Notes on Liturgy

Empty signals

When you read an article on church planting and it says “Don’t worry about your numbers,” but two paragraphs later mentions the size of the author’s church…

When you hear a sermon where the preacher affirms a certain life circumstance as godly, but later only applies the passage to people in other situations…

The text for my eventual funeral

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

This post written 22/4/2017. NB: this is not a cry for help. I am, broadly speaking, fine. I have never been, and can’t imagine ever being, in danger of suicide – for reasons I should probably explain in a post at some point. I am just trying to be honest about my emotional states.

I am very sad today.

This is hardly unusual. I have depression. Now my depression is certainly distorting the way I think and feel. Perhaps I should not write anything today, or not publish it until I am in my right mind.

My right mind? Why do I have to be happy to be normal? We never seem to err on the melancholy side of the ledger. I wonder if any service leader or worship leader, on a normal week, has looked at their intended liturgy and said “No, it’s way too peppy.” The natural impulse is to run towards the sombre tone in times of disaster. Being natural (i.e. built into us by God) this is not something to be demonised. But it’s not the fullness of Christian grief. “I do not want you to mourn as those who have no hope,” Paul says to the Thessalonians. We need to mourn as those with hope. There is something distinctive about Christian mourning. Do congregants know that? Has anyone ever told them before the moment?

We can’t start training Christians in godly sadness at the moment of loss. If our lives as churches are always happy and upbeat, no one can get any practice being sad. There are many people whose happiness is as weird and distorting as my depression, rising from nowhere and leading them nowhere. And people who are sad need to be led by the hand towards Jesus’ comfort. Shallow sadness and happiness are both weaknesses in the life of the church. Being happy and being sad are crude games, the human equivalent of a child’s sporting league: meant to prepare you for something grander and more difficult.

I am speaking of joy and sorrow: the divine affections that pierce the soul, that make mourning sweet and turn earthly pleasures to ash in our mouths. The forces that have an emotional edge but aren’t only emotional; that are felt by humans, but come from God. Joy and sorrow are available to all Christians at all times because they do not come from the world around us. Sorrow comes from the presence of sin, which is with us until Jesus returns. Joy comes from the favour of God, which is with us forever. Both are available and both are essential to the Christian life.

But we need to keep them in perspective: sorrow is temporary, joy is unending. Sorrow is going to end when Jesus returns but our joy will only increase. We should mourn over the state of the world and the state of our hearts. But we mourn with an awareness that our mourning will be short-lived. In order for me to look forward to my funeral, I need to know that my brothers and sisters in Christ aren’t going to suddenly forget about the resurrection. We are already saying the words that others will repeat at our funeral. We are already practicing the songs they will sing. Let’s start training for the finish line.

Teach me to not be sad – teach me to mourn, pastor. Teach me to weep like Christ. And find his joy through weeping.

NoL: Pointless predictions

Here are some pointless predictions about the next fifty years of Christianity in Australia, and some brief explanation of my reasoning.

 

  1. The most noticeable difference between individual Christians in terms of how they live will be how much they use the Internet. 
    The concepts and liturgies that Christians need to understand and critique their Internet use are still being created. Most Australian Christians seem fine with their smartphone always being connected to the social web. I don’t think this is because they’re actually fine. The church catholic is still assembling the spiritual tools to even begin to identify what kind of damage these practices might be doing. We think the moral question of our age is global warming or minority rights. But it might be choosing not to view people through an algorithmic lens supplied to us by corporations.
  2. Churches that have high to indiscriminate Internet use will sound more and more the same (even when their theological documents are quite different).
    When you’re all swimming in the same river, you all get wet.
  3. The main crisis in society will be a lack of dignified work. 
    Automation + outsourcing of manufacturing jobs + increased complexity of technological jobs = under-employment.
  4. Everybody will continue to suck at evangelism, particularly of non-middle-class.
    The cultural incomprehension of sin, creation, the nature of divinity, etc., will not get smaller but continue to grow. Keep on talking about creation->fall->Jesus->restoration. No one will have any idea what you mean by those ideas.
  5. Pentecostals/charismatics will continue to be the main exception. 
    (1) they are unashamedly supernatural, which is kind of necessary to walk the talk of being a Christian in an anti-supernatural world; (2) they generally do love and community super well; (3) their worship is a serious emotional experience that can’t be found in most Australians’ lives.
  6. Most churches and organisations will struggle to care at all about right theology or right interpretation. 
    I’m not talking about arcane theological trivia. As most Christians know less and less about both the Bible and the ecumenical creeds, Christian organisations will struggle to see why they should care about the virgin birth or a literal resurrection when they don’t mandate a position on, say, baptism. This will mostly affect parachurch ministries, which will have a fair contingent of literal heretics within them. Churches will be confronted with a million criss-crossing interpretations of scripture on every point and struggle to differentiate between the sound and the wicked.
  7. Churches with sound theology will need to continually re-explain doctrine in ways comprehensible to the culture. 
    If they get complacent about “now, now we’ve pinned down how to talk about God to kids these days” they will get whipped about by their kids over the next ten years.
  8. Increasingly radical structures of Christian community and obedience will be attempted. Some will be great successes, while coming under heavy fire from other Christians.
    My case for this is too long to detail here.

