“Healthy Churches in Hard Places” data dump

(The following is the text of an e-mail I sent to my church today, with few modifications.)

Hey everyone,

Hope you’re staying warm and not getting stuck in any snow drifts. I thought I’d pass on to you some items of interest from the conference I invited you to, which took place this past weekend at Grace Harbor Church in Providence. 

The main speaker and big draw for the conference was Mez McConnell, pastor of Niddrie Community Church in Edinburgh, Scotland, and cofounder of the 20Schemes organization (more on that later). Mez talked about his life on Friday night, and it was pretty intense. Basically grew up in a really abusive, nomadic situation, in and out of children’s homes in Ireland and England, and then the old story of crime and drugs. Some Christians who came to his housing project to play soccer and witness to people told him about Jesus, but it wasn’t till later, when they visited him in prison (and didn’t preach to him), then gave him a place to crash when he got out.

The next day a representative of 9Marks (an organization that promotes church health) and the other cofounder of 20Schemes spoke, and Mez spoke again. 20Schemes is an organization that has a simple goal: to plant or revitalize churches in 20 of the poorest housing projects (“schemes”) in Scotland. 40% of the population of Scotland lives in projects (which tells you a lot about the nation). About one half of one percent of the people in the projects are Christians. That’s where Mez is from (though in England, not Scotland) and that’s where 20Schemes is working. There was also a Q&A panel discussion with the speakers. I think everyone there wishes McConnell had had more time to talk and elaborate on some big points he made, but that’s not how it played out. I’d like to summarize those points below.

Mez McConnell on training gospel workers …

When Mez was growing up, church was for “posh” people and for dead people (funerals). 20 years on the evangelical church in the UK is even more middle class and isolated.

50 years back the main way that the poor were reached in Scotland was through “mission halls”, including “city missions”. While they did a lot of good they were “para-church” organizations, not churches, and so did not retain a permanent presence in the poor neighborhoods. Today evangelical churches are aged and dying; they have the gospel but no one to preach it to (little contact with non-Christians). Liberal churches don’t care about evangelism because they don’t really believe in sin or its eternal consequences. So they content themselves with “social justice” initiatives and projects.

Today most evangelism is still done by para-church organizations. Most development (actual community-building change) is done by government agencies. Mez believes that local churches should be doing both, and can do both better than the para-churches or the government. A local church gives a base of operations, a place of spiritual accountability for gospel workers (who are usually headed toward burnout). Just as important, it gives a place where believers and unbelievers grow together in active discipleship.

We need a movement that will incorporate local training of workers, and not require them to leave their own people and culture and become something they are not. How are we going to get there? By being honest about how desperate the situation is. The current method of training personnel (leaving “ministry” to the professionals, and requiring them to get seminary education) is not working.

50-75 years ago at the bottom of the class system was what was called the “working class”. Today they have been replaced with the “underclass”, who are characterized by 3-5 generations of welfare dependency, totally broken family structures, and loads of addiction. The schemes in Scotland were originally built (most of them) to house miners and mill workers, but now house people who have often never done any legitimate work.

Mez is, by his own account, an exception: he is an “insider” who came to Christ, got trained, got ministry experience (he worked with street children in Brazil for several years), and came back to the culture he came from: that of the British/Scottish underclass. Today, church planting and revitalization in places like the schemes depends on cultural outsiders: middle class folks who are willing to be downwardly mobile for the gospel.

The goal of cultural outsiders must be to look for and train cultural insiders to carry on the work of the gospel. Reaching the poor for Christ cannot be done with a top-down, outside-in strategy. Ultimately it must be handled by the cultural indigenous: people who became Christians from within that specific community or scheme. This is a very long-term project. At Niddrie, the team Mez works with have made 20-year commitments to the work there. They live in the community, serve there, and over time, they are accepted and can effectively share the gospel there.

Principles …

  • We need to start throwing lots of money and our very best people at ministry to the poorest. Christians need to aspire to move down the social ladder for the sake of the gospel, not up it.
  • “Iatrogenesis”: a word coined by Ivan Ilych to describe the process where leaders make everyone else think that they, and only they, can serve as leaders. This is very natural and very harmful. All Christians should be trained to serve/lead, and should seek to serve/lead. That’s how the gospel grows.
  • Thanks to a combination of factors, mercy ministry is very much in vogue today. But much of it is “malevolent generosity” and “crippling paternalism”. There is a soup kitchen mentality, where we continually give handouts to people who continually take advantage and pretend to be grateful. There is nothing sadder than a regular at a soup kitchen. The goal must be to help people out of their current situation, to where they can work and serve others. We should stop measuring success by mouths fed or tracts distributed.
  • Most churches that engage in mercy ministry have absolutely no plan for when someone comes to Christ from a hard background. They must be prepared for works of service! Help -> Conversion -> Discipleship -> Maturity -> Leadership. They must be challenged to help themselves and help others: to bear good fruit! Therefore, have a plan before you open your doors!

Suggestions …

  • In leader training, make a conscious effort to overcome cultural barriers. All material is currently written by “cultural outsiders” for other cultural outsiders. It must be rewritten for cultural insiders.
  • Lead from beside and behind, not just from in front. Unleash new converts early. Example: Tasha, running a Bible study within 2 months of her conversion (with a mature Christian woman in the room to help her). Think of leading as shadowing.
  • Think of leadership development as shadowing rather than as reading. Don’t confuse education with intelligence. When developing leaders from this kind of background, the “cream” doesn’t always rise to the top: no culture of achievement/competition in place. Instead, think of it as diamond mining: you have to dig and dig to get to the gems.
  • We must celebrate and build a culture of failure in our ministries. Why is everyone so afraid of failure? God’s in charge: get a grip! If you’re failing, it means you’re trying – and that’s what you need to do!
  • We must repent for our lack of faith. The fields really are white with harvest. The Lord will give a harvest. 
  • We must be sure we understand people’s language; their ways of communicating. In Acts 2 Pentecost reverses Babylon, and makes it possible for people to understand each other – even from different countries and social backgrounds.
  • Cross-cultural exposure is absolutely essential for leadership development. Going to Brazil was the best thing that could have happened to Mez. He likes to send his own trainees (people from the schemes) to visit middle class churches – and forbids them from criticizing!
  • You must be able to come and love the community as it is, rather than seeing it as something to “fix”. 
  • Know the strengths and weaknesses of the culture you’re trying to reach – and the strengths and weaknesses of your own culture. 
  • Observe, don’t assume. Don’t bring “Christian” cultural values with you. 
  • We must work hard at delivering systematic theology in ways that are relevant to each cultural context. 

Phew. Obviously, there’s lots to talk about in here. All of this could have been greatly expanded – I would have appreciated it.

