Sunday, April 23, 2006

What is 'church' anyway?

I'm enthusing everywhere about Jake Colsen's book (available from his site as an e-book, free to download) ' So you don't want to go to church anymore?'

It's not preachy, and it doesn't tell us what to do. Instead it uses a fictional setting to guide someone through what church really is. Or rather, what it could be, what it was intended to be, and what it means. We all know the Church is not a building, or even an individual congregation, but the Body of Christ worldwide. We know that the local church really consists of all believers in a neighbourhood. And we know that the most important part of the church is each individual's relationship with Jesus.

Of course we know that, deep down.

So why are so many congregations all over the world struggling with building programmes, hearing long and boring sermons that inspire few if any, singing trite songs, or - at the other extreme - following ancient rituals that most of them don't understand? Why do so many Christians spend time worrying about minor ethical issues (drinking, smoking, dancing, eating, what to wear, what to see, what to read.... ) and judging those who think differently? Why are there so many doctrinal differences and arguments, leading to splitting congregations and gossip and strife?

What did Jesus say?

Love God with all your heart, soul and mind. That's the greatest commandment.

Love your neighbour. All the law is summed up in that phrase.

Basically, that's it. Christianity isn't an ethical system. It shouldn't be boring or trite. Nor should it be incomprehensible or mindless. It's an exciting way of life, following a radical Saviour. We have no need for three-point sermons or five-purpose churches or seven laws for success. Oh, there may be some value in reading such books, but they all miss the point. God loves us more than we can possibly imagine, and Jesus wants us to live for and with him in every way, every moment of every day.

Nothing else matters. When we are following Godly principles, by the leading of the Holy Spirit, then the ethics will fall into place.

Does that make it wrong to belong to a local congregation? Of course not. So long as it doesn't come between us and God. So long as we don't spend so much time and energy keeping the programmes and buildings going that we lose sight of what really matters. So long as we remember that we're only a small part of the worldwide Body of Christ, and that God is a great deal bigger than any one denomination or doctrinal standpoint.

Some people find a church service a good place to worship God corporately, and that's great. Whether it's in ancient chanting, a capella psalms, charismatic choruses or organ-led hymns, God loves our praise, and many people draw closer to him through such times. Worship is about giving God his worth, about offering ourselves to him in our entirety, in adoring him for who and what he is.

But at the same time, worship needs to be an attitude of life. A church service isn't for getting a spiritual high to keep us going during the week. If we can't praise God on our own, and give him his worth in every aspect of our lives, then even the most thrilling and moving church service becomes a distraction, not a bonus.

Some find sermons inspiring, and learn more of the Bible through teaching in church services. But not everyone is created to be an auditory learner, and unless a congregation is small and not at all diverse, it's impossible for any one sermon to teach - or minister in any way - to everyone. Or even the majority. Short testimonies may be more encouraging, if they're genuine. But it's all too easy for the same people to share, week by week, without specifics, and without empathy towards those who don't feel so blessed.

Besides, if a sermon is the only teaching and inspiration someone is receiving, then there's something wrong. There are a wealth of Christian books available, or (for those who don't read much) tapes, CDs and DVDs of teaching. Not to mention the Internet. We live in a multi-media world. God is proclaimed and the Bible explained in a multitude of ways. If we think we can gain all we need from a weekly sermon, then that too has become a distraction - an excuse. If the things of God are important, we need to consider them daily, moment by moment.

Church can also be a good place for networking: for meeting new people, for chatting with friends. It's important to get together with other believers, to talk of the things of God. For many, the coffee-and-biscuits after the church service is more important than the service itself. For someone new to the area, a church is an obvious place to find other believers.

But once again, if the coffee time after a service is our only contact with other believers, if we don't meet any of them through the week, then it's another thing that becomes a distraction. Or a sop to our guilty feelings that we 'ought' to be spending more time with other Christians.

What of outreach programmes? Children's ministry? Youth groups? Soup kitchens? Mother-and-toddler groups? Day Centres? House groups?

