A. Why Change? — The Gap

“Something spiritual is starting to stir in this country (Australia).” But, wrote Erica Battle in the Sydney Sun-Herald, “On the last published census 64% of Australians nominated adherence to the Christian faith, yet only about 9% attend church weekly.” Why do so many people sense a spiritual dimension in life but do not seem to carry this over into religious commitment? Do they even perceive a gap between their beliefs and actions? There are two perspectives from which we can answer these questions: the human perspective and the God perspective

The human perspective

This perspective uses the social, cultural and religious dimensions of the human situation in the 21st century. It looks at why groups of people hold the beliefs that they do, and what motivates them to behave in certain ways. To net out these findings (from the western, developed world context):

  • People value their individuality, especially their right to make personal choices, much more highly than membership in any group, sometimes even including their own family.
  • Trust in all groups, including religious denominations has eroded significantly.
  • People get their opinions of religion and church from encounters and conversations with others and the media.

Using these three findings it is easy to see why people can say they are Christian but don’t attend church. They weigh up things in their individual consciences  and see no strong reason for faithful membership in a church. The church itself doesn’t provide information about or influence this choice very strongly.

The God perspective

This perspective views each individual human person’s unique situation. It looks at how each person grows and deals with the stresses of life, trying to find meaning and purpose in their life. Let me ‘play God’ and net out my idea about His perspective:

  • I created a deep hunger for knowing God into each person.
  • I love each person and continually communicate myself to them.
  • During their life, each person develops ther own unique ways to avoid this deep hunger and my love, to live as they wish.
  • But there are moments  when they ask questions they can’t answer — “Where is God?” “What is my purpose in life?”

From this God perspective, the gap between people who call themselves Christians and those who attend church makes sense. It happens because many people don’t find the experience of ‘church’ relevant to helping them answer these important questions. How can that be?  Christian churches claim to be able to authoritatively provide these answers, speaking for God, using the Bible. As a movie character once put it so succinctly: “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”

Why is church attendance at your local church too low?

I have given you my theory for why attendance at most Christian churches is declining.  I point the finger at the churches not at individual Christians. People have always acted the way I described in the God perspective. What has changed is the way churches communicate the answers to important questions that people ask. My challenge to each local church is to develop your own theory about declining church attendance and its root causes — and act on your analysis.  If you come up with the same theory as I have, look closely at all the ways you communicate with people, both inside your church and outside. Christian churches have the content but it’s not being heard. Figure out why. This is one good step toward transforming your local church.

“What if I never encounter a special person?”

A good friend of mine went to a lecture by a well-known woman, who said that her life had been profoundly affected by a special person she had met long ago, her mentor. My friend wanted to ask her, but didn’t — “What if you hadn’t met that person? Would all the advice you’re giving us today have worked in your life?” It occurred to me that what my friend was really asking herself was “What if I never encounter someone that will change my life? Is everything up to me?” As a believer, this conversation made me wonder, Is it possible that God leaves some people completely alone, to fend for themselves? How does God work?

Who can confidently answer such “ultimate questions?”

The obvious answer is God can tell us how He works in our lives. Still, Christians believe that, until we are face to face with Him in the next world, we see “a poor reflection as in a mirror.” (Paul’s 1st Letter to the Corinthians 13:12) If uncertainty about God’s ways is the lot of believers, where does that leave someone who is still seeking God? I think it leaves all of us with the human processes of thinking and deciding — and the influence of grace. Do you see where I’m going with this? We only have human categories to decide what God will or will not do for us — Is He stingy or generous; merciful or judgmental, etc? The Bible has many examples of different actions of God that we believers interpret according to our human categories. The absolute truth about God is hidden in God; we can only depend on our limited human powers of  understanding to know Him in this life.

Grace tips the scales toward generosity and mercy

But there is another path we can follow, not solely depending on logic and reasoning — although these are usually good guides — but also depending on our personal experience of God, which comes to us through grace. Knowing God in addition to “knowing about” God. My personal confidence in God’s generosity and mercy is based on the “tsunami” of grace in my life, which has been pursuing me since my earliest days. I can see God’s generous actions in my life in retrospect, especially in my darkest days, when my need was greatest and my worthiness of His friendship the least. These experiences actually happened in my life! And they also happen in the lives of many believers, who have shared their experiences with me. The great hymn Amazing Grace beautifully describes the same experiences. I am part of a community of believers who enthusiastically  report the consistency and reliablity of grace — merciful, forgiving, generous, etc. So, when my friend asked her question, I could confidently say, “Keep asking questions. I am certain that you will encounter someone who will help you to find what you seek.” That is the Good News about grace!

A Heart-felt Story

An old friend of mine, a recovering alcoholic, sent me a note after reading one of my recent posts. In it, he describes how Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) views religion, which is worth pondering. We may disagree with some of his views but none of us can dispute the great good that AA’s approach has brought to millions of the ‘least of these’ — men and women trapped in a prison of their own making. God is certainly on the side of AA.