See you in fifty years.

NoL: Cover letters and the doctrine of justification

I’m unemployed. I’ve written a fair number of cover letters over the last eighteen months.

What is a cover letter? Yes.

A cover letter goes alongside your resume. It talks about why you might be good at the job for which you’re applying. Sometimes this means addressing some selection criteria the employer has written; sometimes that’s called a criteria response, and you don’t need a cover letter at all.

It’s not just white-collar or “professional” jobs. I’ve applied for wait staff and bar staff jobs that asked for a cover letter. It’s how they sort you. Good cover letters go into the read pile. Bad cover letters go into the other pile. What is a good cover letter? Yes.

What is a cover letter? A cover letter is a sinner’s chance to justify themselves before the disinterested but all-important gaze of employed society. It’s you selling yourself. Not like a sex worker – we’re talking something much less horrific, selling yourself in your own head and on paper rather than physically and mysteriously. Besides, sex workers get paid. The unemployed don’t get anything for writing cover letter upon cover letter. It’s impossible not to be spiritually affected by the need to prove yourself, to make yourself worthy in the eyes of a potential employer – and worthy for reasons they will accept.

If anyone ever says that the doctrine of justification is disconnected from the life of a Christian, take note. Do everything you can to make sure this person takes on no role in the church until they’ve grown up a little.

The doctrine of justification is how I’ve stayed sane across almost two years of unemployment. Finding my worth and value in union with Christ rather than worldly success is what’s kept me applying. The more I care about the world’s opinion of me, the more likely I am to stop applying so I can stop feeling the sting of rejection. Procrastination and laziness are often shields against being wounded by what matters deeply to us. The Christian, looking to Christ above to find themselves, can be more committed with less fear of emotional damage than someone who lives wholly in this age.

Want to help the unemployed people in your congregation? Preach on justification by Christ.

NoL: Worship and idolatry

Because here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship – be it JC or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles – is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things – if they are where you tap real meaning in life – then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you.

 

One day, David Foster Wallace’s famous point that everybody worships was walking along the garden path. Along the way, Wallace’s idea met the Western preacher’s need to apply Old Testament passages on idolatry to congregations who struggled with the spiritual effort of believing in Jesus, let alone trying out other gods. And the need fell in love with the idea.

It seemed like a perfect marriage of penetrating observation about human life and need for reformulation of a command that assumed multiple competing patterns of self-conscious worship. And married life was sweet. The two were a good match. Preachers could now identity places where their congregants were infusing parts of their life with ultimate or transcendent meaning. Anything was considered equally weight to a religious observance could be critiqued as quiet idolatry – worshipping work, or children, or romance.

But as time went on, the idea began to feel that it was contributing everything to the marriage – more than it could bear. The need for reformulation was not investing in the marriage: it was not provoking careful study of the Old Testament, or seeking a clear understanding of worship, or finding answers to questions like Can someone worship without knowing they’re worshipping? and What does that tell us about people, about worship itself? 

On top of this lopsided relationship, the idea began to feel it had lost its roots. In service of its spouse’s goals, the idea had moved far away from its original context. It felt that it had originally meant worship to be a source of meaning and objective value. David had seen this kind of worship as shaping the trajectories of human lives in a secondary and indirect way. But more and more, the need was introducing the idea while assuming that worship meant a pattern of wilful and structured religious behaviour. One spouse was distorting the actual meaning of the other.

The marriage is quite tense now, and whenever the need mentions the idea in a sermon, the idea feels uncomfortable and slightly deceptive.

