A Bigger Ghetto or a Brighter Bride?
Mike McMillan is an ardent follower of Christ who calls into question the ghetto-like nature of much of our so called 'Christian' activity. Should we, he asks, be putting our energies into building a bigger ghetto, or becoming a brighter Bride?
During the Luis Palau/Leighton Ford evangelistic crusades in 1987, I heard about a church which had decided to get its own act together before allowing any new members into the church. They had debated long and hard about whether to take non-Christian friends to the crusades, and had finally decided to. But if these people became Christians they would have to join other churches.
This example sprang to mind when a disillusioned friend said to me one day, "You know, the Church should just stop evangelising for a while - stop trying to bring more people in to have the same old problems - and spend maybe five years just getting its act together."
I disagreed with him at the time. But now I look at Christ's poor, battered, siege-mentality, emotional and windblown Church, and think, 'Do we really want more of this?' I shocked two sincere young men once by saying (not entirely accurately) that I was praying that there would not be a revival in New Zealand, because the state of the Church meant that a revival would dissolve into factions and cults within five years.
I believe that the imperative need of the day is not simply revival, but a radical reformation that will go to the root of our moral and spiritual maladies and deal with causes rather than with consequences, with the disease rather than with symptoms.
As A W Tozer said almost 40 years ago: "It is my considered opinion that under the present circumstances we do not want revival at all. A widespread revival of the kind of Christianity we know today in America might prove to be a moral tragedy from which we would not recover in a hundred years."1
Salty or bland?
When the New Testament speaks about the Church's relationship to the surrounding culture, it is not as a subcultural ghetto, the members of which do many of the same things as outsiders, but in a way which outsiders see as odd. Nor is it as a besieged group which occasionally makes unpopular pronouncements in old-fashioned jargon. It is as "light and salt", a group of people who collectively make society uncomfortable and curious by living by different standards, which even those outside the church recognise as better than their own.
It has always interested me, given the number of 'Go out and get them' sermons I have heard over the years, that none of the instructions of Paul, Peter, James or John to the first-century church is at all like them. The emphasis seems to be rather on being and living so that others will be astonished and react (either positively or negatively; this is not, in some ways, the issue) to this manifestation of the life of God in the world.
Even the stories of 'going out and getting them' in the Book of Acts are about the propagation, not of a subculture, but of an understanding and an allegiance.
Christians certainly became known as a 'third race', as implied in Paul's phrase 'Jews, Greeks and the Church of God' in 1 Corinthians 10:32. But the very context in which this is said urges that nobody, Christian or non-Christian, should be led away from God by the actions of Christians, but rather led towards him, as Paul, following the example of Christ, tries to appeal to all so that they may be saved.
This is the Church neither in conformity with the world nor in enmity towards those who are in the world, but having a dynamic distinction which can be admired rather than condemned by those who do not share it.
Disciples or Converts?
The issue here is not between evangelism or no evangelism. The issue is between proselytism (the recruiting of numbers) and evangelisation: a deep transformation of the church which spills over into the society around it, particularly as the unnecessary barriers between them are reduced, and paradoxically as the true distinctiveness, rather than oddness, of the Church increases.
Evangelisation is not the easier option. Consider this from one of the finest contemporary observers of Church and society, a man of deep insight and compassion:
But while millions of Americans, myself included, pray fervently for revival, we must ask ourselves whether we are asking God to save our society, ourselves, or our souls. Whether we actually know what God demands of us. Whether we really know what revival is.
Far from being linked with prosperity or the righting of precarious economies, the great revivals in the history of the church have begun when people have had to submit totally, in ways that seem antithetical (by human and cultural standards) to everything they should have done to survive.
A prime example is England at the time of the Second Great Wesley Awakening. Parliament's vote to support the crusading Christian Parliamentarian Wilberforce and put a stop to slave trade voted directly against their own economic interests as a nation.