I’m not going to give a big “here’s how we do this in Providence” analysis, but I will say a few things. First, there’s lots of transfer between the situation in the UK and the situation in New England. The numbers on Christians in the two places are similar, and in each place there’s lots of hand-wringing and despair over “reaching people”. Second, people from the beaten-up bottom of society are far more ready to talk about God and hear the gospel than well fed middle class folks. Third, most mercy ministry is a farce. We have been extraordinarily blessed in our church in that respect. Fourth and by far the most important point, something that I didn’t mention above: the most important thing we can do, ever, is pray. Pray for the people in our lives, but also “pray to the Lord of the harvest to raise up workers for the harvest”. Mez said his church has had a prayer meeting every morning from 6-8am for years. There are no gimmicks or tricks. Either the Lord saves and changes people, or he doesn’t. If you want him to do so, and want him to include you in his work, pray for those things.

What “Progress”?

In the Reformed theological tradition we believe that God not only justifies us (declares us guiltless and righteous); he also sanctifies us (literally “makes us holy” – makes us actually better people than we have been – transforms us).

There is a little bit of debate on whether sanctification is “definitive” or “progressive”. The term “definitive sanctification” was coined, I think, by John Murray of Westminster Seminary in the mid-20th century, so it is pretty recent. But by this term Murray focuses on the way Scripture often uses the terminology of holiness: “but you were sanctified“, etc. Holiness is not something we only gradually attain; it is something God has given us once and for all, through Christ. And Murray is right.

On the other hand, Reformed students of Scripture have long talked about sanctification as a process – “progressive sanctification”, by which God changes us gradually, so that we die to our fleshly desires and sins, and are made alive to the presence of Christ’s Spirit in us. This is the clear teaching of the Westminster Confession, the most important Reformed confession of faith in English:

I. They who are effectually called and regenerated, having a new heart and a new spirit created in them, are further sanctified, really and personally, through the virtue of Christ’s death and resurrection, by his Word and Spirit dwelling in them; the dominion of the whole body of sin is destroyed, and the several lusts thereof are more and more weakened and mortified, and they more and more quickened and strengthened, in all saving graces, to the practice of true holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.

II. This sanctification is throughout in the whole man, yet imperfect in this life: there abideth still some remnants of corruption in every part, whence ariseth a continual and irreconcilable war, the flesh lusting against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh.

III. In which war, although the remaining corruption for a time may much prevail, yet, through the continual supply of strength from the sanctifying Spirit of Christ, the regerate part doth overcome: and so the saints grow in grace, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.

I love the way the Confession talks about Sanctification. But I don’t love the phrase, “Progressive Sanctification.” I do believe that we can gain true victory over specific sin patterns. Sometimes this happens quickly, sometimes after a long, hard slog.

But perhaps the most flashy sins – the ones others see and shudder at – are not always the deepest and deadliest sins. A man may lay aside sexual sin or drugs but become deeply embroiled in pride. Has he progressed?

A second issue is that of “backsliding” or “regress”. I feel myself to be in a period of spiritual neglect or decline, and repent and take stock: perhaps I have been giving my anger its head, or feeling sorry for myself, or lying to others, or spending my money stupidly. These were a problem two years ago; I made some “progress” but have now “backslidden”. Am I truly “back where I was” two years ago? Am I better off? Worse? Can anyone but the Omniscient answer these questions? I can’t, and I’m damn sure you can’t.

The concept of “progress” in sanctification is helpful in the sense that it gives hope for the defeat of sin, but it is not necessarily very biblical and it has enough of a modern scent that we should be cautious if not downright suspicious.

While the Bible certainly talks about journeys and pilgrimages, it spends more time talking about dwelling, feasting, and looking. Moses enters the tabernacle of meeting to speak with Yahweh: he emerges with his face shining. The sparrows that nest in the eves of the Temple are luckier than us pilgrims. Travelers can make “the valley of tears” into a spring precisely because they are heading to “the shouts, the songs, the crowds, the feast!” Settle in the land, dwell in it continually. Seedtime and harvest, summer and winter.

Perhaps it would be better to think about sanctification as a series of pilgrimages, a perennial taking stock and realizing that we’re still in Ur and not in Canaan. I need, need to sit again at the feet of the Master. Better, I need to see again his cross and his empty tomb.

There is a little bit of a broader principle at work in this talk of “progress” as well. Progress suggests a long but basically straightforward path: to triumph, to knowledge, to power, to salvation. This is patently false and naive. In response, we could listen to postmodernity’s counsel of despair, and believe that knowledge and action are alike circular: I am doomed to know and do what I have always known and done. Or we can exercise patience. As there is a “hermeneutical spiral”, by which we slowly, by encountering and re-encountering the object of our study, come to set aside our biases and come to know it, so there is a “sanctificational spiral”, by which we encounter again and again the beautiful Cross, and each time, we come away changed. The change will be deeper, probably, than conscious thought or habit, but it will be irreversible.

I think T. S. Eliot got this. From “Little Gidding”:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Or, from “The Journey of the Magi”, after the Magi have found the place beneath the star:

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

My sanctification is not a matter of journeying ever onward, stumbling back along the track, forward again, and so on. It is a matter of having seen the place, perhaps from afar, and returning again and again. My gracious Lord does not leave me in the desert always. He gives me living Water and Bread to drink, Light to see by, and Rest.

All Saints Worship: the Prayers

This little essay starts with an uneasy feeling. I have always been uncomfortable, when running a worship service, asking for the offering (“our tithes, offerings, and alms”) – though not for the same reasons some people are. From time to time I hear critiques of tithing during worship on the grounds of the regulative principle of worship (the idea that whatever is not explicitly commanded to be done in worship by the New Testament must be forbidden). There is no obvious instruction to tithe during worship, so it should be left out. If tithing is to happen, it should happen in some other way, perhaps with a “tithe box” set near the entrance of the worship room (don’t call it a sanctuary!).

I think there are problems with that critique, notably Paul’s instruction to the church in Corinth to set aside their offering for Jerusalem when they gathered on the first day of the week (what do you think they were doing together on the first day of the week?!), but in any case, the regulative principle is not the reason I felt uncomfortable calling for the offering. Nor was the question of whether a tithe per se (a tenth of all income) is explicitly commanded in the New Testament (interestingly most people who would like to go to a tithe box don’t seem to have a problem with the concept of “tithing” carrying over from the Old Testament). No: my problem was that it felt like exacting a fee for my services. In my small church the bulk of the budget goes to paying the pastor (me) and it just feels awkward to ask for an offering that will mostly go to, er, me.

I am starting to think that this discomfort of mine betrays a wrong way of thinking about worship altogether. I still have questions (legitimate ones, I think) about how best to compensate pastors, but they are not the issue here. The issue is: who is performing the liturgy? Put another way: is worship a one-man (or two- or three-man) show? If I am the one doing the work, and everyone else is the “audience,” then the offering is payment for services rendered.