All can be valuable, of course. They are tools, which may be used or may be misused. If the leaders are enthusiastic, sure that they are doing what God wants them to do, and if those attending are doing so because they want to be there, then that's great. But if the leaders are over-stretched, under-funded, constantly stressed and never appreciated, then something is going awry. If people are turning up out of a sense of obligation, and thankful when they've finished, then there's little point their being there at all.

Perhaps more significantly, it's quite possible to be involved in some of these ministries without attending the Sunday morning services.

Where does that leave us?

If someone is happy in his or her local congregation, with a positive reason for being there, and with their relationship to Jesus taking first place, then there's no reason to leave unless God clearly tells them to do so. Local churches can be wonderful, with a sense of real community. If people really love each other, then they'll choose to see each other mid-week and help each other out when necessary. They'll pray for each other, and care for each other, and there won't be any hint of judgementalism or gossip, because Jesus is put first. Not politics, or ethics, or preconceived ideas of what Christians are like, but the Son of God who loved us and died for our sins.

But if - as is happening with so many people in the 21st century - the local church is making you feel jaded, or depressed, or if you find it boring or incomprehensible, or even if it's the high focal point of your week (thus potentially an idol) maybe God is calling you out of it, at least for a while. Not to find another congregation immediately, or to start a new one, but to reconsider your relationship with him. To find how to worship without church services. To find sources of teaching that aren't sermons. To meet with other believers without structure or obligation.

If this all sounds wacky, even heretical, I encourage you to read Jake Colsen's book and consider the implications. You might not agree - but then he doesn't tell us what to do, or how to live. His fictional guide just asks some questions, and points out places where many Christians have lost sight of what really matters.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Judging the Genuine, or Following the False?

Where do we draw the line? Scripture tells us there will be people who will lead us astray in the Last Times. It doesn't tell us how many, or what date, or what they will say. We're supposed to be on guard, to test all things, and yet we're not supposed to judge.

Unfortunately, there seem to be two extremes. There are those who decry just about every well-known Christian in the last 100 years as heretical in some way. Just put 'heretic' and the name of any famous writer or speaker into Google, and you're bound to find someone who is convinced they're unsound.

On the other hand, there are those who accept anyone who talks or writes about God as valid, even anointed. I know of people who watch the 'God channel' on satellite TV, all day every day. They're convinced it protects them and their families from being perverted by the world. They trust any sermon they hear - in church or on TV. Sometimes they even think it's immoral to question other Christians, or to criticise faulty interpretations of the Bible.

Too many people in today's culture are not taught to think critically for themselves. Some schools teach to exams, insisting students toe the party line (whatever that might be) and ask no serious questions. Unfortunately, that includes some Christian schools as well as ordinary state-run schools. Some cultures do not allow children to question parents or teachers at all. Some Christians grow up in strict denominational churches, and automatically reject anything that doesn't fit in with their narrow view of the world. At the other extreme, some Christians accept anyone unconditionally as a brother or sister, if they say they believe in God.

So where DO we draw the line?

As far as I'm concerned, relationships are of primary importance. First my relationship to God, then my relationship to other people. So in general I err on the side of accepting people rather than rejecting them. We're all created in God's image, after all. That implies that there's something of God in everyone, whether or not they acknowledge it. And if they do acknowledge it, no matter how faulty their theology may seem, I don't see that I have any right to pass negative judgement on them. God works in many and often mysterious ways, and is a great deal bigger than I can possibly imagine.

I was reading Brennan Manning's excellent book 'Abba's Child' recently. Very moving and inspiring. One paragraph in particular struck me deep within: he and his wife met a young girl, who turned out to be a Moonie (ie from the cultic pseudo-Christian movement following the teachings of Rev Moon). Brennan Manning spoke to the girl politely, saying he admired her commitment and his wife gave the girl a hug. The girl then said that they were the first Christians to give her any sort of respect at all. All others she had met either yelled at her, or denounced her as demonised. One person even hit her with a Bible.

I would probably have said little, neither hugged nor hit her. But if I aspire to be like Jesus, then I need to be more prepared to reach out to anyone and everyone, to accept them for who they are, to meet them in the place where they are. It's sometimes worthwhile to expand the parable of the sheep and the goats to take account of up-to-date scenarios.