There are recent awakenings in nations such as Romania, Argentina and the Soviet Union that have come about under conditions of great human oppression. The key seems to be that only when individuals, whether by will or force, subordinate their own interests and desires for self-preservation, God can begin to move in a powerful way.
The message here for American Christians is put most powerfully in Alexander Solzhenitsyn's prophetic words written amid unspeakable human suffering in a Soviet prison: "The meaning of earthly existence is not, as we have grown used to thinking, in prosperity, but in the development of the soul" (Gulag Archipelago II).2
Maturity or Marketing?
I'm afraid that when I look at God's Church, the representation of his glory on Earth, the urge to go out and buy a Praise the Lord fridge magnet with a happy face on it completely fails to sweep over me. False doctrine (not deliberate heresy, just shoddy theology), lack of thought, immaturity and dangerous wrong-headedness are everywhere.
The maturity and responsibility which every book of the New Testament calls for is not leaping out at me from any direction whatever. And the courage to preach a sermon which cuts so much to the heart of matters that hundreds of people turn away and no longer follow you - like Jesus did in John 6 - is almost completely unknown.
On the other hand, I know of churches that are very excited about 'marketing' the Gospel in a way which appeals to Generation X. The Cross is noticeably absent from their preaching - the consumers don't go for it.
At present, the stumbling block of the Cross (which is indispensable) is often not reached by unbelievers, because they are put off by the unnecessary stumbling blocks of Christian jargon and odd behaviour based on naïve assumptions. Many Christians remain immature, not only in their faith but also in their general behaviour, because they are encouraged to be dependent and non-responsible.
Public or Private?
Church is now generally regarded as something you do in private - like Rotary or stamp collecting - which shouldn't be allowed to have an impact on public or even professional life. Trevor de Cleene, former Minister of Revenue, in a newspaper article advocating active euthanasia remarked:
"In a television debate, it came down to those who believed in God and those who believed in their fellow men. Frankly, it is my personal view that if a medical practitioner lets his or her view of religion come into a professional judgement, then such a person should not be practising medicine in the first place."3 (Note that he is allowing his negative view of religion to come into what, because of his position, is actually a professional judgement - though he calls it his "personal view" - but this is, of course, quite different!)
Such a view is not restricted to non-Christian politicians either; the infamous American case of the Catholic Governor who declared that as a devout Catholic he opposed abortion, but as Governor it was his duty to promote it if such was the will of the people, springs immediately to mind.
In response to such attitudes, the Church has dug in for a siege. A siege means, first, that the enemy controls the land; and second, that without an external source of fresh supplies, the besieged party is effectively doomed.
Recognising these points, some have tried sorties out into the enemy-controlled territory to bring back such supplies, or to attempt to 're-take' the land - they use this metaphor, in fact. They have failed, fundamentally, because they have not had anything other than enthusiasm and brute force as resources.
They have not understood those who hold the ground, how they gained it, or with what strength and by what means they hold it. Or they have had a raiding mentality in which they sweep out daringly, grab what they can, and retreat back behind their stained-glass fortifications, where they continue to maintain the fiction that they are not ruled by those who are besieging them, who are setting their priorities, controlling their lives, and conditioning their understandings.
Influenced or influencing?
The interesting thing is, much of the early church struggled with conditions similar to those that much of the Western church struggles with today.
The Corinthians were surrounded by, and many had until recently been totally immersed in a culture which was fundamentally greedy and self-centred - a rich, riotous, immoral culture with great personal freedom and little personal responsibility or sense of service to others.
The church contained two types of people: Jews, long-established believers, separate from this culture for generations though inevitably influenced by it, and Gentiles - new converts who had recently been full participants in all their culture's activities and who still, to a large extent, lived out of its assumptions. This, and immaturity, were their biggest problems. But what were the problems they raised with their apostle?
'Is it all right for me to get married?'
'Can I eat meat that has been sacrificed to idols?'
'Can women speak in church?'
'Should I listen to rock music?'
