Back to index of articles
Murray R N Smith
Dad's Army was a big hit for the BBC and originally ran for nearly a decade from 1968. Remember that intrepid little group of Home Guard defenders charged with protecting England during wartime?
How accurately do we the church represent Jesus in the world? How can we do better?
The programme was a little offensive to some who were involved in the real Home Guard during the terrible years when Britain faced invasion from Germany. Maybe it was seen as belittling their sincere efforts. The show's producers would not have set out with that intention, I'm sure. Neither would they have had any intention of supplying an accurate little cartoon of what the modern church can be like.
One of the outstanding features of Dad's Army —and the thing that made it so funny — was the members' self-congratulatory sense of their own value and importance in spite of the hilarious, outdated and ineffective methods they employed. A rag-tag bunch of pragmatic loyalists together with a few slouches, they observed traditions of rank and procedure in their fuddled way and saw nothing at all to laugh about in themselves. Their bungling antics never actually achieved anything — least of all provided a threat to the enemy — even though their little theme song hinted that the enemy was "on the run" due to their strategic soldierly efforts.
Accurately representing Jesus
I do not mean to appear cynical about the church. I care about God's people becoming everything God has called us to be. We are the ekklesia, God's 'called out' ones. The importance of being joined to a local corporate expression of others naming themselves as the Lord's people seems clear to me.
I take seriously, too, the charge we have as those who have been redeemed to accurately represent Jesus in the world, both as a body and as individuals. It is precisely on this point, if we are really honest, that we could be doing much better.
This is not to deprecate the fine efforts of people who are working hard (sometimes little known and often unheralded) in various ways faithfully serving the Lord and doing good things. But in view of the depth of need and spiritual climate around us, there is always merit in evaluating just how well we are doing. Our ability to do this objectively seems to diminish the busier we get for God. For church leaders it's easy to get caught up in a sort of in-house maintenance-mode mentality where structures, administration, meetings and gatherings are the priority — and how we strive to have 'successful' meetings!
Things can cruise like that for a long time. God's presence seems to be there, new people are coming and getting saved, lives seem to be changing for good, missions and outreach programmes are developing, offerings are adequately meeting budgets, everyone's being kept reasonably busy and happily supporting the various programmes. Sure there's things with youth, music and kid's ministries (or whatever) we'd like to do better, but — hey, we'll get there.
And so the machine rolls on. But what spills out to touch our communities? What genuine impact are we having amongst the unchurched population around us? Are we producing something real that will grow and continue to grow over the long haul?
Seen and heard but not understood
Lately I've been thinking about how we actually 'do' church and what it is that constitutes a successful church. The Bible refers to aspects of the early church's activities, giving us a good idea of some of their values — notably that we have an irrevocable mandate to reach the lost, the struggling and needy in every way possible with the Lord's enabling. But with respect to the church gathering, there is an absence of any 'order of service' instructions — we are never given a concise pattern to follow when we gather together. Perhaps the Lord has left areas of church practice open enough to allow for personal preferences in terms of style and to transcend the cultural and generational issues the church was bound to encounter over the centuries.
The important question is: are we reaching the unchurched? On the Day of Pentecost as the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples they began to speak in languages they hadn't learned. The result was that astonished Jews visiting Jerusalem from a variety of nations exclaimed that the wonderful works of God were being declared to them in their own language. God graciously made the effort to communicate in a way that was understandable to each of them. Three thousand souls were saved that day!
Perhaps there's a very simple lesson in that. If people don't understand (or can't connect with) our message, we don't need to alter the message, but we can try to convey it in a way that they will understand. This calls for sensitivity and creativity. Does this mean that our preaching and teaching should be only a minor part of our communication? Not at all, but we do need to be prepared to modify what we say and exercise a greater level of consideration as we integrate those aspects of 'mission' into all that we do.
It's worth reminding ourselves that we are continually communicating 'something' regardless of what we say. St Francis of Assisi said that he used all means possible to draw people to Christ, and where necessary he used words.
No doubt you will have heard Christians lamenting the seeming unresponsiveness of unbelievers — at times berating them for their hardness of heart. Yet a pivotal question is, do these people understand the things we are trying to say to them?
During an internationally televised Winter Olympics some zealots held up large placards with nothing on them but "J O H N 3: 16" in large type. They manoeuvred themselves so they would be caught on camera and probably to their delight were seen around the world. But was it effective?
