Does Church Have A Future? (3)
The church has suffered deeply from the effects of compartmentalisation, and one way that this has been manifested is in the way that the majority of people in our churches have all but dispensed with the mind and no longer give it any importance in the life of faith. They have been conditioned to come to church and be spoon fed from the pulpit with propositional sermons that very often do not relate to their real lives outside church, and therefore the sermons neither challenge nor encourage them. People who have to think deeply on a daily basis in their business lives will soon be bored and perhaps insulted with the simple fare that they receive in church.
All too often the sermons do not appear relevant or helpful to the day-to-day lives of the people who hear them, and frequently they centre around ‘being good’ in one form or another; but people need words of life such as the disciples heard from Jesus. What is said from the pulpit needs to be practical so that the people can see the application and go and do it. In the Scriptures from which I have already made reference, Peter and Paul addressed very practical issues and made clear what their application was and how the hearer could implement what was being read to them.
I believe that we need to re-evaluate discipleship and Christian education and bring the preaching and teaching that we give to our people back into the realms of being relevant and helpful for them in their everyday lives. God’s people need their faith to be constantly growing and they need their faith to be continually seeking fresh understanding.
They need to know what they believe and why they believe it, and they need always to be growing in their knowing of God. Truthing in this context needs to be a real experience of discipleship as people learn day by day what it means to be in a love relationship with Jesus Christ, and how to live in the reality of that relationship.
Forums need to be created within church where Christians can explore issues, ask hard questions, have doubts and test their foundations. The Psalms, for example, are full of hard questions, bitter complaints and appeals for justice, and we need to re-evaluate our church services and meetings so that they reflect the width and depth of Christian experience rather than making a church either an occasion that only a ‘happy, clappy Bappy’ can appreciate or that only the dead would feel comfortable in.
Small groups can give God’s people a valuable opportunity to get to know a few people in depth and find those with whom they can share their lives. The theology and doctrines that we give to our people need to address their difficulties and struggles so that they can see them and respond to them in the context of a loving community and a loving God.
One major difficulty is that today’s propositional preaching at spectator congregations leaves no room for people to ask questions or raise doubts; indeed, they are all-too-often considered as sub-Christian if they dare to admit to having questions or doubts, let alone want to talk about them.
Yet, those people who come to church with their hurts, fears, doubts, struggles and sufferings are sometimes screaming inwardly as they desperately seek answers and the help that they need to cope with and come through their situation. But church does not allow them to be anything but ‘fine’ and demands that they act as if they were strong, and we constantly proposition them to this effect.
In the Scriptures already referred to, both Peter and Paul are addressing the real issues that are affecting people’s lives and giving their direction for resolving those issues. The people that they wrote to were not perfect, they were not strong, they did not have it all together.
Likewise people today urgently need to be able to think through and work through their crises of life, but church does not allow them to do so; church does not allow them to talk through issues or to work through tribulations. If church does not help them, who or what can?
Sometimes the message has been that people should come to church by all means, but leave the world behind them as they come. Therefore, we now have a generation of Christians who do not believe that thinking is a part of God’s design for them and who believe that doubting is for weak Christians. The result of this is that many Christians feel great pressure to be ‘fine’ in and around church, and this causes a painful isolation at the very time that the help of the believing community is most needed. The outcome is that, in our relationships with God and one another, we do not think, or have forgotten how to do so.
The divorced, the separated, the bereaved, the hurt, the broken; such people will not cope with a thoughtless church, and they will stay away. The pressure on people to be ‘fine’ in church is immense, and I contend that it is hypocrisy. Jesus never treated people that way in his days on earth, and he doesn’t today.
Jesus called things as he saw them, and he wanted honesty from anyone who wanted anything to do with him. It is clear to me that Jesus valued honesty far above politeness, and he treated needy people with great tenderness without compromising his words or deeds. We need to think about how we treat people, we need to think about the expectations and pressures that we put on them, we need to think about how we can best allow them to be human beings with dignity. We need to think.
The abandonment of thinking is not, of course, true of Christian scholars; just the opposite. Many scholars today are thinking around the kind of issues that most church members haven’t even thought of yet. It is equally true, though, that many important theological and doctrinal issues are debated by scholars but are unknown and therefore untouched by the church at large. These discussions and debates never make it into the day to day lives of Christians, but rather they remain at the academic level.
It is sad that such scholars find themselves separated from church in many ways, precisely because many people regard the mind and intellect as superfluous for Christian living. Thus, there is a wedge driven between church and the scholar, between experience and thinking, as if those who experience God and those who think about God are different kinds of beings who do not belong together. The danger here is that the two sides begin to envision different ‘gods’ who are merely the embodiment of their own theology, or lack of theology. The gulf between experience and thinking needs to be closed and a holistic Christianity resurrected that has to do with all that we are and say and do.
While the charismatic movement brought a new breath of life to the church it has also in some ways surely contributed to this gulf, and the lack of thinking Christians in church has merely seemed to confirm the rightness of the gulf. There is a tragic disconnectedness between thinking and experience, as if the mind and deeds were somehow not in harmony with each other. A criticism frequently levelled at ‘charismatics’ is that they all experience and no doctrine, while the ‘charismatics’ often regard ‘traditional’ Christians as having all doctrine and no experience.
The reality is that we all need to be Christians who think and experience, and our minds should inform, direct and evaluate our actions, for theology is relevant to everyday life and doctrine has a useful purpose. In this way, life consists in the outworking of relationships with our God in and through other people. We need to be people who use all of our faculties and not discard any part of our being. Truth is to be lived out every day in and through our lives.