I was on the streets passing out heretical tracts, and you ignored me, or shouted at me.
I was a refugee, and you refused to grant me asylum.
I was sick, and didn't have private insurance, so you let me go bankrupt or die.

I could go on, but I don't want to point fingers. As soon as I do, even in a theoretical way, I'm myself guilty of being judgemental and non-accepting. God loves me - and you - and everyone else - for who we are. For the people he created us to be. With all our faults and hangups and the mistakes we've made. The entire law of God is summed up in the phrase: 'You shall love your neighbour as yourself.' And the word 'neighbour', of course, is explained by example in the parable of the Good Samaritan. An outcast treated a beaten-up wreck with compassion. It's sadly the case that in the 21st century our santised churches are often the last place that a beaten-up wreck would go to find help.

So, with other people I believe in showing love, acceptance, forgiveness. Not judgement. Not criticism. Not condemnation of their lifestyles, no matter how immoral they might seem to be. Jesus ate with sinners and prostitutes and cheating tax-collectors; how can I refuse to follow his steps?

But what about doctrine and teaching?

Here, my tendency is to question and analyse just about every theory or sermon I hear. I read a lot of Christian books and I don't expect to agree with everything in most of them. If the overall concept is good, and there are useful reminders in them, or perhaps something explained in a new way, or with an unusual perspective, then I'll value the book. If a sermon has a message of encouragement, some good examples, some clear explanations of Scripture, then great. I'm no auditory listener, and I simply can't keep my mind on a sermon for more than about 20 minutes, but others value this method of learning, and some sermons bear some positive fruit in the lives of those who listen.

What worries me is when people accept blindly all they are told or hear. When they seem to see the Bible as more important than the work of the Holy Spirit. When they take verses out of context, or quote a passage of Scripture without asking the basic questions: Who wrote this? To whom did they write it? Why were they writing it?

It worries me even more when people want to become legalist about the Bible and Christian life in general. A while ago my husband was asked, by a group of young Egyptian men, 'Is it right to go to the cinema?' He said that it wasn't a question of right or wrong. Most Christians would believe it wrong to watch certain movies - pornographic ones, or those with extreme gratuitous violence, for instance. And there might be certain other circumstances when it was wrong to go to a cinema: if it meant using money that could better be used elsewhere, or if somebody really needed to spend time with them, for instance. It might also be wrong to go every day because it could become a habit. But in the end, it's up to personal conviction and the Holy Spirit's prompting within.

Unfortunately, this didn't satisfy these men. They were brought up in a rigid educational system that taught them to obey their teachers, to learn by rote, and to live their lives in legalistic ways. They had never learned to think for themselves, to question authority or to do their own research and internal questioning. They wanted absolutes: yes or no. They were prepared to ask several Christians they respected and see what the majority response was, but they didn't want the responsibility of making their own decisions, or the vagueness of 'grey areas'.

It's to people like this that many modern books or speakers appeal: the kind that tell us Five Purposes or Seven Laws or Nine Rules... all we have to do is follow the author or speaker's guidelines and we'll be guaranteed success and happiness, and probably a crown in heaven. And unfortunately it's people brought up within rigid legalism who find it hardest to analyse these books or talks objectively. Do they give some good principles? Yes, sometimes they do. Are there only Five Purposes (or Seven Laws or Nine Rules...)? Of course not. Jesus proclaimed freedom from the law, not a new bunch of regulations.

So how do we keep following God's ways, not rejecting or judging those around us, but without being distracted from our path by all the diversions around? We can plan for the future, but can't expect to follow our plans rigidly since we can only live one day at a time. We can learn from the past, but there's no need to dwell in it since we can't possibly change it or follow what 'might have been'. We can be aware of cultural trends and political movements, but they're only temporal and should never guide us.

The only answer I can see is to keep our eyes constantly on Jesus. To reach out our hands and take his, acknowledging that we'll often fail but that he loves us unconditionally and will never leave us.