 

I hope you enjoyed the slightly extended metaphor. I certainly did.

I recently remembered a conversation I had with a fellow student at theological college, about how we were both uncomfortable with idolatry passages in the Old Testament being directly applied to contemporary Christians who found their meaning or identity somewhere other than Christ. And this whole topic was clarified for me by reading some remarks by Bonhoeffer about a certain kind of evangelism that relies on psychological analysis; an evangelism that functions by forcing a person to recognise themselves as a sinner, and then offering Christ as the solution to their sin. Just as this kind of evangelism “sees through” a sinner’s lack of guilt, so a lazy application of idolatry passages “sees through” the secular person’s lack of worship practices, and the Christian’s protest that they are not involved with other religions.

The problem is that the Old Testament is dealing with forms of idolatry that are deliberate and conscious. It is hard to imagine an Israelite unconsciously passing their child through the fire for Molech, or attributing the wrong level of meaning to worshipping at Samaria rather than Jerusalem, or wrongly ascribing transcendence to visiting a cult prostitute rather than having sex with their spouse. In the Old Testament idolatry is not something can stumble into or perform without active will.

I am not saying that there is no legitimate application of idolatry passages to our contemporary elevation of temporal experiences. And yes, part of the continual Israelite drift towards idolatry came from the almost insensible spread of neighboring nations’ worship practices. But the acts themselves were not implicit acts of worship, but explicit ones. We need to keep some perspective, maintain real distinctions between kinds of sin, and give Western society some basic charity. It is simply unjust and untrue to equate people who love their work too much with Israel dancing around the golden calf. There may well be similarities in the underlying motivations and spiritual forces. But a preacher needs to draw that out, and respect the actual situation scripture is addressing.

A nonreligious person can quite honestly know that a certain aspect of their life is what drives them and gives their life meaning, without considering that that has any connection with worship or any spiritual meaning at all. Christians have developed a bunch of spiritual concepts that make us instantly associate ultimate meaning in life with divinity. Nonreligious people often don’t have those concepts. They aren’t guilty of classic idolatry. They aren’t spiritually awake enough to commit that kind of idolatry, any more than you can accuse a deaf person of having poor taste in music.

Instead of misdirected veneration and service – what is rightly God’s directed towards false gods and false patterns of worship – we find the human capacity for worship being used for a grey and listless emptiness. Like concrete poured into a rabbit warren, the lack of deliberate worship in a nonreligious life produces its own habits and structures. Everybody does worship in the sense DFW meant. But there are real variations that we need to consider.

It seems to me that the most effective gospel application to such people is not to rebuke them for the underground worship practices they have unconsciously followed, but to show them who and how to worship in Spirit and in truth. Instead of probing underground worship, awaken and guide their capacity for deliberate worship and let devotion to Christ eclipse what is pale and unworthy.

Underground worship practices will persist in a Christian’s life, of course – dotted through their behaviour like the foundations of an abandoned construction project. So preachers do have to help their congregants identify and dig up these patterns. We do have to consider the relationship between deliberate idolatry and underground worship. But these two things are in relationship; they are not the same.

Precision isn’t just for Impressionists. It’s also vital for preachers who want to apply the text without doing violence to the text.

NoL: Experience, empathy, and preaching

A preacher should do/be X, so that you can speak to people who are in that situation.

The identity of X varies: you should be married, you should have worked full time in the secular workplace, you should (ideally) have children. As young and unmarried preacher, I’ve heard all of these. It’s often said straight out. Sometimes it’s coded into the assumptions and expectations of existing preachers or of ministry job descriptions. Sometimes I can feel it in the questions people ask me after I’ve preached at their church.

In a future post I hope to show that this view of preachers not only has no scriptural basis, but in fact pushes back against the view of preaching that we find in scripture. In this post I only want to show that this position makes no logical sense even as practical wisdom. Leaving aside scriptural basis for a moment, requiring or desiring preachers to have certain life experiences for the purpose of connecting to their congregation only undermines the enterprise of preaching. 

 

How far shall we apply this?

The point is usually confined to the experiences of a normal middle-class family man. A cynical person might say that this specificity is because family man experiences constitute the Christian life that the Western church has fallen back on in order to push back against Western sexual immorality without having to cut itself off from Western socio-economic respectability. And I am a cynical person. So I do say that. I say that we press preachers into the mould of a married man with children who has had full-time work because that is the archetype of our collective success story. We have rejected a purely financial success story only by moderating it with doses of other idolatries. The result can be just as destructive to Christian life.