Maybe it was, somewhere. But it wasn't to the commentators, one of whom quizzed another on air as to what the mysterious code on the placards might mean. His response was to venture that it might have been some sort of team signal giving split times and conveying inside information as to what performance level they would have to rise to! Our message is probably often lost in similar ways too.
Leaders' seminars abound providing keys and formulas for greater effectiveness. And who doesn't want to be more effective? There is pressure too to be amazing, outstanding and exciting.
A colleague once promoted his church as the "most exciting" in our city. Recently a church has been inviting people to come and hear the "most outstanding speakers". Another is offering a "world class worship" experience.1 Another church invites spectators to come and see what happens "when a relevant gospel is preached".2
All these statements are very competitive and comparative — not at all helpful attributes in my view. I remember sitting in a circle of pastors at a lunchtime 'show and tell' session where each of us in turn had to give an account (ideally a good one unless you wanted to look like an unspiritual loser!) of our church's ministry. It became a bit like telling fishing stories . . . . We were all perked up by the thought that to be competitive was a good thing as it inspired us to greater heights of service and accomplishment — for God of course.
One church with an imposing building invited people to "experience God in our beautiful new upgraded facility". God doesn't need buildings. Sadly many have lost their way because the building became the vision, consuming time, resources and focus.
The Early Church met in homes. There is no record of them constructing buildings. Paul rented a house in Rome where for two years he preached the kingdom of God and taught things concerning the Lord Jesus Christ.3
The religious establishment has relied on 'the building' as the centre of its declaration. If our presence in society is only known by a building it is very sad. Particularly when the building becomes defunct (as in England where abandoned Anglican churches are being snapped up with Arab oil money and turned into mosques).4
Church groups have looked to buildings to speak for them and advertise for them. This merely reinforces the idea that it is in a building, at set times, in prescribed ways that we live out our spiritual lives. Buildings can never be 'light' and 'salt' or an expression of Jesus in the everyday world. Only the Lord's 'living stones' can be those things.
Being different to make a difference
Rigidly clinging to styles and methods of doing things because they served a purpose in the past could mean we aren't in a position to embrace fresh opportunity (and greater effectiveness) in a new generation. The Dad's Army characters were funny because they were hopeless in so many ways. I smile as I remember how these utterly useless and impotent defenders of the realm went about their silly little drills, fussing and labouring over irrelevant things that kept them busy, but never achieved a thing. Their crusty old ways prevented them from playing a useful part.
Isn't it a bit like that in the church? We go through our own little in-house drills and activities, attend the obligatory parades and uniform checks, 'polish' our outdated weaponry — doing 'our bit' to appease our consciences.
There is a lot of talk about the church needing to be culturally relevant and on the cutting edge. It is true that people outside the church won't readily pay attention to what we have to say if our 'externals' are dramatically different to the general flow of society. Things such as our dress and general appearance, the styles of music we like, what we do for recreation, even what we do or do not eat and drink, although superficial, often communicate the initial impression that those outside the church gain of us.
It's a shame that some of these things tend to caricature us, rather than the deeper, more value-based issues of our lives. It's true that the Lord has called us to be 'different', but 'different' in positive ways — not 'kind of weird' or isolated from mainstream society. Not strange or bizarre mystical recluses.
What will ultimately communicate our difference is the outworking in practical ways of the inward characteristics of our heart — grown there as we've allowed the nature of Jesus to be fully formed within us. As we start to see with 'his eyes' and respond as he would, we will not be able to help but live 'relevant' lives.
More importantly, we will live 'prophetically' — bringing God's word and message into everyday situations. After all, to speak prophetically is simply to speak for God. And that will involve accepting people — not on our terms, but on God's.
Some years ago one of the lead singers from the original cast of the rock opera "Jesus Christ Superstar" was stirred enough to attend a church service. Responding to a call to go to the front for prayer, he was told to go and get a haircut and clean himself up first — then come back for prayer! Fortunately this person was not forever inoculated to the gospel but later, in another setting, found personal faith in Jesus.
What makes us 'relevant' is being 'whole' people — gentle, sensitive, wise and caring enough to want to share what we have found in Jesus Christ and so to make a difference in the world around us. It's about having strong, loving families, how we handle conflict or conduct ourselves in tough times, how we consistently exercise honesty in business and money matters and express generous and practical compassion for the underprivileged and needy.
