Tuesday, January 10, 2012

More on The Church of Middle-Class American Virtues

Try to think of this without bias:

When you think of the word “Christian”, what image comes to mind?

Do you see a happy, smiley family in their “Sunday best” sitting in a pew, listening attentively to a sermon? That is the picture the culture paints for us, Ned Flanders on a massive scale.

Now ask yourself:

What image do you think the word “Christian” brought to mind for people in the first century?

Hopefully you are not getting the same image but with nice togas and sandals instead of suits and dresses!

Christians in the first century were outcasts and social misfits. They were on the outside of the culture, not seeking political victory but just survival while proclaiming Christ, a message that they knew full well would place the life of a new believer in peril. The matters that concern us today would be bewildering to a first century Christian. Politics? Budgets? What in the world are you talking about?! Of course not all Christians, even in the first century, were destitute outcasts. Certainly some Christians were well-to-do but those who were seemed content to give away their wealth, even to the point of selling their lands and houses:
There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. Thus Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles' feet. (Acts 4:34-37 ESV)
Can you imagine that?! Imagine the wealthiest Christian in your assembly deciding to sell his home and land to give to the neediest Christians in that church assembly. It is really unthinkable and no one would even consider that to be an issue. Now can you imagine a pastor telling his congregation boldly that the home owners sitting in the pews needed to sell their house to give to the needy families in the church? He would be looking for a new job right quick. We have a hard enough time getting people to put a couple of bucks in the plate that will mostly go to benefit themselves. In the first century it apparently was pretty common place to make those sorts of demands in a culture where the Gospel call came with the equivalent of a social/cultural/economic death sentence. Picking up your cross and following Him might mean picking up an actual cross with your name on it!

This is the same atmosphere that the Anabaptists encountered for many years. Someone who left the dominant "church", whether Catholic or Protestant, to follow the simpler way of the Anabaptists was likely forfeiting their cultural status, their property and tragically too often their lives. This was common knowledge. When I think of ministers struggling to put together a 45 minute sermon to “preach” for the upcoming Sunday, I wonder what they would have done in the 1st century or the 16th century when you were proclaiming a message that people knew could lead to their imprisonment, torture and death. “Come join us and probably be burned at the stake” is not the sort of message you put on a door hangar or a flyer you hand out at parades. It might not be a message a church growth expert would recommend but that was the message that the apostles and the Anabaptists preached and is still preached by many missionaries in the hard places of the world today. In some crazy way, that message drew in people who were willing to give it all away for the sake of the Gospel. What happened?

The Gospel we preach today, in “Christian America” and the rest of the West doesn’t really have the same urgency does it? In a culture where people are assumed “Christian until proven otherwise”, changing churches has little impact and having your name on a church registry is synonymous with being a Christian and getting out of hell. The message we preach is mostly one that calls on people to come to church, a message with little in the way of sacrifice. Don’t want to give up your wealth? You don’t need to, all you need to do is put a token amount in the plate! Don’t want to be involved in a community of believers? No need, we just ask that you come forward once so we can accept you into the church with a chorus of “Amen!” and then just show up regularly! Worried about witnessing and sharing your faith with others? Not a problem, we have professionals to do that!

We like our Christianity clean, neat and tidy. We like to count our victories in elections and membership numbers, not in tears and blood and dirt and even death. No one is asking us to sacrifice very much and we sure aren’t volunteering to do so.

Christians, we are called to impact the world by the basin, not the ballot box. We will not win a single soul to Christ by outlawing abortion (something I think should be outlawed) or by defeating “gay marriage”. We will not see people change or experience revival in the church by proclaiming a cultural message of middle-class morality and virtue. The Gospel we have been preaching is precariously close to being “another gospel” like the one Paul warned about. Sure it might be theologically airtight but in terms of changed lives it falls woefully short because it changes attitudes rather than changing lives. It is great at making immoral non-religious hypocrites into moral religious hypocrites. In other words it is great at filling churches with people who have middle-class American virtues who vote the right way but little else. We need to get back to the old time Gospel and I don’t mean the Gospel preached in America in the 1950’s. I mean the life changing Gospel that commands people to repent and follow Christ and that comes along with a promise of hardship and trouble in this life. It might not preach well from a pulpit but it is desperately needed in the church, starting right at my own doorstep.

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