Before I get any more elevated on my high horse, let me provide some argument for this cynical view. I think the emphasis on preachers being a certain kind of person is societal rather than theological or pragmatic, because it doesn’t get applied to other attributes. No one is saying that we need same-sex attracted preachers to preach to same-sex attracted congregants, or that we specifically need divorced preachers, or preachers who have gone through long stretches of unemployment. Yet all of these are defining experiences of some congregants.

The counter-argument is probably that those kinds of experiences (attraction, divorce, unemployment) are not described in scripture as the experiences of mature and godly people. But working hard, loving your wife, and raising your children well are all described as good things that are the outworking of a heart that loves God. And all of that is true.

My counter-counter-argument would be that yes, those things are signs of a godly character and maturity. But so are plenty of other things that never get a look-in when deciding what a preacher should or needs to be. No one ever talks about preachers having to have repented of sin, or forgiven someone, or mourned the death of a loved one. And we have perfectly good resources for choosing elders given to us by scripture: the parts where Paul, you know, says what an elder should be like. Seems to me like we should run with that rather than having to add our own, narrower streams.

Ah, but wait a minute (says the counter-counter-counter-argument). No one says that preachers have to be married or have kids or have worked full-time as a matter of scriptural command. It’s only a matter of human wisdom to prefer preachers who have rounded experiences, who are going to understand the pressures on their congregants, and speak meaningfully into those situations.

Well, firstly, when people gave me advice about preparing for preaching I heard a lot about getting ‘experience’ by entering the workforce. I heard almost nothing from older Christians about working on being temperate, self-controlled, hospitable, and so on. Maybe it is only a matter of human wisdom. But the human wisdom qualifications get a lot more airplay than the scriptural ones. That seems like a problem to me.

And secondly, if we’re not considering these characteristics as markers of godliness, then we’re considering them as sources of empathy: because the preacher has done this or gone through this, they will be able to preach to those who have also done so. I’ve already mentioned that it’s only specific attributes that preachers need to empathise with. And even if we pass that by, the preference for preachers with empathy actually creates long-term problems for the place of preaching in the church.

 

Experiental empathy and Christian sympathy

Let me explain how I’m using these two phrases. Experiential empathy is when you feel what someone else is feeling because you are in that situation, or you have been there and you recall it. This is a good thing and can be a real blessing for serving other people. There’s a certain kind of comfort and support that comes from someone who is in the same boat as you. I don’t think this kind of comfort and support should have anything to do with preaching.

In contrast, we have Christian sympathy. This is the power of extending your affections into the life of another person through your shared humanity. The connection is not similarity but the human nature that is held in common. Now, our understanding of our shared nature is clouded and fractured by sin; so is that nature itself. The question is how the preacher knows what a human being is, what he necessarily shares with the congregation, how he can speak to sinners like him with confidence.

He can find all of this in the person Jesus. Because of the above concerns concerns, a preacher’s primary point of sympathetic contact with the lives of his congregants is through Jesus. Jesus shows us not just God – he shows us true human nature. He connects to all of us and he connects each of us to the other. As the new Adam, he unites the human race – not just Christians, but all humans (we all rise from the dead on the last day, not just Christians).

The preacher connects by proclaiming Jesus, the new covenant of forgiveness of sins in his blood, and the consequences of that. Those consequences strike every human being. They strike us from the outside, because the resurrection of Jesus means that he’s going to come back and remake the world. And they strike us from the inside, because Jesus has sent out his Spirit to apply his covenant to our hearts.

The point of contact between a preacher and his congregation should not be the preacher’s experiential empathy, their similarity to the congregation in life. It should be Jesus. The preacher is only really “there” insofar as they model and embody Christ; all other parts of them need to be ignored or forgiven as the congregation worships Jesus and listens to the Spirit speak.

 

Experiential empathy’s tendencies

These are only tendencies; directions that experiential empathy in preaching will tend to take us. They can of course be resisted, and other elements of the church’s structure often do this job.

Splintering by situation. If you think people need preachers who are like them, they will learn this need. They will catch it off you. And what are you going to do when congregations want preachers who are like them? When the unmarried want an unmarried pastor, when the gay want a gay pastor, when the divorced want a divorced pastor? How can one person hold all these groups together? Only by connecting with and appealing to what unites them rather than what differentiates them.