Some recent reading has helped me get a better answer to this question. A friend loaned me The Shape of the Liturgy, by Dom Gregory Dix, an Anglican monk. Published in the 1940s, Dix does the remarkable service of tracing the history of Christian liturgy from its earliest discernible days, through the Reformation and beyond. Dix claims that very, very early, two basic types of closely related worship services (liturgies) can be found: the Synaxis (“meeting”) and the Eucharist (“thanksgiving”). The Synaxis was close to our concept of a worship service: psalms, prayers, and a sermon by the pastor. The Eucharist was, of course, the celebration of Communion, and was normally preceded by all the elements of the Synaxis. What struck me is what Dix says about the Synaxis:

The original unchanging outline of the christian synaxis everywhere was as follows:

1. Opening greeting by the officiant and reply of the church.

2. Lesson.

3. Psalmody

4. Lesson (or Lessons, separated by Psalmody).

5. Sermon.

6. Dismissal of those who did not belong to the church.

7. Prayers.

8. Dismissal of the church.

(9. On occasions a collection for the poor, the expenses of the church, etc., was made. But this was rather a separate duty of church life, which might for convenience be performed at the ‘meeting’, than a part of the synaxis itself.) (Dix, 38)

Notice that there is no prayer until non-members have been dismissed. Further, the doors would be barred! Why is that? The church took it as deadly serious that only baptized Christians have the right to come before the Father in prayer. Further, Dix’s description of what the “prayers” were like seems closer to the intimacy of a prayer meeting than like the formal “pastoral prayer” I and other pastors offer up on Sunday mornings. While there was variation, a common pattern was for a deacon to “call” the prayers. “Pray for the peace of this city, our province, and the empire,” he might command. Then the congregation would spend some time in silent or whispered prayer. Finally the bishop would close that portion of the prayers by praying for the same things. The deacon would announce another area of need: the harvest, the sick, the church in other places, etc., and the pattern would repeat. African Christians seem to practice a louder version of the same: simultaneous prayer by the congregation, concluded by the solo voice of an elder.

To summarize: only baptized Christians may pray, corporate worship is the preeminent place for prayer, and in corporate worship all baptized Christians are to pray! Dix believes that losing this has led to the bifurcation of private and public devotion (with a bigger emphasis, today, on the potency of private devotion, at least for the laity):

If the truth be told, many of the more devout of our laity have come to suppose that intercession is a function of prayer better discharged in private than by liturgical prayer of any kind, so unsatisfying is the share which our practice allows them. The notion of the priestly prayer of the whole church, as the prayer of Christ the world’s Mediator through His Body, being ‘that which makes the world to stand’, in the phrase of an early christian writer, has been banished form the understanding of our laity. Their stifled instinct that they, too, have a a more effective part to play in intercession than listening to someone else praying, drives them to substitute private and solitary intercession fro the prayer of the church as the really effective way of prayer, instead of regarding their private prayer as deriving its effectiveness form their membership of the church … Our own [method of prayer] is the product of that excessive clericalism of the later middle ages … Then and now its result upon the devout laity is to provoke an excessively individualistic conception of personal prayer. (45-46)

Wow. It makes sense. This feels like painting a historic house what you assume to be its original color, then realizing that you have to scrape off all the wallpaper and paint (including yours) in order to find out what it was really like. If Dix is right and this is the general pattern of worship of the early church then some things fall into place for me. Growing up in an excellent Reformed church, under the leadership of an excellent pastor, I appreciated morning worship (the best sermon), but loved evening worship, which was smaller and more “informal” and allowed the congregation to participate in prayer and request psalms. When studying for the ministry I discovered that evening worship is the red-headed stepchild of the conservative Reformed churches. It feels informal (disorderly!) and often allows women to pray during the service (which drives the regulative principle guys nuts), but congregations hate to give it up: it clearly scratches an important itch. Lo and behold, the churches and denominations that disparage congregational participation the most also tend to have the loftiest view of clerical status.

“Informal” evening worship as it is often practiced and the historic Synaxis elevate the office of the laity, both by calling for active participation and by excluding non-Christians (formally in the Synaxis, informally in evening worship – far fewer visitors seem to attend evening worship than morning worship). The answer to my earlier questions is that the whole church is at work – actively – in worship. Only Christians can (properly speaking) pray, and all Christians must pray.

And we haven’t even gotten to the offering yet – or the role of women in worship! Stay tuned.

What we should have remembered all along

In the West, but especially in the United States, a cultural revolution took place in the late 20th century. Their foundations long eaten away, older ways of living have largely collapsed. We see this most obviously in the arena of the family. Abortion, unwed mothering, irresponsible fathering, normalization of cohabitation and fornication, divorce, and now same-sex marriage.

Christians have reacted in multiple ways. The organization by Jerry Falwell of the Moral Majority marked the rise of the Christian Right. I’m not sure anyone thinks the Christian Right is very strong anymore. A recent article by Wesley Hill describes a remarkable shift in opinion about same-sex marriage among evangelical Christians. A few years ago only 11% approved, now 24% do.

The Protestant establishment has petered out. Nothing recognizably Christian is left in its place. Although the institutions it created (universities, federal and state governments) remain.

One valuable gift of the late-20th century revolution to Christendom is that believing Christians no longer think that their interests are coterminous with the interests of the dominant culture. A clear indicator of that is the rise of Christian education. When public education was created in the 1850s and strengthened in the 1920s, it was Protestant public education. Catholic schools were started in order to offer a safe haven to people who felt uncomfortable in the public schools. Until pretty recently, public schools felt like safe and more or less competent caregivers for the children of Christian families. No more. The explosion of Christian schools, starting in the 1970s, and the even more significant explosion of homeschooling since the 1980s, demonstrates this.

The challenge now will be for Christians to learn how to live with tension between “us” and “them”. The Christian Right (and for the most part, the Christian school and homeschooling movements) reacted by withdrawing and fighting. The Christian Left – which is ascendant, especially among Millennials – reacts by throwing down the vestiges of difference, and posturing as a kinder, gentler, Jesus-tinted version of the culture it is living within.

Both of these have points to make, but neither is an acceptable way of living in the world in the long run. We must live with difference, with being a counterculture. Yet our counterculture must be a loving and self-sacrificial one. We live, as Jonathan Haidt might have it, as people with a moral matrix centered on divinity, in the context of a culture whose moral matrix is centered on avoidance of harm. Yet our Divinity is one that entered into human life and gave up His life for his enemies.
We have to live the life we should have lived all along. A life in the midst of enemies, who may like us or may turn on us. A life in which we build but don’t cry too hard when our buildings are knocked down. A life in which we plant and don’t stop when our tomatoes are stolen. A life in which we pray for the Shalom of those around us. Not so that they’ll like us and accept us, but because we are patiently awaiting the action of our Sovereign on our behalf.