Oops - that last one slipped in through a time warp. But Paul attempted to redirect their focus - to the living Christ, the Christ who lived in all of them as well as each of them, the Christ who had given as his commandment "Love each other".
He didn't say "You can get married as long as you get married in church," and ignore the wider issues: Are you being fair to your fiancee if you don't marry? Are you going to be sexually tempted and succumb? In short, are your relationships right and reflecting the relationship of Christ and the Church, Christ and the Father, Christ and each one of you?
He didn't say, "No, no meat sacrificed to idols, never, ever." He said not to eat if it harmed others, but to eat if it brought others closer to knowing God - and left it to their judgement. His points on women have been widely discussed and I am not sure anyone understands them (I know I don't), but what it came down to was that the church meeting must reflect the character of God - ordered, fitting, appropriate, whatever that meant in the particular place and time.
If he had had to pronounce on rock music, my guess is that he would not have said "Pagan African music has rhythm, rhythm is evil, so rock music is evil" - which is like saying "Pornographic novels have structure, so structure is evil, so Paul's letters are evil". Nor would he have said "You can listen to it as long as it's Christian rock music (and not too loud)".
Paul was well aware of, and not averse to using, aspects of pagan culture to make points about the Gospel. I think he would have pointed to the power of music and asked if the music we were listening to was lending power to our old nature or our new nature.
(As an aside, don't think 'secular' music can't strengthen the new nature; there are some wonderful songs about commitment, and coping with disappointment, and paying the price, and just being human that are written and sung by non-Christians, and in spiritual terms compare to the average Christian easy-listening tape as vindaloo to instant mashed potato.)
Love and Wisdom
The change our hearts need is more love - not the pale pastel greeting-card love and false camaraderie of the average church, but real passion with real pain. This is the first and greatest secret, and the others, frankly, are like it. They all focus on Christ and on interrelationship - with him and with his Church.
But for all of this to work, we must make changes in our minds also. Our actions result from our decisions, and our decisions result from our beliefs: about what is true, what is real, and what works. So let me briefly propose an alternative to the prevailing thinking in the New Zealand Church, in the hope that it might help give tools for clearing away the lush and useless weeds which many churches are growing, not among the wheat but instead of it.
The essence of what I call responsible Christianity, as the name suggests, is that the believer takes appropriate responsibility for his or her own actions, rather than speaking and acting as if God and the devil are the only responsible agents in the universe.
It owes a lot to Gary Friesen's book Decision Making and the Will of God, which speaks of acting freely, responsibly and wisely; of pursuing the purposes God has revealed in Scripture and growing to increasing maturity in Christ - rather than cutting off debate by claiming that "the Lord is leading" us to do things which are obviously immature and stupid.
Rather than explaining away as a 'satanic attack' the fact that a colleague is justifiably upset by his or her foolish actions, a responsible Christian accepts that he or she has behaved foolishly, seeks forgiveness, and attempts to learn from the experience. (I have a real example in mind.)
Rather than seeking Antichrist in the morning newspaper and the Mark of the Beast at the supermarket checkout, responsible Christians pay primary attention to Jesus' instructions about how to live in the end times: as if the master may return at any moment and require an accounting for what has been concretely achieved with the resources he left us. This includes our intelligence and moral responsibility.
Responsible Christians also reject the misuse of prayer as a substitute for thought (as in the phrase "Let me pray about it and I'll get back to you"), and the twin errors of attributing all harm to Satan and depending for all positive action on God, so that the believer's responsibility is to 'just pray' - cheering God on against Satan, like a spectator at a boxing match.
Responsible Christians acknowledge, in prayer, the provisions God has made for them to be effective as thinking moral agents in their own right, and also acknowledge their need for his grace in order to become more like him and to act in accordance with his character; but they are aware that prayer alone is no more effective than faith which is not demonstrated by works, and do not rely on prayer as the sole means of resolving complex situations.
