Tuesday, March 18, 2014

the beauty—and problem—of the church: part 1

When I was a little boy in Augusta, Kentucky, one summer my mom sent me to a church on Fourth Street to something called “Vacation Bible School.” No one in my family was a Christian, but we didn’t know that. We thought we were Christians because we were Americans, and sometimes we went to church, and we weren’t Catholic. Catholics were, well, Catholics. If you’re Roman Catholic, please don’t misunderstand me: you were probably taught that people like me weren’t going to heaven because we weren’t Catholic. Yep, we were all pretty dysfunctional.

Today if you walked up graveyard hill in Augusta, you’d find a Protestant cemetery and a Catholic cemetery divided by a single-lane blacktop road. We didn’t talk about religion when we were alive and we certainly didn’t mix things up when we weren’t.

Anyway, I didn’t like the sound of “Vacation Bible School.” That’s an oxymoron if ever there was one. I knew “vacation” didn’t have anything to do with “school”. And then you throw the “Bible”-word in the middle of it and you have all the excitement of watching Mr. Rogers drone about dental hygiene.

But I went. Once. We outlined little pictures of stained glass and then colored them with Crayolas. And that was the last time I went. So each day mom sent me to Vacation Bible School, I would leave the house to walk to the church and then promptly head down a side street to find my buddies and play army instead.

Church held zero interest for me. By the sixth grade, they no longer made me go. I guess it wasn’t worth the hassle for my parents…and I was set free. Church, to my little brain, had nothing to offer but monotone talks, nothing that had any relevance to me, and a waste of good free time on a weekend. That’s how I felt through high school and my early college (and dropout) experience as well. Thanks, but no thanks.

But a funny thing happened on my way to hell: I met Jesus. Everything changed. I found myself being transformed and challenged and empowered and suddenly the Bible came alive. And the Jesus I read about there was nothing like how I remembered him in those boring sermons: He was radically different and made the religious people mad and challenged the status quo and even ticked off His own disciples at times. What’s more, He talked with an authority like no one else I’d ever heard. And He somehow mixed power and authority with servanthood in a way that was eye-opening. And that whole “getting-crucified-and-coming-back-to-life-again”-thing. Whoa. He became real to me in ways I couldn’t understand. And I began to change in subtle and radical ways as well. My friends were puzzled and didn’t know what to say to me.

I liked Jesus. But I still had some problems with His people…this thing called The Church. At times it seemed so small, so focused on trivialities, inward and self-righteous. Sometimes it seemed that Christians could be incredibly charitable and then turn around and say something ridiculously racist or insensitive. And why were they so strange on TV with really big hair and several pounds of makeup and exchanged plastic glow-in-dark crosses for “your love gift of $25”? Sometimes I wondered why there were churches on every corner…and why they argued over things that seemed inconsequential and petty.

Then one day I had an epiphany. An actual revelation from God Himself: I was one of them. The Church. I was no longer an outsider and could take potshots at what I thought were those hypocritical, judgmental, small-thinking Christians: now I was one of them and attending a local expression. I didn’t see that one coming.

As my literary-spiritual mentor once wrote, “When I first became a Christian, about fourteen years ago, I thought that I could do it on my own, by retiring to my rooms and reading theology, and I wouldn’t go to the churches and Gospel Halls; . . . I disliked very much their hymns, which I considered to be fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music. But as I went on I saw the great merit of it. I came up against different people of quite different outlooks and different education, and then gradually my conceit just began peeling off. I realized that the hymns (which were just sixth-rate music) were, nevertheless, being sung with devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic-side boots in the opposite pew, and then you realize that you aren’t fit to clean those boots. It gets you out of your solitary conceit.”  ~C. S. Lewis; God in the Dock

Truth was: my understanding of the “Capital ‘C’ Church was very, very small.

Let’s take a bigger look in part 2…

the beauty—and problem—of the church: part 2

Today Christianity has exploded in Asia, Africa and Latin America. In his classic book, The Next Christendom, Philip Jenkins writes: “…the largest Christian communities on the planet are to be found in Africa and Latin America.”

He goes on to say that “by 2050, only about one-fifth of the world’s 3 billion Christians will be non-Hispanic Whites.’”