“AA takes an unique approach to what we generically refer to as ‘religion’.  A fundamental principle of AA is that we have been unable to stop drinking on our own, no matter to what lengths we go, under our own power, free will and best wishes.  It simply won’t work.  Organized religions, no matter which ones, were either derived from what was known as Catholicism, such as Protestants of all types, generally known as Christians, as they follow the teachings of Christ.  Others, such as Buddhism, Shinto, Muslim and many others take their beginnings from similar precepts, except they feel Christ was but a holy man, a special prophet, and they, too, have their own.  The Jewish faith is still waiting for theirs.

“But, collectively, they do not offer what any given human being needs – a personal God that loves us unconditionally, will always forgive us our trespasses as long as we keep trying, is not keeping some sort of tabulation or balance sheet to advise Him on which way to send us when we die.  We alcoholics felt we were trying to be good people, but began using the wrong medicine for our ailing minds, and could not stop feeling we had the weight of the earth on us, had to control ourselves and the lives of all we met, and despite our overt feelings to the opposite, we lived a life of self-centered fear.

“Organized religion has become man’s never ending quest to humanize that which cannot be humanized.  It gives all a set of rules, often quite different by religion, by which to live.  They often use the Bible, Torah, Koran, etc., to express these rules.  These books depict the life of Christ, Mohammed, or Old Testament characters, and they all offer wonderful knowledge, but often that knowledge is not applicable today.  Moreover, the books are often in conflict.  Divinely inspired or not, we have to recall that these books were written at least two thousand years ago, some far older than that, and the writers could only write what the readers at the time could understand and relate to.  For example, the concept of time, a day, or other relationships are not only often in conflict between the books, but within any book itself.  For example, did God create all He did in 7 days on the Gregorian calendar, the Chinese or Jewish?  We have no idea.  So we all begin to argue among the religious and throughout time many have used our human influence to desecrate what the Holy writings most likely meant, e.g., the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades, and many others.  Who was actually right, on whose side was God?

“AA says that we must have a higher power of some kind, because then we are able to do what we could not, what medicine cannot, what the greatest minds in medicine cannot, and it works.  It has worked for me going on 19 years.  Without the ability to ‘turn over’ that which I cannot do to a Higher Power, I would not have been able to stop, and death is the ultimate reward, no matter how much I wanted different.  The proof is that 19 years, and the many other years of millions who have tried, given themselves over to that Higher Power, and followed the principles.  It is noteworthy that AA does not mandate, or even suggest, any details about that Higher Power, or suggest a relationship to organized religion of any kind, simply saying that He exists, and that He is not me.  It goes on to say that for as long as I try to run my life (and most often the lives of others),  a true belief in a power greater than me is impossible.  There is no other alternative.  Either God is everything or He is nothing, and that’s it.

“I was recently diagnosed with a 50-50 chance of death from lung cancer.  Today, complications from Chemo have required me to attend to my heart, and have a pacemaker installed.  I had to have spinal shots to put steroids in my back to be able to walk properly.  I am still on disability.  But, from day 1 of all of this, I accepted what I had, as not given by God, but given to me by the luck of the draw in an imperfect world.  But I accepted it, and maintained my faith in a God that loves me.  AA gives me no special prayer for any one thing, although it has some suggestions offered by St. Francis, among others.  AA asks me to accept my frailty, and the hand I am dealt.  With this acceptance comes ownership – this problem was mine, not the fault of me or anyone else, but it presented an opportunity to look at each day given me as a new opportunity, and I was able to consider the cancer almost as a type of adventure, a learning experience from which, if it were His will, I would come out the other side a better person, closer to that Higher Power than when going in.  There is glory in fighting for one’s life, but when you give it all you have, there is futility in trying to call on more, when I am out of strength.  However, there is strength in calling on that Higher Power, asking for the strength to do His will, whatever that might be, and hopefully be of help and inspiration to others along the way. AA never suggests I do six Litanies or other formal chants that were in good faith defined by other humans and along the way, included in a doctrine that God had never mandated.

“AA condones no organized religion, nor does it condemn any.  It teaches that “Condemnation prior to investigation” will get you nowhere.  It does not name or frame your Higher Power – that is up to interpretation of each member, as long as it is not that member himself who becomes his own Higher Power, for anyone who does that has already failed.  It teaches to surrender that which is not mine, such as control of the lives of others, to that Higher Power, for He alone has that control.  It teaches me that perhaps I have abused, willingly or not, my gift of free will, and asks that I turn my will and my life over to my Higher Power that He may guide my every move.

“Does it always work?  It would, if we were perfect, but we are not.  We seek only progress and maintenance of a spiritual connection with our God.  If we falter or fail, we come to Him for a chance to try again.  We would find it hard to forgive ourselves were we not completely sure that God forgives us when we keep trying, and if He can forgive us, who are we to overrule Him?  So we keep on trying, keep on praying “only for His will for me and the power to carry that out” as the driving force of each of our days.

“I hope this helps in your writing, Jim.  It comes from the heart from a good man that was drowning in self-centeredness and self-condemnation, who found there is One who is greater than I, and who loves me, and will help me every step of every day of my life, if I will but ask.

The end of the beginning; Steve Jobs

“The study of man unmediated by religion marked the end of the middle ages and saw the beginning of the modern world.” (Rebecca Fraser in The History of Britain) It is easy for historians to look back and see the end of one way of thinking and the beginning of another. It doesn’t happen at one date, with one mind-shattering event. But, in hindsight one can see the beginning of the end of the old thinking, and the end of the beginning of the new way. Or as the sports vernacular has it,”a shift in momentum from one team to another.”