The Scripture never says that if someone is upset by your behaviour you should "just pray" about it; it says to go to the person and do something. It never says that moral transformation is brought about by "just praying," but commands discipline, perseverance and positive action to overcome sin.
The fourth chapter of Ephesians does not say that "he who has been stealing must just really pray about it", but that "he who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work . . . in order to have something to share with those in need". The solution lies in substituting a right action for a wrong one (in prayerful reliance on God, who works in us both to will and to do according to his good pleasure).
Mature dependence on God is relying on him to do things for us which his Word tells us we are incapable of doing, such as saving ourselves or transforming ourselves into his likeness. Immature dependence is relying on him to do things for us which he has already given us the resources to do ourselves: make decisions, find parking spaces, discover the meaning of a biblical text, get an income, sort out real-life difficulties with people and things.
Responsible Christians are aware, too, that, with access to better Bible tools than Luther, Calvin or even Spurgeon, we have a corresponding responsibility to do the hard work necessary to interpret the whole Bible accurately, and not just find "a verse that speaks to me" to confirm what we already wanted to do.
I was talking with two friends some time ago about failed attempts at Christian community, something with which we all had experience. We reflected that Westerners are unable to consider themselves as fully belonging to any unit larger than two people. (Given the current Western problems with marriage, it seems that we are becoming unable to do even this much.) This is one part of a dual problem within the Church: People are living individualistically, while thinking (I use the term loosely) as a group.
This is almost the opposite of what I believe the Scripture teaches. Part of the point of Romans 14 is that each individual is personally responsible for his or her beliefs, values and standards, and the actions which follow from these, but that they must be taken in the context of our relatedness to each other; while much of the point of the Book of Ephesians is that the Church is an organic whole, comparable to an individual man or woman in its essential unity.
I believe that the idea of 'spirituality' as somehow having to do with mysticism, fasting, meditation, prayer, and/or a subjective 'relationship' with something fuzzy which is identified as 'God' is false.
For believers living in the real, everyday world, spirituality has much more to do with whether or not you slander people you dislike, are honest in your business, helpful to your neighbours, human to your family, than with how long your quiet time is.
The Puritans used to refer to things such as prayer, Bible reading and study, listening to the teaching of the Word, participating in worship, receiving the sacraments, and meditation as "means of grace", and we should remember that they are means - not ends. The point is not to do these things. The point is (partly at least through doing these things, but never entirely) to be transformed into the image of Christ.
Again, this transformation has much more to do with how you treat other people than whether you conform to Christian subcultural values. Righteousness is not whether or not you drink alcohol; it's having your relationships right - with God, but also with others.
A friend of mine used to work with a man who made a considerable fuss when a product with the brand name "Lucifer" was brought into the office, because it offended his Christian sensibilities. Yet he was well known in the office as a pilferer who would take any company property which happened to be lying around. This does not impress the average non-Christian in the slightest, and I can't say I'm much impressed either; but it differs only in degree rather than kind from the actions of hundreds or thousands of Christians every day.
Another, more trivial example: before displaying your piety by naming your son after one of the more obscure ancestors of King David, consider the way in which Ephesians instructs you clearly to display your piety: "Fathers, do not exasperate your children." (Eph 6:4.)
This is responsible spirituality.
Screwtape, the senior devil in C.S. Lewis's Screwtape Letters, remarks "One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans."
This is also how Christ sees the church - glorious, eternal, and to him beautiful, beloved, pure, a worthy bride. Perhaps if we also can learn to see her this way, we can strive, responsibly under the grace of God, to make this brighter bride "visible to these humans" - to bring the appearance of the church on Earth closer to the vision of the Church in Heaven.
At the moment, it isn't very close.
Mike McMillan is a technical writer (a "knowledge worker") who wants to be a "wisdom worker". He recently, with considerable surprise, announced his engagement to his long-time friend Erin Reeves, who wants to be a wisdom worker with him. He still stands by everything he said in his recent article about singleness.