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Social Justice and the Mark of Cain

I am a social justice guy. Despite Glenn Beck’s warning, I am totally in favor of the church and individual Christians seeking the betterment of the world they live in. I’ll even go further: I’m in favor of environmental justice, if by that we mean proper guardianship of the earth and its resources. I have a regular old Messiah complex (which is funny, because I believe in an actual Messiah who definitely isn’t me).

But: there are a couple of points we have to be clear on before we take up our banners and save the world. First, there is no way to thoroughly cleanse ourselves of wrongdoing. Second, our efforts at social justice will inevitably conflict with one another. Third, and most importantly, we all live under the mark of Cain.

We cannot completely avoid wrongdoing

To the first point. This is an old, old truth – one whose drum Reformed Christians have beaten loud and long, in a slightly different form. We usually talk about the doctrine of total depravity – which teaches that every aspect of the human person (Plato’s triad of intellect, appetites, and will) is affected by sin. Not only are our desires bent toward ungodliness, our abilities to think and make decisions are too. Especially with Reformed doctrine ascendant in certain parts of the Christian world, you would think that this would be fairly widely accepted.

But. Whatever the foundations of our society, for the last several generations it has preached an all-encompassing focus on personal self-fulfillment. Christians have not avoided this – not by a long shot. Freshly baptized with vaguely biblical terms, not only is my purpose on earth to “be who I am,” or “express myself,” that is now God’s purpose as well. For many Christians, the God of unreasonable demands and commands is gone. “Take up your cross and follow me,” is for other people – people whose personal desires are not as refined as mine and my friends’. Like people who drive SUVs or eat a lot of McDonald’s: they should crucify their desires, obviously. True evil in the world is to be found in the intolerant (=oppressive), the traditional, the “religious” (a word now spoken by most Evangelicals with a twist of the mouth). Anything that stands in the way of my becoming who I should be/want to be/God wants me to be is the enemy.The opinion (real or perceived) of unbelieving friends counts for much, the heritage of the Christian church for little. In short, the idea that real evil is not just “out there” but “in here” – in me, in my motives and actions and thoughts and words and decisions – is radically unfashionable.

This dismissal of human depravity has a tremendous effect on how we view problems around in the world. With an optimism successfully sold to Millennials by their elders in marketing, we think that we can literally “solve” every “problem” we can identify. Climate change! Sexism! Joseph Kony! White hegemony! Monsanto! Global poverty! Cancer! Evgeny Morozov of the New Republic has titled this attitude “solutionism”. An important component of the solution is nearly always technology, as those who sell technology never tire of telling us.

An unintended effect of this optimism is that it leads to a radical “us vs. them” mentality: in other words, elitism (which is always the mark of Pelagianism). We all know that x is bad. If we all just buckled down and did something about it (and particularly, if entrenched powers in the corporate, government, university, or religious worlds did something about it) we could eliminate x! That means that the world is neatly divided into good people and bad people. Good people who want the world to be a better place and bad people who want to be richer and more powerful than the good people.

It is easy to see other people’s faults in black and white. It is possible that the hated energy executive is an archvillain cackling over her nefarious plans, but it is much more likely that she is a normal human being, working in an industry that her background and education qualify her to work in, responding to pressures around her, as well as having a dollop of ego and personal ambition (like, I think, we all do). The board is looking for a better quarter than last year; her peers are successes in their own fields and she will feel like a failure if she doesn’t stay abreast of them; her lifestyle has gradually become expensive; her kids are all in private colleges; and the shareholders, the shareholders, the shareholders! She may not have tuned out the environmental concerns raised about her company’s natural gas exploration, but it is difficult to take them at face value. The voice of NIMBY is loud but unreliable; her company’s scientists seem very confident that they are doing no long-term harm; and beside all that she is a realist: if her company does not tap into the Marcellus Shale gas, her competitors absolutely will.

It is very difficult to see our own faults with any clarity, on the other hand. It is generally pretty risk-free to “speak truth to power” when you are not part of the power structure you are critiquing. It’s vastly more difficult to speak hard truth to your close friends and allies. In 2004 Paul Graham wrote, “Do you have any opinions that you would be reluctant to express in front of a group of your peers? If the answer is no, you might want to stop and think about that. If everything you believe is something you’re supposed to believe, could that possibly be a coincidence? Odds are it isn’t. Odds are you just think whatever you’re told.” This is a simple but important rubric. If your values fit neatly with those of your peers, colleagues, close friends, coworkers, the chances that you arrived at them after careful independent thought are vanishingly small. After all, our minds tend to be emotional dogs wagging rational tails.

I hope this is beginning to convey what I mean when I say that we cannot completely cleanse ourselves of wrongdoing. It will not do to simplify the world, dividing it into the good guys and the bad guys. Total depravity is a true and practical teaching: the punch has been spiked for everyone. I am no less to blame for rationalizing my wrongdoing than a powerful oil executive is. The call of God is on both of us to do what is right, no matter what the cost. And if I answer back that my sins affect little, and the oil executive’s much, well, who is to say that? That is a perspective unavailable to us. The full effects of our actions, public or private, will not be seen till after we have left this earth. Perhaps in 10,000 years my quiet envy and self-regard will turn out to be more poisonous than someone else’s natural gas exploration.

Our efforts at social justice will inevitably conflict with one another

You can’t have your cake and eat it, unfortunately. No amount of calculation will make my carbon footprint neutral and resolve all poverty issues. Fairly traded clothing is a laudable thing, but it does not fit neatly with making affordable and dignified clothing available to the poor, nor helping developing countries, er, develop.

Looked at another way, I only have so much income each year. I can spend it on fairly traded clothing, or on free range chicken, or on a Prius. And if I buy the Prius, I am making another unpleasant choice: day-to-day low fuel expenditures, plus social cachet (both of which the Prius will give me) over a lower overall impact on the planet (which an efficient conventional gasoline car – or better, a used car – would provide).

If I am an important person who wants to use his influence to combat human rights abuses around the globe, I will certainly be traveling by plane frequently. If I want to offset the pollution produced by my travel, I can pay for someone to plant trees somewhere – relying on cheap labor and someone else’s calculation of how exactly trees and carbon dioxide work. And the money I have spent on carbon offsets could have been spent on fairly traded clothing or hiring an out-of-work recent college graduate.

I want my neighborhood to retain its historic appearance. So I and my neighborhood association make rules about siding, windows, gardens, etc. – at the expense of alienating working-class neighbors, exacerbating class tensions, stifling entrepreneurship, and (by forbidding new siding and efficient windows) bumping up the neighborhood’s carbon footprint significantly.

Beginning to get the idea? I have only mentioned concrete acts of consumption – I have not touched the attitudes with which we often approach our lives. Do we make good decisions as consumers, and then torture our families and friends with our self-righteous attitudes? Do we look down our noses at people who have chosen differently (including, perhaps, all of our forebears)?