You can easily see that ‘shift in momentum’ in Steve Jobs accomplishments. Due to his creativitiy, computing became truly personal, mobile and a part of life rather than a calculating adjunct. Historians will surely look back and see his accomplishments as opening up a new paradigm, as Thomas Kuhn called it,  in not only technology but human life. We are at the beginning of an expanded way of living daily possibilities that will change our most fundamental concepts.  Stay tuned.

What does this have to do with the transformation of local churches? I think you can guess. If our way of living daily is changing radically, surely this signals the end of one way of thinking about church and the beginning of another. Whether the momentum is with the new way yet will be left to historians in the future, but there is no doubt in my mind that the old way of thinking about local church doesn’t work anymore. There are too many questions and too few answers. This is a sure sign of an impending paradigm shift according to Kuhn.

It is too easy for Christians to answer all this by saying that there are eternal verities that do not change, and we must seek them. True, but our seeking is strongly shaped by our mental models, which are strongly shaped by the world in which we live. Ths is sociology 101. If churches are to change, surely they must find ways to relate to the hyper-expanding communities of the new techno-social world many people now live in. That goes way beyond ministries to young people, who are at the leading edge of this change. Shouldn’t we be looking at the ideas and boundaries that hem in our local church community, and keep it from influencing people as widely as Facebook and Twitter? Can we become as revolutionary as Steve Jobs in our view of our “customers” and our ability to bring them new “products and experiences” that will change their lives?

Are there any people in your local church even talking about these things?

A. Why Change? — Is there an urgent need to transform our local church?

The need to change almost always starts with a threat. Someone can tell you how great the future will be after some change happens  but human beings will inevitably choose to stay in the status quo unless there is some threat or danger or bad experience.

This is especially true when it comes to changes relating to our spiritual life and church. “Many of us get caught in surface living or in the pressures of the practical. We want to escape the costly strangeness of this voyage within.”  [Michael Paul Gallagher in Faith Maps] The promises of Jesus can easily be overlooked by Christians, who feel the daily pressure of living in a complex modern society. We are losing our sense of being a unique people with a vital calling: to announce the Good News that the world is filled with God’s grace. It seems unlikely and even absurd that we are God’s sons and daughters who are meant to transform the world. Most of us don’t even notice that we are losing something crucial to living;  the surrounding secular culture seems quite normal to us and church seems like something that must be fit into our everyday life.

I want to raise the possibility that Christians and local churches face a ‘burning platform.’  The burning platform metaphor originated when the oil drilling platform Piper Alpha in the North Sea caught fire. A worker was trapped by the fire on the edge of the platform. Rather than certain death in the fire, he chose probable death by jumping 100 feet into the freezing sea. He had to risk change because he was faced with a status quo that was completely untenable. We like the worker on the burning oil rig can’t stay where we are because the threat to our life as Christians is too great.

I will quote several authors, from among many, who sense that there is something profoundly wrong with church in general.

  • “[We live in] a culture in which central features of the Christian story are unknown and churches are alien institutions whose rhythms do not normally impinge on most members of society.” Stuart Murray, Post-Christendom
  • “Everywhere in the Western world the Church has suffered a massive loss of ground. It is seldom at the centre of people’s lives. In today’s complexity it is just one of many potential sources of meaning, and perhaps not a very attractive one at that. For huge numbers of the younger generation what the church offers – in terms of teaching, or worship, or spiritual image – rings strange, and sometimes even hollow and dishonest. ” Michael Paul Gallagher in Faith Maps
  • “. . . Traditional churches are emptying, their congregations are graying, the eyes of their fewer and fewer young people are glazing over, and turning elsewhere. ” Scott Cowdell, God’s Next Big Thing
  • “If we are the church, then the church is a fellowship of those who seek journey and lose their way, of the helpless, the anguished and the suffering, of sinners and pilgrims. If we are the church, then the church is a sinful and pilgrim church, and there can be no question of idealizing it.”  Gerald A Arbuckle, Refounding the Church

The first task of Christians in every local church is to read the signs of our times, both in the world and in their own church. Are these authors reflecting the true state of the church? What do you discern? Do you sense an urgency to act and transform yourself and your local church?

Discussing the need  to change with other people in your local church, and learning together with the Pastor how to proceed is a critical task which every Christian needs to prayerfully consider and then undertake.

© 2011 James Harlow Brown,  All rights reserved.【中古】新東京百景 愛蔵版
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A. Why Change? — We have lost our ‘saltiness’!

Culture for human beings is like the water that fish swim in. Water is so necessary for life, and so pervasive, that fish don’t realize that there may be another larger world beyond their ocean or fishbowl. Fish depend on water to live. Likewise, we all assume our culture is life giving because it surrounds us. We learn to breathe it and survive in it because, if we don’t do that, we believe that we will die. We all accept the utter necessity of our particular culture for life, without actually thinking much about that assumption. That is what living in a culture means.

