Sunday, August 20, 2006

Hard Words to Hear

A gracious responder to my last blog raised the question as to whether or not airing critical concerns about the state of the church does anything but "tear down the church and our Lord has asked us to build it up." But here's where my spirit is as we think about the "church" today. I'm not so certain that what we often think of as church is really church anymore... at least not the Church that Jesus called into existence in the early chapters of Acts.

Here's what I see in our churches that's not church as Jesus designed it.

1. Today, buildings are the church; in Acts, people were the church. The Church of Jesus Christ managed to go for three centuries without purchasing or building one single structure. The church was the people living life as Jesus called them to live it. We talk a good talk about the church not being buildings (I hear it all the time from good people), but our actions betray our words. "Let's go to church" really means, "Let's get in our car and drive to the church facility where all the member activities occur." Until there is a radical retraining of our thoughts related to what the church really is, buildings and budgets will always be more important than people, and we aren't the church.

2. Today, the church is gathered; in Acts, the church was scattered. We've hunkered into our institutions and inadvertently isolated ourselves from the world Christ called us to change. Just think about it. We have our own Christian schools, Christian music, Christian books, Christian movies, Christian coffee shops, Christian retreat centers, Christian retirement centers, Christian television stations, Christian concerts, Christian cruises, Christian weight lifting, Christian soap operas (I've seen it!), and (my favorite) Christian breath mints! It seems that whatever the world has, we have our own version of it. I'd love to see someone develop a Christian car that was fueled by the Spirit. It would sure save me some money on gas! Okay, that was mean. But my point is, it's possible to be a sterling Christian in the eyes of our peers and NEVER engage the world (except maybe with a protest sign in our hands). We can go day to day, moment to moment, hour to hour seeped in a Christian sub-culture, and never get our hands dirty in the world. Anything with "Christian" on the front of it becomes an invitation to withdraw from the world. Or worse, it's an attempt to be "of the world" by copying what the world has and sanitizing it, while NOT being "in the world" - isolating ourselves from the highways and byways of life. In the past 100 years that the Christian subculture has grown in America, the number of lost people in our society has grown incredibly. Imagine if for the past 100 years we had been pouring our talents into society at large rather than our own Christian clubs.

3. Today, Pharisees are cool; in Acts, Pharisees were out. It's hip to remind congregations that we can occassionaly find hints of Phariseeism in our midst, but it's far more blatant than we give credit for. The Pharisees of Jesus' day managed to take 10 commandments and turn them into over 600 rules. These rules were buffers to make sure that you didn't come close to violating God's law. Isn't it the same today? We're debating, judging and fighting one another about things that are hardly essentials of the faith. Here's a few extra rules that jump to mind... "Thou shalt vote Republican if you are a true believer." Or "Thou shalt be considered super spiritual if you use pious and spiritual words at the end of every sentence." Or "Thou shalt not go to Disney World." Or "Thou shalt allow a woman to sing in church, teach kids 18 or under, subtitute or coteach male adults only if working with another male, work as a youth minister, but not as elder, associate pastor, and you must never allow them to preach, only to lecture behind a potium." Or, "Thou shalt be authentic, so long as you don't say anything that offends me in the slightest." Or "Thou shalt not drink wine just because Jesus did." Or my favorite contrived commandment in modern day Phariseeism: "Thou shalt not say anything critical of the church in a blog!" Decorum, dress, musical volume, political positions, trite moralisms, obscure interpretations of the Scriptures... these have become points of division in our churches, or worse, they have become benchmarks for true spirituality. I thought it was rather clear that Jesus condemned adding anything to his gospel. "Love God and love others." Jesus reduced the 10 commandments down to two while we're multiplying them a hundred fold. Where's the condemnation in our churches of these added rules that push people to the margins who Jesus accepts and elevates spiritual holiness in a way that is completely artificial?

So let me ask, is it right for us to sit quietly by and allow the church to become even more and more like the Catholic church was when Martin Luther announced his protests? How can we "build up" the church unless we "tear down" what is not the church? Just wondering.


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