Feedback loop with pastors. If you prefer pastors who are married/fathers/have worked full time, then obviously you’ll tend to ordain and hire pastors like that. And they will probably perpetuate the preferences that their mentors taught them. The elders of the church will become more and more homogenous. In itself this doesn’t matter so much because their role is not to preach from experience but to preach Jesus. However, it narrows the breadth of perspectives in the church’s leadership. And there’s also the matter of…

1 Corinthians 7 is still scripture. All of it. And it says some things that are rather at odds with ordinary family life. When Paul says:

The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided.

I not only believe it, I believe that it applies to elders as well. At theological college, over and over again I heard a good emphasis on pastors taking care of their family, raising their children well, investing in their marriage. But what if you don’t have a wife or children? Where could you put your heart then? Perhaps burnout partly comes from treating married pastors as though they’re unmarried.

But don’t worry. I’m sure Paul’s point here is bound up with Corinth’s cultural context. Or Paul is a missionary rather than a local elder. Or Paul contradicts himself and says elders need to be married, and we need to obey that part rather than this part.

I’m sure you’ll think of something.

NoL: Confessions and Tolerance

A confession is a theological summary that lays out the beliefs of a sub-group of Christians. It does not define Christianity – that is the role of a creed. A confession is more focused and therefore longer and more detailed than a creed. A creed lays out the essentials of the faith, points on which any defection or error would prove disastrous to a congregation over any length of time.

A confession establishes, not just Christianity, but a communal way of reading the Bible and approaching the enterprise of church life. Two Christians can meet and share company without sharing a view on, say, baptism. But when they come to baptise someone – when they act together as a congregation – some particular view of baptism must necessarily be put into practice. A confession lets a group of congregations decide these questions ahead of time, define their congregational life once rather than endlessly wrangling and debating.

At most churches you don’t have to adhere to their confession to be a member, only to be a leader or teacher (and even that is not always the case). So the Westminster Confession, for example, lays out a form of Presbyterian belief; it states what a fully-formed Presbyterian believes, what ordained Presbyterian ministers must believe (generally), and provides a theological guiding star towards which all Presbyterian churches are constantly in transit. There is no confusion about what a “real” Presbyterian believes.

All this can sound very defining and therefore limiting, even discriminatory. And indeed it is. But what is being defined and limited is not the boundaries of Presbyterian friendship, association, or even membership; wherever such a belief arises, the result is coldness and partisan spirit. A confession only defines the issue of confessional inclusion and identity – who is a Presbyterian? And this use of confessions increases tolerance and friendly spirit.

What question divides and encumbers sub-groups of humanity more than any other? Trueness – who are the true Scotsmen, the true Communists, the true reformers, the true intellectuals, the true revolutionaries. As soon as the group or movement coalesces people want, for good reasons and bad, to know who is beyond the pale and who is at the centre. A confession does not remove this human tendency. But it shifts the ground from definition: What do true Presbyterians believe? to interpretation: What does the confession say? 

A confession takes the adjustable scale of movement purity away and replaces it with the set-square of confessional adherence. Since we are unable to remove the theological aspect of being a Christian congregation – that is, every congregation has in practice a view of baptism, of discipline, of preaching, etc. – a confession at least steadies the theological distinctions and makes them as just as possible. Confessional foundation lets the members of a denomination associate and interact widely and with great freedom, confident in their own theological identity.

A confession also gives defence to those who introduce new ways of embodying or enacting the beliefs of the confession. Against the inevitable resistance to change, the innovator can plead that these matters are not detailed in the confession; that the differences being introduced do not annul the Presbyterian identity. The confession allows Presbyterian belief to be pried away from the Presbyterian tribe, to separate what is confessed from the crust of traditions and practices that inevitably build up in any institution.

Now, a confession is always exclusionary. But its purpose is not to exclude people from being Christians, only from being Presbyterians. Reducing the standard of the confession to let more people be Presbyterians would actually deny inclusion. Those included  through relaxation would not be Presbyterians in the same sense as those already included. Confessional adjustment always produces some degree of distinction between those who affirmed the old confession and those who affirmed the new. Relaxing the confession to widen inclusion only annuls the lifeblood of the group being widened.