But we Christians are told that we are “not of this world,” and must be “counter-cultural.” “Even religion itself can become enslaved unknowingly to the deceptive values of the culture, and hence the constant need of the prophetic tradition of self-critique.”  What does being ‘counter-cultural’ mean, in practical terms? First of all, it means that we ought to live in constant tension with the conventional culture. To do that, we Christians must create and live in an alternative culture that we strongly believe is essential for life. Resolving the conflicts between the common culture and the alternative culture when we make choices determines how we deal with life. If the common culture is very powerful, and the alternative culture is weak, then we Christians will make choices and live pretty much the same as everyone else. If our alternative culture is strong, we Christians will make different choices than others, and live according to Jesus’ reality.

For most Christians, their local church is the only source of an alternative culture.  And when local churches lose their ‘saltiness’— their radical differences from the common culture  —  then churches become weak influences on the way that Christians make choices and live. But since, in America and Australia we Christians live in societies that have largely marginalized churches, the conventional culture is persuading people, even many Christians, that the  Christian culture’s ‘saltiness’  just doesn’t make sense any more. “You are the salt of the earth.” [Matthew 5:13]  The common culture does throw us a bone: It is OK to retain a semblance of church (so you can feel good about yourself that you ‘really’ are a Christian) but it is definitely not OK to be ‘salty’ and to try to live differently and perhaps even change the common culture and the world.

This in a nutshell, is the cultural argument for why local churches must be transformed, to increase their ‘saltiness’ and their ability to grow a strong alternative culture that can help Christians conflict with the common culture and more strongly bring Jesus’ ideals of reality into the world. Charles Taylor saw this in its largest historical context: “God is gradually educating mankind by transforming it from within. . . We are just at the beginning of a new age of religious searching, whose outcome no one can foresee.”  It is up to us, the people in the pews, to see this now and decide to act.

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A. Why Change? — “I’m spiritual but I don’t go to church.”

I don’t know how many people I have talked to that told me they don’t go to church but they are spiritual. In fact many Christians I know take essentially the same stance when they see church as a place to go to (occasionally) and not something that is central in their lives.

I recently read an excellent book called UnChristian that is quite revealing. Click here to visit the author’s website. It describes Christianity and church as people outside our communities perceive us. In a way, this book presents a ‘Voice of the Customer’ for Christians since one of our fundamental purposes is to announce the Good news to people outside the church — and so many people are turned off when we do this. We could say, ‘not our fault’ or point to other Christians who we feel  give the church a bad name. Isn’t that playing the victim and denying our own responsibility for this situation? For me the book UnChristian was a strong wake-up call to look at my own local church and see how we might be responsible for this sorry state of affairs.Essential【中古】
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Personal AND Church Transformation

I often get asked, “Don’t you have to change yourself before you think about changing anyone else — or the church?” Yes, of course. But, on the other hand, we’ll never be good enough or ready — we have to rely on God to actually do the work of change in us and in others and in the church. So how do you know you are  ready enough, transformed enough to be bold enough to take on the role of Change Agent? I think it comes from seeing that both individuals and church communities need to be ‘loved into’ changing by God.

“First we receive love and then we can respond with love. Here we glimpse a glory and a beauty that not only calls us, but empowers us to a different way of life, to daily discipleship.”  This quote is spoken by the noted theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar in an imaginary monologue created by Michael Paul Gallagher in his book Faith Maps.  It summarizes the relationship between personal and church transformation that I am suggesting. Let me break it down for you.

  • “First we receive love” Everything starts with God’s initiative. Even the fact that you are reading this  is evidence that God has triggered some desire in you out of love. Probably the most quoted Bible verse in America, displayed at many public places and events, is “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” [John 3:16] That, in a nutshell is what salvation means. God acted so that human beings can have eternal life. Salvation precedes everything and any human initiative.
  • “then we can respond with love” Deep movements in ourselves continually pull us toward God. The Spirit prays for us when we cannot. God inspires and draws us forward. So, our first step in transformation is responding when we perceive these deep movements. Our response can be to change ourselves or help some neighbor or begin to transform our local church. The Spirit’s power is enabling all these responses.
  • “we glimpse a glory and a beauty” When we respond, something happens. We may only feel some ‘shift’ deep within ourselves, or we may actually do something that is good, externally. But our awareness depends on our noticing that something has happened, and noticing happens in prayer. This may during be a special time reserved for prayer or as a gift ‘on the fly’ when the Spirit has prayed that we notice what has happened. These moments in my life are what I call ‘peak experiences.’ I am lifted out of my usual perspective and allowed to see something wonderful. That gift is given to be shared, to build up the sense of the real presence of Jesus among Christians and, indeed, everyone who has ‘ears to hear.’
  • “that not only calls us but empowers us to a different way of life” When we see the reality of what the Spirit is doing in and through us, we experience the desire to do this again and again. This is our ‘call,’ to follow a different way of life, and take seriously our own unique role in Jesus’ mission, even before we know what that is. We begin to discover a different kind of inspiration and power in our life.
  • “to daily discipleship” Finally, we want to follow Jesus, in the world but not solely of the world. We don’t know what this is, of course, and fall short often. Nonetheless, we strive to follow him. This striving, over time, perhaps many years, becomes a ‘24×7’ way of life. Actually, striving is the wrong word, because it is too connected with the common western culture. A better word is ‘floating’ in God’s Spirit. We learn to trust and float, as the Spirit carries us to the “good works , which God prepared in advance for us to do.” [Ephesians 2:10b] And we learn to trust that we will be up to doing these tasks, because it is God’s power in us, not our own self-development that is doing them. That is why salvation is the essential starting point for Christian transformation.