O’Donovan writes of a “peculiarly innocent posture of much modern moral idealism, conflating its multitude of causes together into one grand but illusory project. The term ‘ethical,’ as used in such phrases as ‘ethical trade’ and ‘ethical banking,’ covers many adventures in moral earnestness which have little in common with one another beyond the fact that the same good people support them through the same coffee mornings and the same sponsored bike rides. But that does not prevent them thinking they are serving one overarching end, spoken of as ‘saving the planet,’ ‘changing the world,’ or whatever. Reflective moral thought has different reasons for different moral judgments. If torture is to be opposed and organic farming supported, the grounds for the one are not the same as the grounds for the other. But the modern will, with its generalized high-mindedness, brushes the differences aside and conceals from itself that carbon-emissions, endemic poverty, torture, speculative bankers, and anti-immigration rallies pose diverse perils, and that saving the planet from one of them may not at all be conducive to saving it from the others.” (Self, World, and Time, 117)

I think that this, too, undermines our Pelagian elitism and perfectionism, and brings us back to the “throne of grace.” Even if the world is divided into good guys and bad guys, and we are the good guys, we are unable to do our jobs. Even the private consumption of goods has repercussions throughout the world – too many to all be handled well. Conscientious consumers find themselves relieved to not know where a gifted sweater or a restaurant meal was sourced: a bit like vacationers abandoning their diets, but still burdened by a vague guilt.

The mark of Cain

The form of conservatism currently dominant in the United States (at least) tends to pooh-pooh questions of social and environmental justice. That is not my intention. I actually do try to buy ethically farmed meat and clothing manufactured in humane working conditions. I think these things are important. What I want to do is provide a strong theological starting point for the ethical decisions we have to make. And that starting point, for me as a Christian, is a scriptural one.

Genesis 4 tells the story of the first children born to Adam and Eve, brothers named Cain and Abel. It is recorded that Cain tilled fields while Abel tended flocks. Both offered their produce to God as a sacrifice. For whatever reason, God was pleased with Abel’s offering but not with Cain’s. This led Cain into a murderous jealousy, and he struck and killed Abel in a field.

The part of the story I want to highlight is the part that comes next: God’s confrontation of Cain. The sentence God pronounces on Cain is that he will be driven away from the land he has been living in and will be a wanderer on the earth. For hard-nosed death penalty advocates, or indeed for anyone who has read the hard punishments of Moses in the next few books of the Bible, this may seem light. But Cain complains: “Behold, you have driven me today away from the ground, and from your face I shall be hidden. I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.” (verse 14).

God’s response is an astonishing one. “Then the Lord said to him, ‘Not so! If anyone kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.’ And the Lord put a mark on Cain, lest any who found him should attack him. Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden,” (verses 15-16). Remarkably, Cain proceeds to found a city (the first “city of refuge”) and a vigorous family. Under the mark of Cain, judgment is deferred, refuge and even real life for the guilty is made possible. The mark is not a scarlet A (scarlet M?), but a flag of protection. Cain’s guilt is real, but others may not judge him: that is God’s prerogative.

I think that this describes perfectly our situation as we seek to do right in the world. We are all of “the race of murderers,” O’Donovan writes. We are, frankly, soaked in guilt: the guilt of what we have done, and not done, as individuals. But also the overwhelming burden of what we have done and continue to do as a human race, as various ethnic groups, nations, churches, cities, families, professions, and circles of friends. If we began to accuse one another, there would be no end. And that’s just human judgment. “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” No one, of course. Jesus’ warning, “Judge not!” is not an easygoing dismissal of human imperfection. It is a recognition that were judgment to really start, it would be a bloodbath for everyone.

But there is a better reason to refrain from judgment even as we pursue justice: “But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared.” God has poured out judgment, but not on us. Condemnation is silenced now by “the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.”

This, then, is the starting point of our pursuit of a better world. We are not nearly perfect, striving to sand off the corners, while deploring the rottenness of Others. We are of the race of murderers. But we have been given a reprieve and more than a reprieve, true remission of sins. We pursue justice with humility of speech and conduct, ready to admit freely our guilt, and change our ways as we are able. We recognize that blood cries out against us as well as those we despise, and we recognize that blood speaks for them as well as us. We are no better than anyone else. Our Messiah complexes are checked: while we may say, “By thee I have run through a troop, and by my God I have leaped over a wall!” we also admit that we cannot say, “this is the Father’s will … that of all which he hath given me I should lose nothing.” It is beyond us to do perfectly what we know to be right.

But the mark of Cain means that it is in our power, even now, to do what is right. Judgment has been deferred. Every day, every enterprise, every decision is a new chance to do right. Not because we’re the good guys, not because we’re successfully juggling all of our obligations. Because we have been given real liberty to choose.

Christians, Paleo People, and Evolution

A non-prophetic prediction: within 20 years there will be significant rapprochement between evangelical Christians and proponents of biological evolution. Why? The “paleo” school of nutrition (representative thinkers: Loren Cordain, Robb Wolf, and Art de Vany) and their cousins at the Weston A. Price Foundation.

Evangelical Christians will become more willing to listen to the arguments of biological evolution because they are already sympathetic to traditional ways of living. Conservative Christians tend to distrust modern medicine, cook their own food, have lots of kids, and generally be, well, conservative. They also distrust government (and most people who would like to run the lives of others – including the church, of course!), want to educate their own children, and like weapons. They hate government redistribution, but they are personally very generous to the poor and to causes they believe in. They are frugal with their money and goods, and leery of new technology. They prefer the dirty countryside to city life. Many eschew birth control. In short there is a (right, in my view) bias toward old ways of living and doing things.

Paleo people (and there are a number of different major and minor characters in this group) may become more sympathetic to conservative Christianity for similar reasons. Along with the functional fitness crowd (especially the wonderful cult of Crossfit), they reject the sewn-up, dysfunctional doctrines of late-20th century nutrition: high carb, processed foods; avoidance of fat, trusting science to make a better cookie. They hunt elk with spears (or at least sympathize with the idea), soak their grains (if they eat any), eat organs whenever possible. There is a huge libertarian contingent here (including the founder of Crossfit, Greg Glassman) – they are more libertarian than liberal, but more liberal than conservative. They sneer when the state tells them how to live (or at least eat), knowing that the US government is a wholly owned subsidiary of Monsanto and Tyson Foods. From what I have seen they are less willing than many of their generation(s) to toe any line politically. Their comfort with gay marriage is more the result of a “who cares?” attitude than of thought-out viewpoints on marriage and human rights.