The key ingredient in my rather Arcadian view of confessions is trust in the confession’s sufficiency. Those holding to the confession need to let it determine who is included or excluded, and not their own intuition, affection, suspicion, or preferences. Right use of a confession requires us to surrender judgement to something outside ourselves and lay down our opinions. It is therefore, whatever its other virtues, good practice for a Christian.

NoL: Hating Trump

Right now it’s very popular amongst middle-class Australians to vehemently dislike President Trump, and to see his inauguration as a crowning failure for American democracy. In this note I’ll give some reasons why I think this dislike is particularly bad for Australian Christians, and will develop their character away from Christlikeness.

 

Presumption

Donald Trump is President of the United States of America. Not of Australia. It is peculiarly vital at this point that citizens of the USA exercise their civic privileges and responsibilities. But for citizens of other countries to express their opposition to President Trump looks…well, it looks like gossip and backbiting on an international level. Most Australian citizens have no reason or right to have an opinion of Donald Trump. Why is it acceptable for us to hold a bad opinion, and express a bad opinion, of a man whom we have never met and who has done us no wrong?

Now there are Australians who have been affected by President Trump’s policies. And there are Australians who are required by their vocations to have an opinion of his administration. But let us not speak against someone unless we have a motivation to do so.

Yes, I know – Christians should prophetically critique evil in the world. Let’s start with our own house, shall we? And end there as well. Prophecy comes from relationship. An American standing against their president may be a bold citizen. An Australian standing against someone else’s president is probably a crank. How would we feel if Christians in Burundi began to lambast our government for our treatment of refugees? Their rightness is obvious. Their motivation for throwing their prophetic voice halfway around the world is less obvious.

 

Naivete

Ah yes, President Trump. That odious man who cannot be trusted with power.

In my own clear memory – over the last sixteen years – the Presidency of the United States has assassinated its own citizens who were living abroad, without trial. It has assassinated citizens of other nations without any legal proceedings or consultation. It has killed with drones, with bullets; it has kidnapped, imprisoned, and tortured; it has instigated invasions of questionable sense that have led to massive instability in the Middle East, many tens of thousands dead, millions thrown into uncertainty and chaos; it has supported various factions in Middle Eastern conflicts with arms; it has helped Saudi Arabia launch brutal air attacks into Yemen.

The Congress of the United States, in which a great deal of power is meant to be invested, has allowed the Presidency to exert huge military force overseas without a declaration of war. It has acceded to and even encouraged a massive expansion of US surveillance, not just against its citizens but all around the world. It has looked with disinterest on actions by the executive branch that would have brought down Presidents only a decade or two ago: Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, and so on. Congress has also failed to address the future of the US through legislation.

But now, with the accession of President Trump, is the time for vilification of the President and American democracy. Now is the time.

Assassination, kidnapping, indefinite imprisonment, and torture are all wrong and illegal and morally horrifying. And they remain these things whether the President is a pleasant person whom we instinctively like and respect, or a person who calls forth dislike. What the Australian reaction to Trump seems to display is that we become aware of sound reasons to dislike people whom we already dislike. And in doing so we display our almost complete lack of understanding of world history and our inability to prophetically critique all kinds of governments. Not just the ones we don’t like.

 

So what instead?

  • Pray for the world
  • Pray for our own government
  • Support Christians seeking justice in the USA
  • Don’t have an opinion just because you feel you should

NoL: previously on Being A Christian

This is a familiar text…

…I know you’ve heard a lot of sermons on this topic, but…

The take you’ve heard before was probably…

We all go through times of doubt in the Christian life.

This probably doesn’t apply to you, but…

This kind of talk in a church service always makes me feel like I’ve walked into a conversation about a TV show I’ve never seen. I don’t really feel excluded. But I don’t feel at home, either. Referring to the congregation’s prior knowledge of scripture, or assuming they have a history of thinking about these topics, has a lot of dangers. It creates a liturgy of complacency. Let me quickly note some problems.

 

Not everyone is a Christian. Yes, worship services are primarily for the church. They shouldn’t be structured around what non-Christians want or can accept. But they are meant to be comprehensible to the outsider. More than that, they should be hospitable. We want people to come to Jesus and join his people. Let’s not make it seem like an imposition when they do. Oh, there aren’t any non-Christians at church today? Well, one, you don’t actually know that. And two, the patterns of mind and tongue you practice are the patterns you’ll be good at. If you want to talk to non-Christians, talk like they’re already there. Or when they do turn up, talking to them will be like learning a new language.