These wonderful things happen to us both when we are alone and when we are in a community of Christians. In fact, for many people, the ordinary experiences in the church community are how they encounter salvation and the lure of discipleship. This being so, we now need to talk about how personal and church transformation are linked.

How personal transformation is linked to church

Is the church necessary? If a personal relationship with Jesus is the essence of salvation, why get involved with church and ‘organized religion’ at all? Primitive man believed that life depended on being part of a tribe; you couldn’t survive alone. After Pentecost, believers didn’t “join” a church or an organized religion, but they became part of a community of Christians. But now, the common culture stresses “individualism” and therefore joining a church seems to mean giving up something, some essential freedom. What I’m saying is that we are all profoundly shaped by the point of view of the common culture, including Christians, and can no longer see the church’s utter necessity as Jesus sees it. Otherwise why would so many Christians see church as optional, or at best something they “need” occasionally, on Sundays or at Easter and Christmas? I want to help you get outside the common culture and see your local church through Jesus’ eyes. Then you will be able to see how your own transformation is inextricably linked to your local church’s.

Why did the Spirit send Peter out to immediately explain to the crowds what had happened to Jesus? What was Jesus saying about “church” in that first speech and the other speeches of the Apostles in the early days of “church? Not simply, look what you’ve done, but also see who I am, and what you ought to do in the light of the ‘last days.’ [Acts of the Apostles 2:14-41]

I believe that the three points made by Peter in his first sermon can lead 21st century Christians to a fresh understanding of how Jesus sees church. Let me expand each point of Peter’s sermon, and relate them to personal transformation and church.

  • What you have done. In a way, Jesus was establishing a ‘burning platform’ at the outset. To the crowds right after the Crucifixion, Peter said, “You are responsible for this. The Romans may have carried out the sentence but all of you are responsible.” Jesus is saying to us, today, “The human race is responsible for the wounds of the world and, because of that, I died. The Romans crucified me in the 1st century but you are responsible, even today, for the wounds that infect mankind.” I’m not preaching old-time fire and brimstone religion; I’m simply pointing out that in Jesus’ mind, what the human race continues to do is an extremely serious matter, which none of us can ignore, especially Christians who ostensibly know what’s going on in the last days.
  • Who I am. The crowd responded when they understood who Jesus is. Peter (in Luke’s telling of the story) led them carefully from what they knew, from Scripture, to who Jesus is. Their recognition was instant; over 3,000 people who heard Peter speak accepted who Jesus was on the spot. We can be certain that recognizing who Jesus is a key part of church. Not that there aren’t debates. Many of these arise from how our culture conditions even Christian thinking. But despite the debates Christians encounter who Jesus is and the fundamental necessity of a relationship with him.
  • What you ought to do. Here Luke uses the language of the early church to describe something that happened probably at least fifty years earlier. The story had been told over and over, but Luke’s purpose was to tell people who weren’t able to directly hear the story in his time and for all time, what they ought to do. “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” [Acts 2:38] “Repent and be baptized” and “receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” were both phrases that developed as Christians considered what had happened in the first days after Pentecost. What these words do not mean is “Go, develop a private relationship with Jesus.” I think that they mean, “Realize something new has arrived in your life and come join the followers of Jesus.” The primary message is that the gift of the Spirit flows, at least in Christians, from accepting, perhaps tentatively at first, and finally fully at the level of conviction, that we are part of the Body of Christ. Church is essential to all Christians, not an add-on or crutch, as the modern culture sees it, for those who aren’t strong enough to stand on their own two feet. Church means being connected to the vine, being part of Jesus’ body, being part of God’s family. So how could any Christian possibly see the church as optional? Today, this happens because we are ‘swimming in a culture’ that has long since decided that life is for ‘rugged individualists’ and that being part of church detracts from our freedom. We accept that view because the church no longer presents a contrary view in any way that makes sense to us. That is another strong reason why local churches must be transformed.

My claim is that being part of a local church is not optional; it is essential to life “in the Spirit” for Christians. Is the Holy Spirit unable to operate outside local churches? Of course not. “The wind blows where it will.”  But, without a local church, how can any Christian firmly believe that they are part of the body of Christ? Yet, many Christians basically try to live outside any church community today. I think such Christians distance themselves from the reality of church because it is too painful for them to belong. Why? Perhaps because they agree with the common culture that there is something wrong with ‘organized religion.’ Or perhaps because they cannot actually see the gifts of the Holy Spirit in their local church. (Of course, the church could be perfectly all right and all these ‘Christians’ are simple wrong-headed or misled.)

Local churches ought to begin considering how much they need to be transformed by examining themselves honestly, not by assuming all is well. Jesus gave us a good way to assess ourselves. “By their fruits you shall know them.” A spirit-filled church produces good fruit; one that isn’t spirit-filled produces no fruit or even bad fruit. Spirit-filled churches have spirit-filled people. So, an excellent first step is to ‘soul search’ about whether your church is spirit-filled or not.

