted by a restless activism, the church is not seen as part of the solution, but as part of the problem.
How did that happen?
Mark Sayers offers this:
Why, despite all of the advances in church ministry practices, the embrace of cutting edge technology, the wealth of resources available on the web, are we seeing the degradation in the moral and spiritual climate of congregations? Why has the church failed to address the epidemic of anxiety and depression in our culture, the distance between the promises of consumer culture and the reality of life?
This is his conclusion: the church has become a marketing firm for Jesus. We’ve just copied the frame and ideals of other marketers and pitched our product. Yet in this increasingly fractured world, we’re getting less and less market share. It’s a frantic merry-go-round as one campaign fizzles out and the next one kicks in, all according to the law of diminishing returns.
In our “achievement society”, the age of activism, we have often been guilty of merely offering a different product, but underpinning it with the same values as the culture; self-absorption, the right to experience unlimited options, a focus on personal potential at the expense of costly other person centredness. And, as Sayers notes, all the while ignoring the reality of sin and the flesh and the need for salvation in our message.
Is there a solution to this? Yes there is. And here’s what I think it is: The church needs to get its “weird” back again. Here’s what I mean: The bigger the difference from the world: The greater the witness to the world.
Acting like the marketing arm for Jesus has left us NOT ahead of the curve of the culture, but behind it. We have fallen into the trap of “mee-too-ism”.
Now lest you think that I am merely taking the tack of Jude Law’s Young Pope in presenting the future of the church as more mysterious, slightly aloof from the world’s desires, and accessible only to those who wish to be truly find out, you’d be only half right!
The culture says the individual is the highest good: The church says “Me too!” The culture says sexual freedom is the goal of every human: The church says “Me too!” The culture says self fulfilment: The church says “Me too!”
UK Anglican minister and writer Sam Allberry recently tweeted:
Jesus doesn’t put the word “self” in front of “identity”, but He puts it before denial.
Self denial in a culture of self identity and self fulfilment. There’s no market for that surely! And that’s the point. We’re not on market. We’re on mission. We’re not presenting a sales pitch. We’re proclaiming a Saviour.
And central to that proclamation is a community united, not primarily by the power of a common project, but by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God who filled the Old Testament temple of stones has now filled us, the New Testament people of God.
Living stones , God’s holy building, whose foundation stone is Christ. Jesus – the ultimate self-denier, who for our sakes took up his cross, and now calls us to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow him.
And there’s just no way to spin that message in a world of self-fulfilment. As the famous German martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer stated; “When Christ calls a man – he bids him come and die.” I can almost see the marketing people asking How can we spin this?
And that call to die is just plain weird. It’s weird to the existential sharks that we are, always anxiously on the move because we are afraid that we will die if we do not.
My prediction is that as the speed of the cultural cycle and change increases, as restless people clamour for that elusive omnipresence and omniscience promised by Silicon Valley’s ideology. As people search even deeper within, looking for utopia in an increasingly dystopian exterior world, the church will face increasing pressure
To be more like the culture.
Which vision of human flourishing will we offer? The self-fulfilment vision of our increasingly anxious world? Or the self-denial vision of the one who says cast all your cares upon me?
This is not a call for us to buy a compound in the hills and become Amish. We live in the world. We use the technologies. We utilise the social media. We enjoy them.
But if we understand how we are connected to Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, then that anxiety to somehow stay connected with everything or risk falling behind loses its traction. We are running a different race. We are not on the treadmill chasing the donut. We are running the race that Christ ran before us.
In the movie Chariots of Fire, the famous story of the two running friends and rivals, Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell, sprinter Abrahams – not a believer – says “I have ten seconds to justify my existence.”
And Liddell the devout Christian who will pass up the chance of a gold medal by not running on the Sunday in the Olympics says “When I run I feel God’s pleasure.”
One runs frantically fearing that he will be found out by people. The other runs freely
Because he has been found by God.
That’s the liberty the people of God possess as they go about their tasks in the world (yes, “their tasks” – this is not a call to passivity or quietism). we get to run freely not frantically. We get to o rejoice in God’s pleasure, not fear the lack of approval from others. And insofar as we get the gospel, we will get that.
And over time – over time – that will look weird. Over time (time, the one thing no one wants to give to anything these days), it will look weird to the existential sharks afraid to slow down or stop searching for the thing that just might satisfy.
We will become what I call “repellently attractive”, the kind of people no one would dare join, unless what the message we proclaimed was true, and the life that we lived in the Spirit verified the truthfulness of our claim.
Which brings us to Part 3: The Promise of the Bible…