A church unusual instead of a church as usual

A church unusual instead of a church as usual


Saturday, June 20, 2015

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My last article on the crisis in Christianity (Jamaica Observer, June 10, 2015) elicited a lot of responses -- mostly in agreement that there is indeed a crisis in the church. Some readers indicated that they once had faith but have since left the church because they cannot deal with the level of hypocrisy they encounter there.

It must be noted that hypocrisy is something endemic to human nature. If the church is a hospital for sick souls, as it is often described, one can be sure that even among the "redeemed" living in a sinful world, the universal trait of hypocrisy would not have departed from it. But I understand the thinking of those who raise the point as I have myself done on many occasions. Those who claim to have become new creatures in Christ are expected to live exemplary lives, or as Paul described it "a life worthy of your calling in Christ Jesus" (Ephesians 4:1). If the world does not see this life in the Christian then it has a right to call attention to it.

The crisis in Christianity today is a reflection of the crisis in the church, which is the vehicle for the dissemination of the good news concerning Christ. From the very beginning of its existence, the church was understood to be different from the world; it is in the world but not of it. As a called-out community, it was not expected to mirror the flaws of the world, but to challenge those flaws and so create a community that would reflect the mind of Christ. In other words, it was seen as different and this difference was demonstrated in the way it fellowshipped and took care of the needs of its members and those in the wider society. This was revolutionary in the context of an oppressive Roman society. The young fledgling church stood as a beacon of hope for the oppressed and downtrodden. Their differentiation from the rest of society could not be missed. In fact, the early persecution of the Christians was predicated on this difference, as Christians were seen to be isolationists and social outcasts who would have nothing to do with the barbaric games in the Roman coliseums. It was indeed the church unusual in a difficult world.

As I read the various responses to my aforementioned article, I became more convinced that there are many who believe that the church in the 21st century has lost this distinctiveness. Indeed, people seem to be clamouring for an unusual church, one which does not fit into a model that reflects business as usual. There are many aspects or features that could characterise such an unusual church, but I offer two here for our consideration.

First, the church unusual is not one that is defined by hierarchical power and privilege. The churches that are experiencing a greater fall-off in membership, the so-called mainline churches, are those that are defined by well-structured strata of power and influence. As you ascend in the hierarchy there is a marked shift in attitude towards those in the lower rung, and certainly towards those in the larger congregation. With hierarchical structures come rules and regulations that are intended to define conduct. Abrogation of these rules or canons can necessitate the entire weight of the hierarchy tumbling down on the head of a hapless victim. I have seen where power has been used by those in authority to crush the aspirations of the errant. Who thinks of the intrinsic worth of the person who is crushed? Is there a consideration of that person's value in the eyes of God beyond a desire to preserve the status quo?

This approach to power and authority is so different from the shepherding role that the leader is supposed to carry out as he or she seeks to mirror the work of the chief Shepherd of the flock. Jesus warned his disciples about the abuse of power in his conversation with them in Matthew 20: 20-28. The church unusual understands the proper use of ecclesiastical power and the tragic consequences of its abuse. It understands the role of the pastor as servant. While there has to be order and discipline in the flock, this should not be exercised at the expense of the generosity and grace that should inform it. The church that cares more about the application of rules, regulations, laws or canons is a church that is yet to understand the forgiving love that should define it. There is much more to be said, but we must move on.

Second, the church unusual is one that is defined by spontaneous generosity and gratitude. This was one of the essential hallmarks of the first-century church. This community was described in the Acts of the Apostles as one that shared generously of the things they possessed. There was not any among them that lacked "for all who were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of the things that were sold, and laid them at the apostles feet; and they distributed to each as anyone had need". (Acts 4: 34-35) This outpouring of compassion and generosity set them apart from the rest of society, for such generosity was hardly known in the wider Roman world.

It has truly been said that the church is a hospital for sick souls. It certainly must be a place where people who are hurting can come and find some healing for their deep wounds. Yet, the church as usual does not often operate with this sense of compassion. Instead it is a church that judges and condemns rather than heals. The truth is that many people do not see the church as a safe environment where they can share their deepest pains and not get judged and condemned for the things disclosed. Quite apart from the predatory sexual abuse scandals that have plagued it, many do not believe that the church is a haven in which they can find solace in the face of life's many trials.

One reader, reflecting on the inconsistencies he sees within the church, wrote: "What we have in too many congregations are members who verbally persecute and otherwise destroy their members so that outsiders are not inspired to become part of the Church. What we have are too many Christians at the workplace who are the epitome of evil who could never, by their regular actions, influence others to be part of their Church."

There were many other responses in this vein. This is often the refrain of many young people and older people who have lapsed. There is no qualitative difference between the behaviour of those in the pews and those in the wider society. There are those who will tell you that they find a greater sense of comfort and trust with people outside the church than they do from those within. After all, those outside do not have to pretend. They know who they are.

All of this is not a commentary on the goodness of God, but on the behaviour of those who seek to present God to the world. Those who would seek to denigrate the efficacy of God in the world on the basis of the behaviour of his adherents walk a false road of denial. God is never the problem, but what we seek to do in his name. There is a great deal we can learn from a revisit to the early church to which the Acts of the Apostles bears witness. There we find an unusual church, small in number, yet permeating the then-known world with the transforming love of the one to whom it witnessed.

Dr Raulston Nembhard is a priest and social commentator. Send comments to: stead6655@aol.com

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