“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.
In possibly the strangest editorial on Easter ever written, “Nailing the cross to mind and body” Elizabeth Farrelly actually got past the usual bunnies, coloured eggs and cuteness as she stretched her imagination to find the meaning of Easter. [Click here to read her Sydney Morning Herald editorial] While trying to connect biology and worship, Farrelly actually found her way to the essence of the mystery of Easter — the link between our human condition and the divine. Here are a few of the phrases she uses to summarize as she reached beyond her own horizon of understanding:
- “Here be magic” — Fannelly connects (and feels wonder as she does this) her pet Pygmy Bearded Dragon, a world in danger, a species in need, a philosopher, a ritual practice and an ancient symbol. I’ll let you read her editorial to see how she does this, very skillfully. But she most certainly is pointing toward the mystery which is at the core of reality, which she calls magic. Easter is a celebration of that most profound reality.
- “Worship is a vertical stretch” — She contrasts her down-dog yoga pose with her pet dragon’s stretching toward the warmth of the sun, and realizes that “worship is not my natural position.” Why? She doesn’t know; her dragon seems to naturally have it right and she doesn’t. I think that summarises why we need Easter: to remind us to stretch toward the unimaginable reality that now surrounds us, as a result of God’s initiative.
- “The God-stretch” — Here Farrelly stumbles a bit, as most people do, on the meaning of the cross. She sees the cross symbolizing, in its horizontal axis, human compassion and justice. To her, the vertical axis represents human yearning for truth and justice. These are fine thoughts, and apt metaphors but they get the reality of the cross completely wrong. The cross is God stretching towards us, becoming a servant of our needs, even unto death. This reality is literally unimaginable, so we Christians must forgive people when they search for the meaning of the cross and miss it. We miss it ourselves many times — that’s one reason why the church celebrates Easter, to remind us that we live in the presence of God’s unfathomable mysterious love.
Another person stretching toward Easter
Pope Benedict XVI wrote an entire book about the meaning of the cross and Easter, called Jesus of Nazareth; Holy Week, from the entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection. Benedict was a noted German theologian and scholar before becoming Pope so you might make the mistake of thinking he would be able to completely describe the meaning of the cross and Easter — plumb the depths of mystery and tell us what he finds there so we ordinary people can understand it. Unlike Farrelly, he bases his description on the entire story-arc of the Old and New Testaments, which are ultimately about what God has done in history before, during and after the cross and Easter. But like Farrelly, Benedict ultimately stands in awe of what God is doing, unable to completely grasp what God’s reality is. Here are his own words about this. “(Jesus’ life, death and resurrection) are intended to point us toward realities that defy description.” He does not try to overstate his scholarship or even his obviously strong faith when describing God’s mysterious actions in human history. He stands mute except for the “gift of insight which he hopes has been granted to him.” Here are a few of Benedict’s descriptions of the cross and Easter, within the larger story-arc of the entire history of man and the cosmos.
- “It is in Jesus’ downward path, in his abasement even to the cross, that God’s glory is seen, that the Father and, in him, Jesus are glorified.”
- “In his self-offering on the Cross, Jesus, as it were, brings all the sin of the world deep within the love of God and wipes it away.”
- “His cross and his exaltation is the Day of Atonement for the world, in which the whole of human history — in the face of all human sin and its destructive consequences — finds its meaning and is aligned with its true purpose and destiny.”
- “God grants to evil and to evildoers a large measure of freedom — too large, we might think. Even so, history does not slip through his fingers.”
- “(God is patient and) does not impose upon man anything too hard to understand: God acts like a good schoolteacher or a doctor. He slowly puts an end to certain customs, allows others to continue, and thus leads man forward.”
- “Ultimately, in the battle against lies and violence, truth and love have no other weapon than the witness of suffering.”
- “The word — which seems almost nothing in comparison to the mighty power of the immeasurable material cosmos, like a fleeting breath against the silent grandeur of the universe — the word is more real and lasting than the entire material world. . . The cosmic elements pass away; the word of Jesus is the true ‘firmament’ beneath which we can stand and remain.”
What is our response?
When I read both Farrelly’s and Benedict’s ideas I immediately ask, what about me? What do I say the cross and Easter means? Somehow I think that both Farrelly and Benedict intended to lead their readers to this question of personal meaning. Reading descriptions of the cross and Easter is not like reading philosophy or history or science. We can stay remote from those areas of knowledge and continue to live our lives satisfactorily in ignorance of how they describe reality. We can’t do that when we encounter the mystery of the cross and Easter. We are involved whether we want to be or not. The sweeping claims about the cross and Easter are universal — we cannot escape their effects, whether we are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or Atheist.
