A colleague of mine, one for whom I have a sincere admiration, recently came back from Iraq, where she went on a mission to provide encouragement to displaced Christians. Ilda’s faith constantly challenges mine. She epitomises for me what true Christianity is about: not just ‘me, my Bible and Jesus’, but a living faith that seeks to bring Christ’s hope and love to communities that are broken, compelled to it by the knowledge that the people there are beloved of God. She drives the outreach programme at our school with a humble passion and a thirst to bring healing. She went to Iraq not as a self-proclaimed saviour from the West (which is a problematic ideology undergirding quite a lot of contemporary mission work), but simply carrying letters of encouragement to the church there. She had no grand delusions about her role there, she simply wished to provide temporary respite from their daily struggle for survival. At any one time, she is involved in many such projects locally, and quite extraordinary numbers of our pupils – their hearts ignited by her gentle zeal – join her. One cannot but feel humbled whenever she speaks.
I mention her because I think she stands in stark contrast to a Western Christianity with which I am becoming progressively disillusioned. I believe that capitalism (and I am not blaming capitalism; I am merely noting a natural but problematic consequence of people’s embracing that system) has tainted Christianity. Church has become simply another commodity, tailored to suit the tastes of a consumerist culture. I often wonder what kind of service would happen in that Iraqi church that Ilda visited. Surely the Christian gatherings of the persecuted church cannot resemble what we know in the West? Maybe I have idealised this in my head, but I long for a congregation free from the trappings that have become an indispensable part of modern worship services.
Too much of what we do every Sunday is about us. God has become an almost optional extra to the spiritual experience. Church has become another product to enjoy, not an opportunity to work out our salvation in service to each other and the world at large. I am berating myself as much as anybody else. It has become deeply ingrained in my own response to church, too. But it saddens me. It disturbs me how often, even if only internally, we (read ‘I’) rate church services. In itself that should be concerning. But worse, we (again read ‘I’- you get the picture) rate them according to the wrong criteria. We rate them according to how professional the musicians sound, and by whether or not they sing songs that we enjoy (aesthetics are paramount; whether a song is theologically sound or not is almost irrelevant). We rate them according to the eloquence and charisma of the preacher rather than by the doctrinal accuracy of the message. We rate them on how convenient the service is in terms of length, or how good (or sometimes, perversely, how guilty) it makes us feel. Occasionally we consider ourselves vindicated in all of this because some poor ‘lost soul’ raises his hand, prays a little prayer and ‘gives his life to Jesus’. All too often those ‘lost souls’ don’t stay because they struggle to break into the cliques that make up the church. We seldom notice they have gone. The modern church has become a bourgeois social club. We use it as a source of entertainment, of inspiration for personal growth – a self-help seminar that doesn’t cost a cent and doesn’t make us read much, a place to meet friends. These are not ignoble in themselves, but that is not what the church exists for.
The church should not exist to provide a more spiritualised hedonism. As I wrote in my last post, any form of hedonism is a lie, an excuse not to look at life’s harsher realities. At some point, the church, of all organisations, needs to take the lead in confronting the glaring injustices in the world and to shine the light of God’s unconditional love into the darkness of life’s meaninglessness. Too often, though, it feels to me like the church perpetuates the lie.
I am growing weary of the choruses and the growtivational talks. I could stomach them more easily, though, if the wilful ignorance to the faith-breaking issues confronting a world of broken people were not so pervasive. The church should be a place where people feel comfortable owning up to their sins, without fear of shame, and where they can attempt to break sinful habits with the support of the church community. The church should gently entice those who are broken to discover a sense of normality and solace in a world that doesn’t make sense. It should be a community where the broken find the time and space to come to healing. They shouldn’t have to feel that their brokenness and sinfulness is a burden to the church. The church exists – and always has existed – primarily for the sake of those outside of it: we ought to proclaim the restorative power of Jesus’s profound sacrifice to a dead world. It should not be about blaming people for being broken and smugly pointing out how they brought it on themselves. It should not be about ignoring or – worse – celebrating their suffering. It should certainly not be about enjoyment. But – and perhaps I am too cynical; I will accept the charge if I am wrong – that is not generally what I see when I look at the Western church. I see an undue emphasis on personal transformation at the expense of building the kingdom.
And the consequences are devastating: a predilection for legalism and an ensuing evangelistic philosophy that attempts to scare people into heaven by threatening them with hell. It should not be at all surprising that this picture of God drives people away from the church. Any reasonably accurate display of God’s grace and love, his character, should win people over easily. But how can people reasonably be expected to believe that God is loving when we portray Him as willing to punish them for not loving Him?
I believe wholeheartedly in the divinity of Jesus and the restoration to life that his death bought for us. I am not so sure about the church anymore. I am not necessarily attacking the people, please understand – I don’t think they are always aware of what they are doing. I am attacking the church as a system, as an institution. I think we are (I am) missing something important. Somewhere along the journey I think the church lost its way. Now I don’t want to make the mistake of writing off Calvinistic doctrine simply because I don’t like much of it. I will accept whatever church model the Apostles endorsed, even if I don’t like it. But I need to know more. My mission in the coming months is going to be to read what the earliest church leaders wrote, to find out what the church meant to them, to learn how the early church functioned. I will keep you abreast of what I discover. If anyone out there has any insight to add, I am all ears.