China has become a hotbed for Christianity, particularly house churches. It’s believed there may be as many as eighty-million Christians in unregistered churches. According to Operation World, independent Christian congregations, mostly evangelical and charismatic, are growing at a rate of 9 percent annually. That’s a huge growth rate since China’s overall population (1.3 billion) is growing at only about 0.6 percent annually.

What’s more, Christianity has radically changed the culture in ways that I think most of us are unaware. At least I was. Again, my view, my understanding, of the Church was very, very small and provincial.

For instance, it was Christianity that changed the world’s view of women. The Greek philosopher Plato wrote that only males are “created directly by the gods and are given souls.” His now-revered pupil Aristotle said that women were no more than birth defects. In the footsteps of Greece, the Roman Empire simply didn’t want baby girls. Not long ago, archaeologists found one hundred skeletons of infants less than a week old in the sewers of the Roman baths. They had been literally flushed down the drain.

In his book Reasons for God, Tim Keller writes, “It was extremely common in the Greco-Roman world to throw out new female infants to die from exposure, because of the low status of women in society. The church forbade its members to do so. Greco-Roman society saw no value in an unmarried woman, and therefore it was illegal for a widow to go more than two years without remarrying. But Christianity was the first religion to not force widows to marry. They were supported financially and honored within the community so that they were not under great pressure to remarry if they didn't want to.”

He continues: “. . . the pagan double standard of allowing married men to have extramarital sex and mistresses was forbidden. In all these ways Christian women enjoyed far greater security and equality than did women in the surrounding culture.”

The fact that Jesus had women who followed Him and were included in His expanded circle of disciples and teaching times—as in the Mary and Martha account—was incredibly shocking to both the Roman and Jewish cultures of His day.

Even more, Christianity was first to methodically argue against slavery. In the early Church, Christians would buy slaves to set them free. It came from the revolutionary notion that all were made equal in Christ; or as the apostle Paul writes in Galatians: You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus . . . There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  Galatians 3:26, 28 (New International Version).

That was an extremely radical idea for that culture, and sadly, the Church hasn’t always lived up to it.

The story of the Good Samaritan that raised the question of who is my neighbor was shocking to say the least. And the ethic of the Sermon on the Mount created a servant culture in the early Church that was absolutely breathtaking. Love your enemies?—you’ve got to be kidding: we’re talking about an oppressive Roman government, the one that persecutes us.

When decimating diseases and plagues struck towns and cities, it was the early Christians who stayed in the towns so they could take care of the sick…even when the doctors would flee for their lives. In the fourth century, the Roman emperor Julian—who hated Christianity and wanted to rub it out—wrote angrily to a friend that the Christians “feed not only their poor but ours also.”

Our ways of viewing people and their intrinsic value has been so shaped by Christianity that we don’t even realize it…it’s such a part of our culture. When all the stories of the pagan gods were about them creating people so that they—the gods—may be served, the story of a God who comes to earth in the form of a servant in order to “serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” was shocking.

So many of the ways we think about life have been deeply affected and influenced by this movement called the Church. We’re not aware of it any more than a fish is aware of water. We just don’t realize it because Christian ethics are so submerged in our culture.

So again, my picture of the Church and its influence was way too small. And if that’s where you are, it only means that we have to go back one step with this simple but basic idea: God is big. I mean, Really Big.

He’s not the Man Upstairs. He’s not your Good Buddy. And He’s certainly not your co-pilot in your little Honda looking for a parking space. He’s God…there is No Other. That’s why the Bible says that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of real knowledge. It just means that we really have to get that He’s a Big God.

I find it amusing when people say things like, “When I get to heaven, I’ve got some questions God needs to answer…”


If you’re not sure if you even believe in God or you got burned by some church experience, play along with me for a minute and use your imagination: if a twenty-something artist named Michelangelo could create something as spectacular as the Pieta five-hundred years ago, think of the
Ultimate Artist, one who’s imagination spans the gazillion light years of a universe we can’t even fathom to the sub-atomic world of quarks and neutrinos. Just give Him the benefit of the doubt for a moment. If God exists…and if He had an investment in His incredibly complex piece of art called the human being…and if He wanted to use those human beings to bring about His overarching purposes for a world that’s gone haywire…and if He created an organization—a movement—that would be made up of these creatures to do that, wouldn’t it be a pretty amazing thing?