See where I’m going with this? Paleo people have a credible scientific approach that many conservative Christians lack (there are just not a lot of Christians in the hard sciences today). But believing Christians have two things that paleo people cannot possibly find in their ideology. First, they have a more complete sense of the social dimension of traditional life. We don’t just eat and exercise traditionally; we live traditionally. We understand that marriage is an institution forged over thousands and thousands of years of human existence, and can’t be redefined “just cuz” we think it would be nice for gay people to be married if they want. We are pro-sex and pro-baby – so pro-baby that we can’t stand abortion, at all. We recognize gender differences as innate (although not ultimate) – and so we have a strong preference for “traditional” roles in monogamous marriage. But the second thing we have that paleo people don’t is a place from which to critique traditions.

This may take a little explaining. I suppose you could look at liberal and conservative attitudes through the lens of the parable of the two sons. The younger son in the parable is the liberal. He is an individualist, selfish through and through, willing to insult and break his father’s heart in pursuit of the life he wants to live. He believes that he is best off without the constraints of traditional society (family in this case): free to reinvent life as it suits him. The older son is a conservative: he is pro-family – but interestingly doesn’t love his father any more than little brother did. He wants an intact social system (“that I might celebrate with my friends”) and he wants the goods granted by a strong community.

What is Jesus’ attitude toward these – which does he vote for? Neither: both sons need to repent by the end of the parable! The younger of his self-centeredness, the older of his tribalism. The gospel of Jesus Christ is an offer of salvation to fragmented, individualist, modern people – and it is an offer of salvation to hellish, repressive traditional communities where religion is used as a cudgel to keep people in their place. If the only alternatives are liberalism and conservatism, we’re in a tie: they’re both bad. As Jonathan Haidt discusses in his book The Righteous Mind secular people tend to be self-centered, while religious people tend to be tribal. The secular person believes that there is nothing worth dying (or killing) for; the religious person believes his/her own group is worth dying (or killing for). But if we understand the gospel we will live not for ourselves, and not for our tribe alone, but for the good of the world. Why? Because Jesus Christ gave himself for the life of the world.

In short, then, the Christian gospel provides a place from which to appreciate but also critique traditionalism and modernism, conservatism and liberalism. With conservatives it denies that human nature is open to total reinvention, or that human community is optional or even very malleable. But with liberals it denies that human community is itself the highest good or the highest authority. The Christian loves his community (family, church, city, circle of friends, etc.) but is ready to disobey the will of his community when love (of God and of the community itself, which may be making a terrible errors as a group) demands it. So historically, the adoption of Christian ethics has meant the affirmation of some traditional institutions but also modification and amelioration: marriage stays, but it’s monogamous and lifelong, and celibacy is a respectable option. Slavery might stay (it usually dies in Christian-dominant societies) but slaves must be regarded as humans, not “animate tools” (Aristotle). Meanwhile other institutions and practices (such as pederasty) are either stamped out or forced into the shadows.

With paleo people we sense that older ways of living and using our bodies are often wiser than new ones, but unlike paleo people we recognize that that wisdom extends to social structures as well as nutrition, exercise and ergonomics. Eating grass-fed meat, lifting free weights, and wearing zero-drop shoes will lead to health and happiness: how much more honoring elders or confining sexual love to lifelong marriage?

But there is an elephant in the room, and that is the ongoing creation/evolution debate. I am not planting a flag anywhere, but I will simply observe that the current unwillingness of conservative Christians to discuss this is going to break down. Arguably that is already happening, but I think it is going to accelerate. I have simply run across too many Christians unselfconsciously cooking and eating “paleo” and “primal” food, wearing Vibram FiveFingers, and otherwise tacitly agreeing with an evolutionary perspective on the body and health, to think that the conversation isn’t going to erupt.

Final thought: an important advantage of having this conversation, rather than avoiding it: it provides an opportunity to talk about something modern liberal society has managed to nearly forget (notably in the current debates over marriage): that there is such a thing as human nature. Cognitive psychologists and evolutionary physiologists recognize something that average Westerners, nurtured to think they can literally be and do whatever they fancy, do not: what we are physically and mentally is robust and difficult to change; when we try to live in defiance of our inherited nature, we suffer.

O’Donovan: the Cross and Resurrection and Christian Ethics

“The cross and resurrection of Christ is, it seems to me, central to the way Christians speak of two crucial moments in acting. First, in being forgiven the past: this discovery that we are not prisoners of our past, that our chains fall off.

“Because the natural thing to suppose … is that what we are and have been is what we needs must be. There is nothing else for us but to be what we have been. The ground on which Christians have denied this, and summoned one another to faithful action, has been the ground of the cross of Jesus Christ, the great act of justification and forgiveness which stands at the very heart of God’s relationship with mankind. The possibility of being a new agent, with the offenses and inadequacies and failures, which for us are simply part of what it is to be, put aside and forgotten.

“The resurrection – in the resurrection we are taught to believe in God’s will to restore the created world and humankind to its good purposes – to the purposes for which it was made. It seems to me both those focuses are absolutely crucial if we are to understand what acting is: if we are to understand our agency on the one hand, and the goodness of the world into which we act on the other hand.

“Because, of course, it’s not always easy to see the world as good, either. It’s one of the things that actually stops people doing good, is the vision they have of the world – a depressing closed-down tragedy-ridden vision which is hostile to human action. The resurrection of Jesus Christ teaches us that God will not have it so – that God’s world is restored to the goodness he intended for it. And we are able to enter it, to engage in our actions in it, on that basis.”

Oliver O’Donovan, from September 13, 2012 Veritas Forum Q&A at Cambridge University

For All the Saints

1. For all the saints, who from their labours rest,
Who Thee by faith before the world confessed,
Thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blessed.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

2. Thou wast their Rock, their Fortress and their Might;
Thou, Lord, their Captain in the well fought fight;
Thou, in the darkness drear, their one true Light.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

3. For the Apostles’ glorious company,
Who bearing forth the Cross o’er land and sea,
Shook all the mighty world, we sing to Thee:
Alleluia, Alleluia!

4. For the Evangelists, by whose blest word,
Like fourfold streams, the garden of the Lord,
Is fair and fruitful, be Thy Name adored.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

5. For Martyrs, who with rapture kindled eye,
Saw the bright crown descending from the sky,
And seeing, grasped it, Thee we glorify.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

6. O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
All are one in Thee, for all are Thine.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

7. O may Thy soldiers, faithful, true and bold,
Fight as the saints who nobly fought of old,
And win with them the victor’s crown of gold.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

8. And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
And hearts are brave, again, and arms are strong.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

9. The golden evening brightens in the west;
Soon, soon to faithful warriors comes their rest;
Sweet is the calm of paradise the blessed.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

10. But lo! there breaks a yet more glorious day;
The saints triumphant rise in bright array;
The King of glory passes on His way.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

11. From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
And singing to Father, Son and Holy Ghost:
Alleluia, Alleluia!