Let’s assume that you sense some gap and want to further consider transformation. This then raises a ‘chicken and egg’ question. To transform a local church must you initially transform its members to being spirit-filled, or do you transform a church so that it can help its members become spirit-filled? My answer is a “both-and” answer. However spirit-filled or wounded a local church may be, the members of that local church should begin the transformation process. By helping the church become a better follower and lover of Jesus, it will thereby be better at helping its members become more spirit-filled. And Spirit-filled people can help the church transform itself even more. This is a ‘virtuous circle,’ that starts in the hearts of its members.

Why aren’t you excited?

I had a ‘eureka’ moment the other day, as I was reading Hans Kung’s The Beginning of all things: Science and Religion. He had discussed science’s view of the beginning in the Big Bang, and the beginning of the human race in Darwin’s The Origin of Species.  Then Kung summarised Polkinghorne’s view of  the role that God played in the beginnings as  “. . .a patient and subtle creator who is content to pursue his aims by initiating the process and by accepting that degree of vulnerability and uncertainty that always characterises the gift of freedom through love.” A number of things clicked for me when I read this.

  • “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people.” [Acts 2:17]
  • “They are not of this world, even as I am not of it.” [John 17:16]
  • “You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.” [John 14:14]

Eureka! We are in the time God and Jesus promised, when the very Spirit of God will empower us to do great works and ‘move mountains’!

So why aren’t you excited? Probably because your common sense tells you that this simply cannot be true. But where did your common sense come from?

Everyone faces three choices when they consider how to view and put into practice Jesus’ promises. First, they may decide it’s all too fantastic and refuse to think about it anymore. You might view them as the cynics of this world. Such people withdraw, become passive, remain victims, and generally wait for someone else to do things. [1]

Second, some people at least reflect on Jesus’ promises and begin to realize there might be some truth in them. But then they become overwhelmed by the reality of the world.  You can recognize such people because they actually talk about the Spirit and Jesus’ promises and seem to understand that they might not be the ordinary people common sense says that they are. In the end though, they say that Jesus’ promises are so improbable that it isn’t worth the risk of putting them into practice. These are the people who settle for the status quo, the skeptics.

Finally there are some people who realise what Jesus’ promises mean. You can call them visionaries or heros. Heros, in the great myths, went on a quest. The hero’s quest was seen to be an extraordinary journey requiring great courage. The first step in Christian heroism is imagining that Jesus’ promises mean exactly what they say: Ordinary people have the power to influence things. The second step is acting despite personal risk. The third is persevering despite difficulties and failures because Jesus’ vision is so vital and compelling.

A person who believes in Jesus’ promises says, “Even if I am only one person, I might make a difference. Therefore, I must try!” They begin to believe that a powerful force — the most powerful imaginable — is at work changing them and empowering them. They understand what Jesus meant by saying we can create whatever is in God’s will by asking him to do it. It isn’t our strength but his.

Isn’t that exciting? If you’re not excited, I encourage you to reflect on why that is. Are you actually a cynic or a skeptic even though you are a Christian believer?


[1] This is based on Melanie Klein’s model, taken from “Mourning, Potency and Power” by Laurent Lapierre in The Psychodynamics of Organizations, Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 1993, pp 26-31.

 

 

Living as if . . .

Hindus describe how man lives using a story about four ages of man.

  • Youth simply enjoys life
  • Young adults use their powers to achieve
  • More mature adults seek ways to contribute
  • Then, finally, some people seek  ultimate meaning

What story do we Christians tell about life? I would call it the “living as if” story. Christians live

  • As if everyday reality is much more than what it seems on the surface
  • As if God is present and active in our lives
  • As if love is the most fundamental force in the universe.

The question is, how do we live as if our story is true when the world around us tells a different story? The world tells us to live

  • As if everyday reality is exactly what it appears to be
  • As if God, if He exists at all, is remote and not active in our lives
  • As if energy is the most fundamental force in the universe

It seems to me that the purpose of church is to help Christians live their ‘as if’ story. A good way to measure whether this is happening is to look at the ‘fruits’ of the church. Paul describes these this way: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. . . Since we live by the Spirit let us keep in step with the Spirit.” [Galatians 5: 22-25]

 

Three Cheers for Empathy AND Religion!

In a recent Sydney Morning Herald essay entitled Evil lives when empathy dies, Simon Baron-Cohen wrote “Unlike religion, empathy cannot, by definition, oppress anyone.” I applaud his praise of empathy but, intentionally or not, the author has reinforced a stereotype — Religion equates to oppression. Christians need to understand that such statements represent the conventional wisdom of our culture and how many people typically see religion, including Christianity. If you ask the average man on the street to do a word association test, when you say ‘religion,’ I wager you will get mainly negative responses, all centered around religion limiting human freedom, historically and in the present.

Empathy accepts  the situation of another person, just as it is. We show genuine concern for another human being. What does religion do? Does it accept people empathically and show concern for them, or something else? To answer this, we need to look at the human situation as God sees it. Only then can we understand what we humans are attempting to do — and how well we have succeeded — when we create an organised way to relate to God, otherwise called religion.

A fundamental axiom of Judiasm and Christianity is that God created men and women to be free, like He is free. “When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God.” [Genesis 5:1] So, a key purpose of any religion ought to be to assist men and women in recognising that we are like God and meant to be free. It is evident that historically, all religions, not just Christianity have gone astray from this purpose. So, ought we now decide to ‘throw the baby out with the bath water’ and eliminate all religions?