 

Not everyone has been a Christian for a long time. The other assumption behind a lot of this talk is that most of the congregation have been Christians for decades: they’ve read daily devotions for years, are familiar with most of scripture, and have heard multiple sermons on certain key texts (Sermon on the Mount, Romans, etc). But I haven’t heard that much preaching since I was regenerated. I have not, in fact, gone through Romans more than once. I haven’t even gone through it once. And to be honest, this sentiment of looking at giving (hypothetically) familiar texts a fresh second look often seems to distract from giving some texts a first look. I’ve yet to hear systematic preaching of any major prophet, of most of the writings, of 2 Corinthians or Romans or James or Revelation. I’ve heard a lot of preaching from the gospels, though. Just to make sure I get a fresh view of something that I was never fully taught.

 

Not everyone has been through the same formative experiences. I grew up in the church, but I grew up in a high Anglican church. It was pretty different to a Baptist or nondenominational children’s ministry. And then my family was out of church through my high school years. So I literally never went to a youth group until I started leading one. There is – apparently – a whole cultural experience that I missed. I don’t know any Colin Buchanan songs except the ones we sing in my church. And frankly, I’m tired of people reacting with shock. Last thing I knew Colin Buchanan’s albums weren’t in the canon. Yet some people are annoyingly surprised that I don’t know one of his songs. They don’t mean it this way, but it makes me feel like a second-class Christian. Because it over-emphasises a certain cultural heritage within the church.

 

Not everyone struggles with the same things. I have never really had much of a problem with my Christian assurance. Never really crossed my mind. I can’t imagine not believing in Jesus. I can imagine not feeling very good about Jesus, or about his church. But I don’t think I could fall away from the faith any more than I could fall away from the skin of the planet. And predestination – I have never struggled with that, on an intellectual or moral level.

But Christian living? Sanctification? Whoo boy. You bet I’ve got problems there. Consistent prayer life? Not me! So it’s very frustrating when these topics are brushed off as Christian fundamentals, and things that seem crystal clear to me (and not core to following Jesus) are treated as extremely important topics that need much attention.

 

Solution?

Service leaders and preachers need to know their congregation – all of their congregation, not just the people most like them. And because this is only possible to a degree, we need to project hypothetical congregation members. What if there’s someone with mental illness? Someone who used to be a Buddhist and still feels attached to that religion? Someone with a same-sex partner? Someone mourning the death of their child? We need charity from the front of the service. And not just charity after the fact, but charity and compassion that thinks in advance and prepares guard rails of good taste and tender feeling.

NoL: Virtues of Theological Study

Wait, what? How is theological college/bible college part of liturgy? Well, this category is all my dashed-off thoughts on the rituals that form Christians. The ways we worship God, mostly together but also in more individual structures, and how those liturgies shape us as disciples. In this post I’m going to list the major benefits I found at theological college; the less-obvious ways it shaped me as a Christian. Short and sweet:

  1. You have to think things through. My lecturers, and sometimes other students, didn’t let us get away with pat answers. We had to justify what we thought, back it up with scripture and logical thinking.
  2. You aren’t awesome. Most people who come to bible college are some of the smarter and/or scripturally knowledgeable people in their congregation. At college I discovered that there were a lot of Christians smarter than me – and because they weren’t jerks, that taught me humility rather than giving me an achievement complex.
  3. No one knows everything. Lecturers who had been studying one area for decades would cheerfully talk about things they hadn’t figured out. As my knowledge increased, so did my awareness of my ignorance. It created a weird sort of obscuring effect. Because my awareness of ignorance grew four times as fast as my knowledge, it felt like I never really progressed. The only way out of this was…
  4. One thing at a time. You’ll never “know” systematic theology, or the structure of Luke, or whatever area you’re working on. But you can know just a little, just a crumb more than you know now. And that is real growth. All you have to do is know a little more about God than yesterday, and you’ve grown. Compare yourself with past you. This means…
  5. Comparisons are useless. Evaluating yourself against other people is generally spiritual poison. Comparing yourself to less gifted people will make you frustrated and contemptuous. Comparing yourself to more gifted people will make you frustrated with yourself and lead to envy. Comparing yourself to people on the same level encourages competition – which is a terrible way to frame the Christian life, and doesn’t help you understand yourself. You don’t actually know what’s happening inside the lives of your peers.