There is an old saying that has renewed relevance in today’s religious world. I grew up hearing of Christians who were “so heavenly minded as to be of no earthly good.” It was a sharp comment; it needs to be pulled out and sharpened a little bit more. All across America, and indeed throughout the Western world, authentic biblical Christianity is taking a beating. Not only is the philosophy of humanistic atheism experiencing somewhat of a rebound, but people are leaving churches by the scores. What is occurring, and why it is occurring, are questions that occupy both sociologists and theologians. I think one answer that deserves some examination is the idea that for far too many people Christianity has simply become a concept to think about, a few doctrines and principles to believe. However, for real life, one must turn to philosophy, and increasingly that philosophy is rooted in the self. This is true of both secularists and Christians!
I want to illustrate my argument with a common scene – one that I encounter quite frequently but one that I am sure any of my readers have experienced as well. Maybe even you are guilty. But picture a class or discussion where the teacher is really getting personal – really getting down to “brass tacks” and laying things out “where the rubber meets the road.” He, or she, can begin to see some light bulbs come on, and there are some signs that the class is beginning to formulate some honest-to-goodness concrete applications for the lesson. Then, just as some real work is about to take place, the resident Pharisee blows the entire discussion up with a comment that, on the surface appears to be a profound addition to the conversation, but in reality shifts the entire focus off of a concrete (and therefore possibly costly) application and places it in the realm of a “spiritual” application that is utterly worthless.
You see, the Pharisees (or perhaps to be fair, at least a sizable majority of them) had no problem with spiritual application of the biblical text of their day. The Pharisee that came to test Jesus knew the greatest command of the law, and the second as well. It was no problem to assert that one was to love God, and to love one’s neighbor. The Pharisee just could not get his mind wrapped around the idea that a Samaritan, of all people, might actually be the example of biblical love that God was commanding, and that waylaid, half-dead travelers might actually be the necessary recipient of such love.
What is going on that so many people are leaving the church, and why so many people are hesitant to consider becoming a part of the church? Another “preacher’s story” might help. A little boy and his father were discussing the sermon they had just heard. The little boy asked his father, “Daddy, what is a Christian?” The father went into great detail about how a Christian is one who has dedicated his life to Jesus, who lives according to God’s word, who tries in many ways to make the world a better place, and who realizes he is not perfect but still tries to be the kind of person that God wants him or her to be. The little boy was quiet for a while and then said, “Wow, daddy – do we know any Christians?”
I have to confess that for far too long I have been a part of the problem and not a part of the solution. It is far too easy for me to retreat into the “spiritual” so that the “real” does not cost me anything. Also, when someone attempts to blow up my classes with a “Sunday School Answer” that is meant to spiritualize the application instead of making it explicit and verifiable, I acquiesce far too easily.
Let’s be honest here – I want the Pharisee’s answer, not Jesus’s.
One of the things I have learned from reading the Old Testament carefully and meditatively (my “spiritual” side) is that God was really, seriously concerned that hungry people be fed, that naked people be clothed, that poor people be given the chance to earn their keep, that issues of justice be administered fairly without any fear of bribery or other manipulation. I am utterly convinced that Jesus, the twelve apostles, Paul, Luke, and the Holy Spirit who inspired the New Testament authors are just as vitally concerned about those issues.
A man cannot hear the gospel if his stomach is growling.
What we call “spirituality” and the concrete issues of social, racial, economic, and environmental justice are not polar opposites. The church has been duped into thinking that we either focus on “saving someone’s soul” or making sure they have a decent job, adequate clothing and enough food on the table. Why should anyone pay any attention to our pleas that they be baptized if they know we steadfastly support efforts to deny them basic God-given rights?
I have been asked what is the greatest problem facing the church today. I have been asked what my thoughts are as to how we can reverse the trend of people leaving the church. I honestly do not have the perfect answer, but I think I have a clue: If we want people to fall in love with Jesus to the point that they will commit their lives to him and become active, productive members of his body, maybe, just maybe, his body needs to start caring about what God cares about and behaving like Jesus behaved.
Philippians 2:1-17, anyone?