That’s a Big Idea. That’s the Church.

Let’s talk about how He might do that in Part 3…

the beauty—and problem—of the church: part 3 (final)

Imagine with me if Big God decided to enter our world to communicate that with us about this idea of healing an extremely sickly world through an antibody called The Church. How would He do that?

Suppose we wanted to communicate with a colony of ants in a giant anthill on the Serengeti. It seems it would make the most sense to become an ant ourselves and communicate to them in ant-language and ant-movement they could relate to…otherwise our overwhelmingly powerful human bodies would do nothing but scare the daylights out of them.

In our universe, that’s called the Incarnation: Big God becoming a humble human being. Paul the apostle—the man who once hated Christians and had them jailed and executed—tried to help the early Church understand how powerful this Big Idea is. It’s at the center of Christian theology. For instance, to his friends in Rome he writes about the role of Israel and his own Jewish heritage and then clearly states the real identity of Jesus:

Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen. (Romans 9:5 NIV).

Paul picks this up even more when he describes Jesus and His purpose in a letter to the Colossian church. He writes:

For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. (Colossians 1:13–20 NIV)

Did you catch what He said in the middle? He’s going on and on about how big this God-Man Jesus is—Creator of all things, visible and invisible, the One who establishes power and authority. And then Paul points out this organization—this organism—that is actually directly connected to God. Writing about Jesus, he says:

…And he is the head of the body, the church… (Colossians 1:18 NIV)

Paul is establishing a big thought here. Not only is Jesus God, but He is also the Head—the strategic-thinking authoritative leader and brains—of a movement on earth called The Church, which is actually functioning as His Body. In other words, what Jesus wants to do on earth today is going to be done through the Church. Ordinary people like you and me.

Now that’s a Big Idea. And that changes everything about how I see the Church. And if we don’t get that revelation, we’ll tend to see this little thing that happens on the weekend as “going to church” and our little divisions and squabbles and Christian subculture as what the Church is all about. That’s bigger than denominations and factions and Protestants and Catholics and church suppers and potlucks.

Why do we take a big, God-sized idea and miniaturize it?

That’s why Paul later writes to a dysfunctional church in Corinth that was arguing with each other and divisive and says to them: “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s house and that His Spirit actually lives in you now?”

He’s so upset when he hears that they're dragging each other into court and filing lawsuits against each other that he angrily says, “Don’t you know you will actually judge the world in the end times? Don’t you know that you’ll judge angels and spiritual powers?—and you can’t settle little arguments among yourselves now? You’ve got to be kidding?—You’re the Body of Christ on this earth!”

When the Holy Spirit was poured out in Acts Chapter 2 and birthed this movement called the Church, it transformed these scared men who had been hiding behind locked doors after the crucifixion into men and women who would lay their lives down for this one message: Jesus is the Resurrected Lord—so change the way you think and let Him save you!

That message alone was radical to the monotheistic Jewish mind: only God could save. Therefore, the implication was huge. And so they could only talk about one thing: Jesus…and His resurrection. And they were martyred by the thousands.

It was Jesus Himself who said, “On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:13–19 NIV)

The obvious question is this: what happened? How did that self-sacrificing passion end up doing ridiculous things throughout the subsequent centuries? How could a movement like that produce an Inquisition or Crusades or denominational wars?

Keep this in mind: Jesus said that in the end He Himself will separate the real from the unreal, the legit from the play-actors…and that there would be many who come to Him and say, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you.”

Or that there will be some who say, “‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ “He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’”

He said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father.”

This revolutionary movement of surrendered and transformed servants is God’s Big Idea to usher in His rule and reign: the Kingdom of Heaven. To stand on the periphery and take potshots at the Church is hardly helpful; a critique is only effective as much as one is a lively part of her. The former atheist turned prayer-and-social-activist Dorothy Day once poignantly wrote:

“As to the Church, where else shall we go, except to the Bride of Christ, one flesh with Christ? Though she is a harlot at times, she is our Mother.”