It's about the way we treat one another, how we display willingness to be involved practically wherever we can bring something of heaven's answers to earthly needs.
These things show us to be God's people who really do have something to say. Rather than appearing to lay claim to a sort of superiority and wanting to constantly correct or adjust, we should be seen as humble servants who, knowing our own failings and weaknesses, seek opportunity to bring life and refreshing.
We need to be secure and honest enough to take a hard look at what we are actually doing in church life and make changes as and where appropriate. Such reassessment only becomes a problem when we are constantly absorbed with talking about 'our vision,' examining our vision and tinkering with it, rather than simply living it out.
And how easy it is to be more absorbed with our so-called 'work for the Lord' than with our devotion to the Lord. After all, the only basis for any endeavour to succeed is when God is at work in the midst of it by his Spirit — not by adopting a paint by numbers approach.
AW Tozer once referred to a massive steam train on a railway system in the United States, pointing out that if the engine reached full speed and was then shut down, the unit's momentum would cause it to roll along the track for hundreds of miles. He was illustrating how the church can blithely go on doing what it does without even realising when the power and anointing of the Holy Spirit has been withdrawn. In his book Dancing with the Devil Os Guinness comments "Much of the church growth movement has no need of God at all — they could go on for generations without the Holy Spirit."
It's not about better techniques or more appealing programmes, but about Jesus being acknowledged as the builder of his church and being given his rightful place as central in it all.
Having a go
There's a place for initiative — for taking a risk by thinking outside the box in our service for the Lord. The Bible abounds with colourful examples of men and women who ventured into unknown territory. They weren't always following a direct word from God or a precedent that gave them assurance of success. They were simply 'having a go'; utilising the faith they had, doing what seemed the right thing to do.
Take Philip. He decided there was an opportunity in Samaria5 and went there to deliver the Lord's message with startling signs and wonders which resulted in city-wide impact. The apostles back in Jerusalem sent help when they got word of what was happening. Philip — a deacon who had been appointed to take care of areas of practical service — had an idea and followed it through. Today many church boards would 'sensibly' see several reasons why Philip should 'stick to his knitting' and stay home.
Consider Peter who got out of the safety of a boat in a storm because he saw Jesus walking on the water. Jesus didn't initiate this idea, Peter did. Jesus bid him come, but it was at Peter's suggestion.6 Though he faltered to start with, Peter made it back across the water into the boat.
There will always be fresh things with which God wants us to take the initiative. In creative partnership with God we can venture out in faith to reach our lost world.
God is infinitely creative. Creation pulses with vibrancy and life. The Apostle Paul says God's creative power — revealed in nature — is a signpost pointing people to an awareness of God.
Creativity is God's signature and the church should reflect this. God is not boring and predictable, neither should God's people be. Made in God's image we have a propensity for innovative, adventurous creativity. But if, like the characters in Dad's Army, we become inflexible and 'crusty' — locked into believing that we mustn't deviate from the narrow, tried and proven ways of doing things 'correctly' — we will fail to reach our generation.
By religiously doing things the way they have always been done, we unwittingly become like those who Jesus accused of having made the power of God void or ineffective because of their slavish, driven commitment to tradition. What an indictment! Traditions have a place, but they are not to be served. They are to serve us.
Can we adjust our styles and formats (without diminishing our 'content') so that we don't find ourselves in a rut that eventually becomes a grave? Can our gatherings be more 'earthed', more user-friendly, less cliquish? Are there ways to reach out to specific people groups or needs in our communities? What about reconsidering when we gather and where? If Jesus were bodily amongst us today a barbecue or hangi is likely the sort of 'church' gathering he would be comfortable with.
And what are we doing to make people want to stay in church once we get them there? The gap between the churched and unchurched is reinforced when we insist on adhering to elements of church 'culture' that are quite foreign to the uninitiated. Can we learn to be naturally inclusive so that people are not left feeling like outsiders at someone else's family reunion?
aybe it's time to introduce some simple changes to upset the comfortable predictability that so easily lulls us into ineffectiveness. A parked car cannot be steered, and we too will remain stalled and directionless unless we make a decision to get moving and have a go, with the Lord's help, at implementing fresh ways of 'doing' our Christian faith.
If our primary aim is to see Jesus uplifted and to be faithful to biblical truth, the possibility of mistakes and failures shouldn't deter us. Like Peter getting out of the boat, we will find that the Lord is there to help us!