Fight To Be a Church – some suggestions on how to do it

“Friendship is the greatest of worldly goods. Certainly to me it is the chief happiness of life. If I had to give a piece of advice to a young man about a place to live, I think I should say, ‘sacrifice almost everything to live where you can be near your friends.” (C.S. Lewis, The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume 2)

A few days ago I wrote that there is a serious disconnect in the way that most Reformed churches live, between the idea of the church as a living body and place of mutual care, and the reality of spread-out people who have difficulty sharing with and encouraging each other honestly as we struggle to be faithful to Christ. I talked about some of the consequences I see flowing from that and also identified what I think is the simple cause of much of our dysfunction: we don’t see each other very much – don’t get a lot of face time.

I want to suggest now some ways around this lack of face time. In a culture where living 20+ minutes’s drive from one another is normal for friends, family, and church members, how do we live? What will we decide to do? Now, I understand that people are busy – often really busy. And pursuing these things takes time; time you might not be willing to give up. But as with so many things (education, exercise, financial planning), investments now pay off dividends later. In fact, not just later but eternally : “Godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come,” (1 Timothy 4:8). Here are some things to think about as we pursue being better Christian friends:

Pick up the phone. Did you know that your phone is capable of instant voice messaging? Not just newer models – the old ones too! For some of us talking on the phone with people who don’t live on the other side of the country feels like a throwback to high school. But I encourage you: try it. As you get used to it, you will find it really rewarding. Call people in your church – see how they’re doing! It is practically free and involves no drive time. Try doing this once a week for a month and see how it goes. Here’s the flipside: if someone from church calls you, pick up the phone if at all possible. But not while you’re driving: I don’t want to do your funeral sooner than I have to.

Just don’t allow distance to be a barrier. I won’t put too fine a point on this. If you live somewhere where you have to drive 20 minutes to get groceries, you should be willing to jump in the car and drive 20 minutes to see friends from church, all the time. Otherwise you are in danger of using distance like the rich in some cities use high walls – to keep people (even your fellow Christians) at a distance.

Quantity time is better than quality time. Not every visit with a friend has to be for intentional, well-planned “activities”. We’re friends, not kindergarten students. Time playing a game, mocking a movie on TV, sitting around and doing nothing but chatting together is priceless. A while back, parenting experts talked a lot about “quality time”. Since then, many have done a 180 and now emphasize “quantity time” instead. Both are important, but I think there should be a bias in favor of quantity. If you have lots of time together, good time together tends to happen.

“Fellowship” should be both leisure time and serious time. Kind of goes with the last point. Lots of unplanned time together with friends is good. But some of our time together should be planned and intentional. Giving our attention to the Word and prayer, to singing some psalms and seriously discussing the gospel makes our friendships fundamentally different from those around us. At the center of our relationships as Christians is the cross of Christ – it is common attention to the gospel that makes us a people, not just individuals. So: Bible studies and times of prayer!

Don’t be a New Englander: just drop in. When I was in seminary Esther and I had a good friend (a classmate of mine) who was a single guy from North Florida. He frequently did something that flummoxed both Esther (raised near Boston) and me (from upstate New York): he just showed up at the door. To visit. Without a purpose. He was a great guy, so we didn’t mind, but we were clearly confused by this behavior, till he patiently explained that in the South, this is not unusual. People just show up at each other’s houses, to say hi and visit for a bit.

Clearly, this is not the way people operate in New England. Back in Pawtucket, many people got rid of their sidewalks (they had the choice by city law) and didn’t have working front doorbells – if I know you, you’ll come to the side door, and if I don’t know you, I don’t want you coming here! Add to this a nationwide “play date” culture, where unstructured play time for kids is out and parents are too protective to let the youngsters wander around the neighborhood, in and out of the neighbors’ houses like they used to. What if we had a culture of just dropping in on each other, at least inside the church?  Given the distance we frequently deal with, you might not want to make special trips all the time (“Uh, sorry, it’s not a good time – my grandma just died and the kids all have a stomach flu.” “But we drove 25 minutes to see you!”). But if you’re in the neighborhood, is it crazy to drop in on each other?

Maybe a good path is as follows. First, be ready for people to drop in any ol’ time. Doesn’t mean the house is in perfect shape. Does mean that everyone has clothing on. Second, tell people that they should feel free to drop in any time. They might not be bold enough to just try it, but if you tell them to, they might. Third, be ready to say no when you really can’t visit. People are legitimately afraid of imposing. If half the time they show up, you say you can’t visit, they’ll know that you’re being honest the other half the time, when you say, “Come on in!” Going along with that, make your visits short unless your host insists. So much for “Dropping In 101″.

Go places where you feel uncomfortable. Just what it sounds like. If the South Side or Central Falls makes you uncomfortable, make a point of driving through them sometimes, and take opportunities to meet people or do business there. If Barrington seems like the other side of the moon to you, go get ice cream there. We serve the King of the earth, and we need to be ready to go wherever he calls us, and trust him to guard our lives and souls. Be honest about your “comfort zone” and make it bigger.

Don’t just help, ask for help. This is another tough one for New Englanders. This is a place where independence, achievement, merit are prized – where small towns stand on their own and refuse to admit the existence of bigger cities nearby (“Are you from Providence?” “No! I’m from Johnston.”) And while people here are incredibly loyal and would do anything to help a friend in need, they also dread asking others for help. It feels weak and lowly; it can be humbling! But do you understand that when you ask for help, you are telling the people you ask that they are important to you? That they are needed? The best times together are often the ones where we tackle a problem side by side – whether it’s your problem or mine.

Eat together. Self-explanatory. My church (at least) can cook and I am grateful whenever anyone feeds me and my family. Have people over on Sundays and weekdays. PB&J if necessary – just do it!

Pray for each other by name. Also self-explanatory. Make a little list of people in your church. If you’re in my church, it really is a little list. Pray for one or two households or individuals a day and you’ll cover the whole church in a few weeks. Doesn’t have to be long, but this is part of how we care for each other, and something we promise to do when someone joins the church. Furthermore, the act of praying for someone changes you: first, by bringing someone to mind that you might not otherwise be thinking about; second, by causing you to put a little effort into thinking about what happiness and a good life would look like for them. I’m telling you, you will change for the better.

Bible study should always touch on praise and repentance. I will get into this in another post – it’s that important. But briefly, Bible studies should not be mainly brain-enlarging exercises: the purpose (telos) of knowledge is obedience.

Finally, if all else fails, move. I hesitate to write this, but I have over the years seen a number of people buy a great house far from their churches and regret it. I am not bringing up the debate about what kind of community (city, suburb, countryside) is best to live in. I’m making the simple point that life far away from your church friends is a massive negative factor, whether you know it or not. It would be better to have a long commute but be close to people from church than vice versa. There is a strength and ability to mutually support one another that can’t be replaced by a great house with a great view. Be careful about where you buy, and hold on loosely to your property. Always be asking whether you are in the best place you can be to serve the Lord and love his people. I would add that this sensitivity to location is extra important for pastors. Churches where people seldom see each other are fragile; churches where people have everyday contact are much stronger.

