A culture driven by the need for immediate gratification and convenience will produce citizens who tend to be obese and lazy. Because they never have to exert themselves to have their needs met, they will begin to feel entitled to comfort, and will resent – even see as unnatural – anything that makes them uncomfortable. They will do what it takes to maintain their position of privilege and will actively resist having advantage challenged.
I have nothing against a consumerist culture per se. Like any system – political or economic – it will have its flaws. Our attempts to organise society – no matter how well-intentioned – will always ultimately be tainted by human frailties of some description, and this will have consequences for those within the system. And the negative manifestations of cultural flaws are seldom properly addressed because to those in the system they have become natural and even defensible. It is why most white people just cannot see that Western culture is inherently racist and they are the beneficiaries. It is why sexism is so insidiously pervasive. It is why bigotry, in some form, is an inescapable reality in any social setting.
Now this could describe much of Western culture (and Eastern culture too – I am not one to idealise the unfamiliar – but I can only talk about what I know), but today I want to explore how it applies to the Western church, particularly. Too many churches promote spiritual obesity and laziness, and that is really – I think – at the heart of my current spiritual wrestlings. I don’t hate the church, I despair for it. I see what is ailing it and am powerless to change its entire twisted culture. All I can do is pray for it. And keep writing about it in the hope that others may see too, and that a gradual tide of dissatisfaction might eventually rise to overwhelm and displace all the structures that keep the perverted system in place.
One of the most obvious symptoms should be that a consumerist culture has made spirituality all about self. I see aspects of this in all Western religion, but Christianity is the most familiar to me, which is why I will focus there. When congregants discuss a church service afterwards, the yardstick by which the service’s worthiness is judged is almost invariably whether or not the congregant felt satisfied – was I “spiritually fed” ? Was I moved by the worship? Note the frame of reference; it is always self. If I got something out of it, it was worthwhile. Now there is nothing wrong with feeding the self – we all need food to survive. But the self does not exist in a vacuum. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 12, makes it clear that anything good in the church service exists for the edification of the body as a whole, not for the individual parts in isolation. This modern concept of “me, my Bible and Jesus” is not healthy.
And even if it was about self, when was the last time anybody you know took notes in a service, and afterwards carefully considered which of the teachings held applicability in their lives, before developing an action plan for implementing what was of value in practical ways? My guess is it has been a while, if you have ever seen that. We are, as a rule, spiritually lazy. We rely on feelings to gauge spiritual health, but when it comes to action, we prefer to sit on the spiritual couch. We expect from our church services the spiritual equivalent of the lose-weight-quickly-and without-any-change-in-diet-or-inconvenient exercise gimmicks.
Another symptom is our obsession with “winning souls”. Don’t get me wrong – I, too, desire that everybody should come to know fully know the deep love and grace of God, and believe that Jesus is the only way to see Him. I am convinced that fullness of life will only be found through its author. But the commission in Matthew 28 was never to win converts; it was to make disciples. They are two entirely different things. One requires a relatively small commitment on the part of the Christian and the other requires a deep investment of time and a willingness to be vulnerable. It is easier to adopt a position of moral and intellectual superiority, and attempt to assist those who we do not regard as being so fortunate as to see things from our perspective, than it does to genuinely listen, understand where people come from, and love them. It is easier to convince ourselves that we have all the answers than to confront the gaps in our understanding and to seek a God beyond our comprehension. And so Christian evangelism has become an arrogant – if well-meaning – form of cultural imperialism.
There is more evidence in the multi-billion dollar Contemporary Christian Music industry. Now I am not judging the musicians. I like the music and I buy a lot of it too. But I buy it because I love music and I identify closely with much of what some of the bands are saying, not because I believe “Christian” music (and I use the inverted commas deliberately – I am not convinced that we can make a distinction between “Christian” and “secular” art) is in any way more beneficial than “secular” music. The point is that there are a lot of people making a lot of money from selling spiritual fast food. From making Christians fat and lazy and self-obsessed.
The modern church service is a spiritual fast food outlet. It is designed to make middle class Christians feel comfortable and safe. It is immediately satisfying and designed to make the congregant feel satisfied. But I am not convinced that the diet is ultimately healthy.
So if you are feeling spiritually fat, what do you do about it? What is our diet missing? The answer is simple: love. Love is supposed to be the summation of all the laws, and the fulfilment of all the commandments (Romans 13:8; Galatians 5:14; James 2:8; 1 John 4:19-21 – I have deliberately chosen three different authors so that you can see that this is the accepted wisdom of the early church leaders, not a random aberration). But where is the love in a service that centres on meeting our own craving for spiritual experiences? Where is the love in evangelism that cares more about people saying a sinner’s prayer than it does about the joining them in the arduous process of restoring their hearts and their dignity? Where is the love in angrily protesting against abortion or homosexuality or divorce?
Love, it turns out, is hard to do. It requires sacrifice. It requires discipline. It means making others the focus of our spiritual efforts rather than ourselves. And that is uncomfortable and inconvenient. Imagine what impact our evangelism would make if, instead of obsessing about people saying the sinner’s prayer, it centred around verses like this:
16 This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. 17 If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? 18 Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” (1 John 3: 16-18)
31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ (Matthew 25: 31-45)
In the 4th Century, the Roman Emperor Julian wrote a letter to Arsacius, who later became Archbishop of Constantinople, but who was denounced by his predecessor as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” and who was rejected by many within the church as an “intruder”. His descriptions of Christianity should serve as an inspiration to the modern church (http://www.thenagain.info/Classes/Sources/Julian.html) :
“The religion of the Greeks does not yet prosper as I would wish, on account of those who profess it. But the gifts of the gods are great and splendid, better than any prayer or any hope . . . Indeed, a little while ago no one would have dared even to pray for a such change, and so complete a one in so short a space of time [i.e., the arrival of Julian himself, a reforming traditionalist, on the throne]. Why then do we think that this is sufficient and do not observe how the kindness of Christians to strangers, their care for the burial of their dead, and the sobriety of their lifestyle has done the most to advance their cause?”
In other words, the love that Christians showed, even for outsiders, was the first thing that people noticed about them. They did not win support through inspirational sermons or cutting-edge music. It was not their focus on prosperity and the practice of spiritual gifts that made people take notice. It was not passionate protests against what they saw as society’s moral failures that grabbed the attention of their contemporaries. It was their love. I long for a day when a spiritually healthy church finds a way to love again.