Serving in an inner-city church, in what would be called a classic, “come-back” neighborhood full of baby boomers, older “Gen X’ers” and a population that is socially, economically and ethnically diverse, I’ve encountered a lot of different religious ideas and practices. In fact, in the category of religious beliefs, the neighborhood around the church is probably more diverse than in any other category. People have shared some interesting ideas and thoughts with me over the last five years. I’ve run into a lot of people who are part of what I would call the non-traditional branch of the church, mostly small groups that meet in coffee houses, homes, side rooms in restaurants, and even in parks and outdoors. Their stories about how they found Jesus are often fascinating and very interesting. One of the common elements of their experience is that many of them do not see the connection between the Jesus they have discovered through the gospels and the Holy Spirit and what goes on in a traditional church.
There are those, among traditional, church-going Christians, who would be quick to judge and say that these people just don’t have it right. But that doesn’t really fit with my experience. In most cases, I find that they not only have a very realistic perspective of Jesus, but that they know him intimately. Their faith, their worship, their “church,” are all very simple, and very sincere. When I see the way that they go about living out their faith in Christ in their lives, there is no doubt about their commitment. So why is it, then, that there seems to be a disconnection between these believers, and those in the traditional forms of the Christian church?
Those who have come to faith in Christ through a path that didn’t involve a traditional church are able to read the gospels, and interpret them without the doctrinal or theological baggage that comes from being steeped in the church and its traditions. There is no agenda, no denominational or church politics, no control issues, no pseudo-celebrity status, and no power base to overcome first. Usually, someone in a non-traditional community has come to faith in Christ as a result of a personal tragedy or struggle to overcome something in their life, perhaps an addiction or a broken family relationship, and their initial experience with Jesus brought them into a spiritual transformation as a result of an encounter with the Holy Spirit. They needed healing, and they found that Jesus can still heal. And in the setting that they were in, even while many of them were still in the process of healing, they were brought into contact with other people who needed to have the same kind of transforming spiritual experience in their lives. They didn’t have to wait until they got the necessary “training,” or until they had enough “church experience,” or they had “paid their dues” to be put in a place where they could exercize their own spiritual gifts. And they didn’t have to meet someone else’s expectations for their own spiritual growth. They discovered true servanthood through direct practice in a natural way, without the benefit of a program or someone else’s approval.
The problem that I see in a traditional church setting is that we overlay the traditions and culture with which we are familiar on to the practice of our faith, and we make faith conform to our presuppositions and expectations, rather than allowing our lives to be shaped by Jesus. Many of the things Jesus taught and did make us uncomfortable, and they don’t fit with the way we live our lives. We can see these inconsistencies, so we develop a way to explain them away, or change what scripture means by changing the interpretive context to something other than what God intended. Jesus was the Son of God, and his words are the interpretive filter for the rest of scripture. Unfortunately, when Christians don’t want pure Jesus, they often use other things, including other passages of scripture, to get around what they don’t like.
In Matthew 4:23-25, in describing the opening scene of his public ministry, Matthew tells us that Jesus preached in the synagogues and performed many miracles of healing. Perhaps, in the traditional church, that’s where our discomfort with the pure Jesus begins. Healing is authentic evidence of spiritual power. It’s evidence of the real thing. Jesus talked about spiritual transformation, preaching the good news, and then confirmed his words with an authentic miracle which was seen as a visit and a touch from God himself. The truth is, it was. And people who needed an authentic touch from God made their way to where he was preaching in order to experience it. That really upset the religious leaders, because they couldn’t do the same thing, and they were afraid that their religious leadership, which was the means by which they held control over the people, would be exposed as a fraudulent charade. And it was. So they found a way to get the Romans to execute Jesus.
It’s just personal speculation, but I am beginning to think that these healing miracles performed by Jesus may bother us in the church today because he didn’t capitalize on them by asking for something in return for performing them, or by using them to expand his own fame. They weren’t marquee performances, they were acts of compassion and love designed to relieve suffering and set people free from disease. In our consumer culture, selfless acts of compassion are not only infrequent, but they cause one’s motives to be called into question. It is unfortunate that, among many of the people I’ve met in these non-traditional communities, many of them have discovered the church is not capable, or in many cases unwilling, to offer relief for their physical or spiritual ailments. I don’t want to paint with a broad brush, but the Christian church, as it exists in modern American culture, has been diluted with consumerism, and in many cases congregations are personality cults, built around a celebrity pastor, or theaters for a marquee performance with a religious theme. The church rarely goes to people and meets them where they are, rather, it expects people to come to it, and those churches with abundant resources and marketing savvy put them to use building a religious amusement park designed to fill their seats (and their offering plates) at the expense of other churches.
And we’re just a few paragraphs into the gospel narrative, a mere scratch on the surface of everything that Jesus taught.
Church is a place where we can make ourselves comfortable by convincing ourselves that we are righteous, contrasting ourselves with “the world,” (or the “lost crowd”) which means those who don’t participate in the life of the church like we do, and feel that we can perform enough religious duty to make God happy for a while. “Forgive us of our sins and our shortcomings,” we pray, though when we are in church, we cannot be honest enough with the other people around us to be genuinely broken by our sinful condition and acknowledge that our righteousness is as filthy rags. Maybe that’s why we dress up in our Sunday best, put on a smile, and act as though there’s nothing wrong when we walk through the door of the church building. God forbid that someone should think there is sin in our life, much less know what it is. And yet, when I’ve seen the blatant honesty that some communities of believers share in their gatherings, the confession, the openess, the willingness to admit that the flesh is weak and it has failed again, and the seeking out of the Holy Spirit for renewal and restoration, I find myself longing to be that open and honest. Perhaps pushing for doctrinal purity, or declaring ourselves to be consistent with the scripture and Biblically correct is nothing more than compensation for the lack of real spiritual power in our churches because we cannot be open and honest with each other about who we really are, and the spirit is quenched because of it.
I’ve been a part of a church all of my life. When I was 6 years old, I “went forward” during an invitation, and as a result of that experience, I was baptized. I thought I had settled all of my sin issues with God at that point. All was forgiven. All I had to do was to keep my good works in balance, stay “prayed up,” believe all the “right things,” show up for church when the doors were open and my eternity was secure. It wasn’t until I was in college that I began wrestling with some of the things Jesus taught, taking them literally, as good Baptists are supposed to do. “Anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgement.” That makes me a murderer. “You cannot serve both God and money.” That means I am not serving God. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you that you may be sons of your father in heaven.” That means I can’t really call him “Father…” If you do not forgive men their sins, then your heavenly Father will not forgive your sin.” Oh, Lord, help my unbelief! “For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” Does this include people who don’t vote the way I do? Or those whose lifestyle I don’t approve of? “Thus by their fruit will you recognize them.” Do I want someone else to be honest with me and tell me what they see in me?