To me, the cross and Easter confront me everyday as I live in Sydney — in my own (and the great majority of people’s) lack of appreciation for the mystery of this reality. If God yearns to save us so intensely that he became one of us and died a horrific death on the cross willingly, where is my own yearning for him in response? Perhaps humility is the only response anyone can make. “I cannot live as I ought; God help me.” The cross and Easter are just too far beyond our grasp; as Farrelly said “worship is a stretch.” But stretch toward the cross and Easter we must.
When Martha my teacher / coach taught me the rudiments of NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming), she gave me a model for how the human mind works. Whether or not you agree with this model, you must admit that some of its ideas are quite provocative:
- Our memories and emotions profoundly influence our behaviours
- The way we use language shapes our thinking
- A good deal of what happens in our mind is unconscious
One of the ideas that Martha emphasised was “The map is not the territory.” By this she meant that each person lives in a world that touches on but is not the same as “what is” or external reality. All of us filter out aspects of reality — generalize, delete and distort what comes into our senses into something that fits our model of the world. We create our own “map” of reality — our unique mental model — so we can follow it and live more easily. It is a constant temptation to believe that our “map” is 100% accurate and actually is identical with the territory of “what is” or reality. That is simply not possible. The human mind is built to work like this — as a “mapping” or pattern recognition device simplifying reality — and we cannot escape being human. What does this have to do with living in a “grace filled world?”
The Christian “map” and God’s “territory”
Christians are human — and therefore must have a map of the world to function. Christians also believe they live in God’s Kingdom and depend on God’s grace in a profound way to find their way into and around the Kingdom. How do we put these two ideas together? It seems to me that there are two basic alternatives:
- Christians must create a different kind of “map” for themselves which includes aspects of the Kingdom (at least as far as it can be experienced in this world). In other words, through the normal human growth processes, Christians encounter God in other Christians, the Bible, etc and use their freedom to create a Christian “map” to follow.
- God must intervene and inject some special features into the Christian “map” to help us find our way into and then around the Kingdom. This alternative means that God gives humans gifts of insight and other graces to expand their “map” This alternative says that supernatural forces add to or even override the normal human growth processes.
Putting it this way, it seems to me that God would never override human freedom even to achieve a good end — a human mental model (“map”) that includes the Kingdom. No matter how much we Christians would like to depend on God to steer us through the world with some special infallible “map” we are no different then any other human being. We must build our own map to include God’s Kingdom, or it won’t be there when we need it. This reality creates an urgency for Christians to form their “map” — their mental model for the world and the Kingdom — according to God’s reality.
Creating a Christian “map”
How do we create our Christian “map” of reality? By using and combining three different sources as we grow in our faith — our own efforts, those of the church, and those of God. We must have all three — else we begin to run the risk that our Christian “map” will be just our own construction and not reflect God’s reality. These three sources work in many ways; I will highlight one way for each source to give you an idea of what I believe growth in faith means.
- Our own efforts. Basically this means we take our growth as Christians seriously, and “work out our salvation in fear and trembling.” Human growth takes effort; everyone knows that. Education, physical wellness and fitness, even spiritual meditation all require an individual to spend time and energy on growth. “No pain, no gain.” If a Christian never reads, reflects or prays they are unlikely to create a mature “map” of the world and the Kingdom.
- The church. Over and above what an individual Christian does, the church is a primary factor in Christian growth. If a local church neglects the growth of its congregation, then the “maps” of its members will be immature and possibly even wrong. Christian education, sacraments, liturgy and fellowship are essential to every Christian’s growth. There is no wisdom in the statement “I am Christian but I don’t go to church.” Yes, you might have been baptised but you also may still be a Christian “infant” as far as your Christian “map” of the world and the Kingdom are concerned.
- God’s grace. Notwithstanding the first two sources, no Christian can create a valid “map” of the Kingdom without God’s involvement. Even Jesus withdrew periodically to be with the Father. Why? The answer is that the Christian “map” is mysterious and alive. It is not simply the way the human mind processes data and recognises patterns (although it is that too). The Christian “map” is more like a relationship than a model, handbook or guide. This relationship transforms the “map” we humanly construct because our “coach” (not an NLP guru like Martha) is there with us . We are not alone, using our map to navigate the world and the Kingdom. “God is my co-pilot” might be a reasonable image, helping us as we create and use our “map” to grow and guide our lives toward an often unseen purpose. Prayer is the common way we experience God and mature as Christians.
The point of this post — and my entire Grace Filled World blog — is to awaken Christians (including myself!) to the serious task of taking responsibility for our growth in the faith.