If one doesn’t believe in God, then religion is extraneous. But if you do believe,  then Religion is essential to discovering our true freedom and our likeness to God. We learn about God from others. Human beings can have some contact with God in a spiritual sense without religion. But we can never know God as God is because God is essentially unknowable unless He communicates with us. All the major religions — Judiasm, Christianity, Islam — base their authority on God speaking to us and revealing who He is. The Christian religion claims that God Himself, in the person of Jesus Christ is the full and final revelation of who God is. Making such a claim, Christians perhaps have more to answer for, beacsue so many men now conclude based on the historical evidence that man now longer needs religion!

Bernard Cooke sums up the Christian religion’s responsibility like this: “Christianity’s relevance is directly proportionate to the extent to which it can make the presence of Christ effective in the lives of men.” [in Christian Community: Response to Reality] If men do not encounter Jesus when they encounter the Christian religion, then we must change whatever has created that situation! That is the most fundamental “burning platform” for transforming local churches!

Reading the Bible, it is clear that people experienced Jesus through his empathy! The parable of the Good Samaritan makes that abundantly clear — and its message to  Christians is also clear: “Go and do likewise.” If men experience Christianity as rules and judgment and limitation of freedom, and do not experience empathy, then we have to expect that they will not see Jesus in our actions. Christianity without empathy is a false religion!

 

Is church necessary at all?

This question is generally asked and answered in two ways:

  • “Is ‘going to church’ a necessary part of my life?” Individual Christians answer this question in a variety of ways and, increasingly, as evidenced by falling church attendance, say no.
  • “Is church a necessary component of Christianity?” Perhaps individual ‘spirituality’ and a relationship with God is sufficient. Regardless of how individuals might ‘vote with their feet,’ thoughtful people in various Christian churches are wondering about what church has become over time and whether  ‘church’ as we traditionally understand it is needed? Does church have to radically change?

I would like to explore the  question of whether church is necessary by introducing a different word to describe ‘church’ — Christian ‘community.’ My belief is that, to the extent that any local church is a genuine Christian community, and it is not always easy to discern this, that church is a necessary part of its members’ life. They cannot live a truly Christian life without it. Why do I believe this?

Bernard Cooke in Christian Community: Response to Reality, justifies the necessity for Christian community with these statements: “Men will be human to the degree they are free; to be free they must know and love; to know and love they must be taught and loved — and this is what Christ does in and through his body which is the Church. . . Experience shows that love among men can come into being and develop only if people have the opportunity to deal with one another, share experiences together, develop common concerns — in short to live together in some form of community. God’s action in both Old Testament Israel and Christianity has been one of forming such a community, so that true freedom might be achieved.”

Accepting Cooke’s reasoning, we can begin to see some attributes of a genuine Christian community. Using these attributes, we can begin to prayerfully discern whether and to what extent our local church is a genuine Christian community. My assertion is that, just because a local church is part of some larger religious denomination, that does not guarantee that it is a genuine Christian community. Belonging to a religious denomination may be a prerequisite for forming a Christian community (and not every denomination would say that this is so) but it is the responsbility of the local church members — clergy and lay together — to create, in collaboration with the Holy Spirit, a genuine Christian community.

What are the attributes of a genuine Christian community?

  1. A genuine Christian community loves all men and women (Inclusive)
  2. A genuine Christian community teaches all men and women how to know and love, so that they can be truly free. (Nurturing)
  3. A genuine Christian community designs ways for its members to live together and find opportunities to engage, share experiences and develop common concerns. (Creative)

These attributes are a starting point for a local church to assess whether and to what extent it is a genuine Christian community. Whether Bernard Cooke’s logic, or my analysis of his reasoning is the right context for the discussion is not the issue. The real issue is whether we (members of a local church) reflect about and assess the health of our church community. And then, are we willing to take responsibility for transforming our local church into a genuine Christian community?

 

 

Are you kidding me? The World is filled with grace? What about Auschwitz or Rwanda?

How could grace have been present when millions were murdered in concentration camps, or in genocidal racial conflicts? We know that broken and sinful men and women did the awful deeds at Auschwitz and in Rwanda. We know that the “system of the world,” political and religious, stood by and let this happen. Where was grace? That question boils down to how does God see the world and how does he want us to act in the light of these undenible horrors?

In a word, God sees the world as being profoundly “wounded” and in need of healing. Many modern secular thinkers are beginning to see the same thing and have written scholarly studies about what has been happening in our world, good and bad, over the past 500 years since the ‘enlightenment.’  The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu coined the term “Précarité” (precariousness) to describe what ensues, when all our trustworthy structures and rules seem to many to fall apart. The foundations have been removed from beneath everything western civilization thought was reliable only a few years ago.  Now, many people feel that there is nothing solid underneath our ideas, and certainly nothing that transcends these ideas. This emptiness creates a vacuum of values, one that has no solution because we ‘deconstruct’ any solution that is offered.  We cannot fill the vacuum we create with postmodern scientific and philosophic views with anything reliable.  There is no language, at least that we trust anymore, to express true values. Religions have such language but they are not trustworthy according to our rational standards of truth.