In case you think I’m making all of this up, I’ll close with a quotation from the Form of Presbyterian Church Government, a 17th century document adopted by the Church of Scotland at the same time as the Westminster Confession:

The ordinary way of dividing Christians into distinct congregations, and most expedient for edification, is by the respective bounds of their dwellings.

First, Because they who dwell together, being bound to all kind of moral duties one to another, have the better opportunity thereby to discharge them; which moral tie is perpetual; for Christ came not to destroy the law, but to fulfil it.

Secondly, The communion of saints must be so ordered, as may stand with the most convenient use of the ordinances, and discharge of moral duties, without respect of persons.

Thirdly, The pastor and people must so nearly cohabit together, as that they may mutually perform their duties each to other with most conveniency.

Fight To Be a Church

“And you shall seek out day by day the faces of the saints, in order that you may rest upon their words. You shall not long for division, but shall bring those who contend to peace. You shall judge righteously, you shall not respect persons in reproving for transgressions.” (The Didache, Chapter 4)

These words from the anonymous 1st century Christian writer urged believers to see each other often, in order to receive encouragement and, when necessary, rebuke.

Why is it that our church relationships so often go only skin-deep? Christian churches can sometimes feel like the world’s weirdest AA gathering: everyone says they have a problem (sin), but no one actually wants to talk about it. Churches are often places where we talk about the reality of sin – a reality so nasty that the Son of God died to save us from it – but never get real about their own struggles with it.

There are reasons for this, of course. Some churches have the opposite problem: places where the over-sharer is king (or queen); where after-worship conversation, Sunday school, and Bible study are all dominated by soul-baring, and confession to the group actually becomes a stand-in for repentance before God. A lot of people find themselves in a church like that, get burned, and look for the door. It’s understandable that later they’re leery of any sharing of their weaknesses.

But there has to be a third way. The New Testament assumes it. “Confess your sins to one another,” James wrote. The Catholic church took this from the public penance of the early years of the church (closer in spirit to what we think of as church discipline) to the confessional booth of today. There is something right and powerful about sharing our struggles with sin with other believers. And this is just part of what we seem to be missing today. We are not “real” with one another, in an era when online relationships often replace real ones. We do little to encourage one another specifically, let alone speak honestly about matters of sin and weakness.

Now, there are lots of exceptions to this. Lots of people who call or visit the struggling. Further, there are churches where there is “community” that actually becomes toxic – a breeding ground of gossip and dissension. But those considerations don’t change the fact: there is a gap between the teaching of Scripture that the church is a living body, with all its parts working in harmony, and the actual practice of many (if not most) Reformed Christian churches right now.

The missing link between the doctrine we believe and the doctrine we practice is sometimes pretty simple: face time. We don’t see each other enough. As American Christians we mostly live pretty far from each other, and the simple fact is this: when seeing your friends take effort, you see them less. In my part of the USA, driving is effort. Traffic is bad, roads are narrow, distances are exaggerated. Even my stupid driveway is hard to get in and out of.

What’s the cost of seeing our church friends less? Here are a couple:

  1. Without lots of face time, “other” becomes “alien”. We live in different kinds of neighborhoods. Nothing at all wrong with that. But when we basically only see each other at church, the lives of people in other neighborhoods becomes less and less real to us. The idea of spending time there becomes scarier. This is true even for people who have in the past lived in neighborhoods very different from where they are now. And it is true for lower income people as well as higher income people. If you live in an inner city neighborhood, a wealthy suburb can feel like the other side of the moon. This feeling of difference makes us less flexible, less ready to go where our friends live, and less able to love their neighbors (who are, in fact, all of our neighbors). What sociologists call “sorting” (the tendency of people with similar class, income level, race, and political outlook to cluster in various communities) has a spiritual impact.
  2. Without lots of face time, we undermine the genuine diversity of Christ’s body. Okay, I know that’s a weird thing to say. But here’s the deal: the amazing diversity of the church is a good thing only because God has brought it into an even more amazing unity. Animals in zoos have diversity, but not unity. The remarkable thing about the body of Christ is that God has taken people from all backgrounds and all  races and languages and made them into one new people, one new tribe, one new nation. (Perhaps the greatest problem with the denominational system is that it tells lies about the unity of Christ’s church.) Worship is the moment where we perennially renew that relationship with one another, as well as with Christ. But if we don’t see each other much outside of worship, aren’t we guilty of formalism – trying to impress God and others with our worship, but lacking any real spirit behind it? Dinner together is important for family life. But what would you say about a family that silently ate a formal meal together once a week, and then didn’t see each other at all away from the table? If they love each other, they hide it well.
  3. Without lots of face time, the church becomes far less compelling. The friendliness on Sunday mornings, the good mercy work, decent preaching, and general non-weirdness take us a long way. But if, after weeks or months attending, people discover that our relationships don’t go deeper than that, they may lose interest. They discover that we are driven largely by the same things everyone else is: professional advancement, our children’s success, leisure activities and hobbies. In business terms, our culture is our strategy. If our culture is one of undemanding acquaintance, rather than strong friendship, we lose people who (rightly) want real friendship – and gain people who mostly just want a place to worship and learn. Which brings me to the next point:
  4. Without lots of face time, the world becomes more real than the gospel. In the biblical concept, “the world” means the range of sinful choices available to us. It varies from place to place and from age to age, but it still boils down to “the desires of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, and pride in possessions”. It becomes harder and harder to see critically the values of people at our workplaces and in our neighborhoods and extended families – to examine them against the values taught by Jesus Christ. If we are talking about work and neighborhood and family pressures with fellow Christians, they will see things we don’t; alarm bells will go off for them that we might not be aware of. All of us need other people to see what we’re not seeing. That is a massive part of being the church. “I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct [counsel] one another.” (Romans 15:14). 
  5. And this is big: Without lots of face time, rebuke becomes confrontation. If I see people multiple times a week, at church and at my house and riding together places and at the coffee shop, I am talking with them all the time. That creates comfort, and it builds “personal capital”. So when they see the need to call me to account for something, it is not necessarily painful – for them or for me. I can take it; it’s just a small part of time together that includes fun, small talk, encouragement, and silence. But if I see someone once a week or less, rebuke becomes a big deal. A very local pattern of life is assumed everywhere the Bible talks about the church (e.g. Matthew 18:15-20!). Lots of face time is essential if we are to help each other flee from sin. The alternative is that weird AA meeting where we all acknowledge being sinners but no one owns up to any sin.

The Bible talks all the time about the vital importance of our life as a body of believers. But we don’t live as if that is true. This is a particular problem, I would add, for professional men, who often work at a distance from home and who face pressure to spend very long hours producing. But this is not insurmountable. In a few days I’ll talk about some of the ways we can fight back against the alienating, fragmenting forces we all deal with.

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