At the core of our being is a paradox that we cannot resolve: We hunger for meaning, yet, in the deepest sense and as far as our minds can reach, we sense that we cannot create trustworthy meaning for ourselves. “The western mind . . . by the late twentieth century had largely dissolved the foundations of the modern world view, leaving the contemporary mind increasingly bereft of established certainties, yet also fundamentally open in ways it had never been before.”  [1] The only solution is trusting in  meaning outside ourself, in acknowledgement of our dependence. But another modern crisis – reducing our ability to trust — does not permit us to do this! Catch 22. So, the vast majority of people simply refuse to think about such ‘deep and meaningful’ things at all! The explosion of ideas on the Internet and of chatter on Mobile Phones is how many people hide their emptiness from themselves.

Trust is based on reliable people and reliable institutions. While we may still trust our spouse or our neighbour, there has been an almost universal loss of trust in institutions, especially religion in the twentieth century. How often have you heard, “I’m spiritual but not religious” or “organized religion” used as an epithet? Consequently, as trust in churches and religion eroded, as it has in the west, trust in Jesus as a leader has also eroded.

Finally, there is a crisis in the use of power, reflected primarily in the economic system of the world. The “new economy” is creating great wealth for a few but is also creating deep feelings of anxiety and confusion.  “The rewards of the new economy are coming at the price of lives that are more frenzied, less secure, more economically divergent, more socially stratified.” [2] Everyone has been exposed to the financial insecurities caused by the Global Financial Crisis (GFC). More to the point, billions of people on our planet are living marginal lives while a relative handful lives in extraordinary comfort, controlling most of the world’s wealth.

At long last, the voices of women are also being heard about the misuse of power in the system of the world. “There is a white patriarchical male system. The dominant system is destructive to people . . .” [3] Small wonder that many women feel like second class people in American and Australian society, and poorly used in most organizations. The women in every society on the planet feel (and many millions are) oppressed by a male-dominated system! Perhaps, the wounds of our world are becoming apparent to you.

In summary, we find ourselves at an apparent dead-end. The daily deconstruction of what we previously believed in has removed the safe harbours of belief of the past.  We can’t go back and find safety.  There is a widespread sense of something being missing or lost, creating emptiness and the inability to act.  “Mental depression – a feeling of one’s impotence, of inability to act, and particularly the inability to act rationally, to be adequate to the tasks of life – becomes the emblematic malaise of our late modern or postmodern times.”  [4]

The mind of man has created many wonderful things – but it has also created the situation that I have just described. How? By its insistence, particularly in the western world, that the mind of Jesus has no power in modern society. There are many ‘humanistic’ programs trying to deal with the situation – feeding the poor, healing the sick, sheltering the homeless, providing ‘safety nets’ to the ‘have nots’ – and I applaud these. Many are sponsored by Christian organizations. But these programs do not (and cannot) heal the deep wounds that I have described. That is why Jesus came to earth and commanded the Christian church to grow and make disciples of all mankind – to heal the wounds that man’s power and pride have inflected on the human race and the world.

By now, the mind of God must be obvious to you, once you begin to see the world and leaders as wounded. Empathy, compassion, going out and searching for those in need, self- forgetfulness, practical help not words. All these characterize Jesus’ ministry and the ministries of many Christians over the past 2000 years. Yet, Jesus was focused on individuals and, when he encountered the ‘system’ did not seem to explicitly try to change it, even the Jewish religious system.

So, you may say that one way of healing the world might for us to simply imitate Jesus – ignore the system and heal individuals. A case can be made for that. But, to me the lessons of Auschwitz and Rwanda are too plain — tending to the victims of the wounded system is not enough. Jesus’ transforming power shines ‘light’ on the system too. Christians must also change the system that allowed (and still allows) such crimes to happen, while ministering to its victims wherever they may be found. That is another reason why we must transform local churches!

Walter Brueggemann in Finally Comes the Poet summarized God’s transformational view of our situation. “When that speech of God’s fidelity, sovereignty, and presence is uttered again, the world is changed. The silence of God has been oppressive, but somehow we had not noticed. We imagined we were children of modernity: liberated, autonomous, on our own. We thought the speech of this other one had been banished and with good riddance. But the ideology of autonomy is not sufficient. It leads eventually to alienation, isolation, and rage. In our autonomous silence, we deny our true selves, created as we are, for conversation, communion, trust, and yielding.” Brueggemann then quotes the prophet Isaiah: “For a time time I have held my peace, I have kept still and restrained myself ; Now . . . I will lead the blind in a way that they know not, in paths that they have not known I will guide them.” [Isa 42:14-16] Transforming your local church means taking this promise of God seriously. Christians need to become God’s right arm of loving transformation, fulfilling His purpose of rescuing the human race from its stubborness and ignorance –even though we believe our knowledge of the world and our ability to find solutions on our own are sufficient.


[1] Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind, Ballantine Books, New York, 1991, p. 394.

[2] Robert Reich, The Future of Success, Knopf, new York, 2000, p. 8

[3] Anne Wilson Schaef and Diane Fassel, The Addictive Organization, Harper & Row, San Francisco, 1988, p 44.

[4] Zygmunt Bauman, The Individualized Society, Polity Press, London, 2001, p. 43.

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