“We worshipped Jesus instead of following him on his same path. We made Jesus into a mere religion instead of a journey toward union with God and everything else. This shift made us into a religion of “belonging and believing” instead of a religion of transformation.” Richard Rohr

The Christian religion in the U.S. rarely produces the experience of transformation…people who can live the kind of life that Jesus lived…powerful, compassionate, loving, courageous, inclusive, status-quo challenging. (It) often produces angry, small-minded, judgmental people who divide rather than unite, who exclude rather than include, and who ultimately contribute to the deep resignation and cynicism about the Christian faith that is so prevalent in this part of the world today. Jesus teaches us a way of life and relationship, and when we follow that way, participating with him in that life, we are actually empowered to live the kind of life that Jesus lived.

A good friend and respected colleague recently posted these two quotes on Facebook. The second quote is from a highly regarded, thoughtful church leader. These are good people. Very good people.

I so want to agree. And in so many ways I do agree. But in reality, I’m not sure I live it, and maybe that tells me that I don’t really agree. I think I’m slouching toward Augustine.

Richard Rohr

More and more, I hear from all kinds of thinkers, theologians, bloggers, and preachers a push for a more committed, more transformational, more all-in, more stand-apart church. Less just showing up. Less cheap grace. Less compromise with consumerism. Less compromise with nationalism. Less luke-warm faith. Less doctrine, more action. Richard Rohr, Barbara Brown Taylor, and others seem to carry this message. I imbibed a version from Stanley Hauerwas over 30 years ago. And I remain grateful and loyal.

The Usual Suspects

Augustine of Hippo

The bad-guys in such scenarios are Constantine and Augustine. When Constantine made Christianity the religion of the empire, the church became the place to be, to collect social status chips, to be privileged by the state. Later, Augustine’s obsession with human weakness and the vastness of God’s grace lowered the expectations for Christians. Trust and believe. But not so much behave. Pelagius, Augustine’s antagonist, (can we call him a “heretic”?) often is portrayed as the genuine, nice guy, the one you’d want to have over for dinner or join your church.

Have I Made a Difference?

Am I just another jaded pastor looking back on a career and wondering “Did I really matter? Did anyone or anything really change because of my ministry? Does the church work? Does the Gospel transform people?” It seems to be almost an occupational hazard these days.

“Transformation” isn’t an on-off switch. It isn’t a yes/no proposition. I believe there are many people who would say my ministry has “changed” their lives. I’ve walked with them through a time of tragedy. The drip, drip, drip of my preaching and teaching has worn a groove in their soul.

Does this mean that they are now capable of enemy-love, forgiving those who hurt their children, radical peacemaking, great courage, costly generosity, sublime discernment, and deep compassion? Probably not. At least not consistently. They’ve been transformed, but incompletely. Yet is there any other sort of human transformation? By what scale do we evaluate transformation?

Looking back, I don’t think I was trained to be a minister that could impart deep and lasting transformation. I don’t mean that as an excuse for an insipid ministry. Honestly, I’m not sure I have the skills and tools to truly mold people in a deep way. This is somewhat because personally I am far from transformed. But I’m also not sure our Reformed tradition provides those tools. We tell people to “be good,” be grateful. That remains pretty vague and intangible. What does it look like? How are they to do it? We really give few or no handles, no training. Methodists at least have methods. Catholics have exercises. Perhaps this accounts for the rise of things like spiritual direction and formation. People are looking for help.

Do We Really Want a Different Sort of Church?
or, Be Careful What You Ask For

If we are serious about a future church of deep personal transformation, free from lukewarm believers and status-quo endorsers, then that will entail an entirely different sort of church. I can’t see “congregations” over 20-30 people or buildings or programs or professionals or consultants or denominational superstructures. Such a church will resemble more of a cadre than a congregation.

Every minister has fantasized about a church with no committees, no leaky roofs, no safety handbooks. It’s too easy to reply cavalierly “Good! Let it all go.” But have an honest conversation with your church board about actually letting it all go. How would you feel watching your compromised church of 150 or 600 become a cell of 15 dedicated believers?

Show Me a Sign

For much of my life I had a case of “Mennonite Envy.” These were the true Christians, what following Jesus really looked like. And I still admire them deeply. By and large, they are humble, genuine, exemplary folk. But as I’ve gotten to know them, I’ve discovered they can be as petty and mean-spirited, shallow and insecure as other brands of Christians. Their common life together often seems to be a stronger witness than their individual lives.

Or consider the incredible response of the Amish community after the Nickel Mines school shooting of 2006. It was beautiful. It was Gospel. Still, so much of what I read tells of vindictive, controlling, fear-based Amish communities, rife with abuse, roiling with unhappiness.

All of this makes me wonder about the real possibility of deep, mature, and widespread transformation. Where is it happening? Who would you point toward as models and guides?

I’ve come to have an aversion to most Christian groups that emphasize sanctification, holiness, and transformation. Typically I’ve encountered sanctimony and pride over their “deeper, truer”commitment, their simple fellowship, free from all the clutter that is the church. They so frequently exhibit that awful brownie-point-earning, hair-splitting, self-improving, speck-in-the-eye-of-others-spotting, moral anxiety that is far, far from the way of Jesus. I find very little appealing here.

I realize, of course, that what I label “pietists, perfectionists, and holiness groups” are probably not the model of transformation we are hoping for. But then where is a model? Where can I see this church?

So I fear I’m slouching toward Augustine. Lots of realism. Low expectations. Lots of grace. We can spin that as failure and lukewarm and cheap grace. No doubt that is all in the mix. But we can also see it as open doors and low thresholds, countless new beginnings, abundant forgiveness, rest and trust in the goodness and grace of Jesus.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

21 Comments

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Well, oh yes, and thanks. You dared say it.

  • Jan Zuidema says:

    Thank you for transparent truth-telling.

  • Laura de Jong says:

    This was exactly what I needed to read today. Thank you.

  • John Tiemstra says:

    I think the church does make a difference, and I can see it in our society. People used to think about the well-being and happiness of others when they made choices in their personal and professional lives. That was the influence of Christianity. Now we have a society in which nobody cares about the well-being of anybody but their friends and family, and exploiting others is considered OK. This is the measure of the declining influence of the church.

  • Thomas Boogaart says:

    Steve,

    For many of us who have been trying to convey that Christianity is a way of living not a way of thinking, your words express the complexity of our endeavor. Your last paragraph in the essay is profound and shows us the way. The question still remains how do we in our life together actually go about opening doors, lower thresholds, forgiving… etc. I have always felt that recovering the sacraments and a sacramental world view is the key to transformation and a revitalization of our church. If we could consistently experience God’s real presence at the table, doors would open, thresholds would lower, forgiveness would be a reality for all of us, and hearts would be transformed–at least for the moment.

    Tom

    • Eric Van Dyken says:

      Hi Tom, I’m curious to explore the following statement a bit: “Christianity is a way of living”. I wonder if that is a helpful way of stating what I think you are trying to get at. Might you more accurately say: Christianity must result in a way of living, or Christianity involves a way of living? Stated the way you have, I see two problems. First, it makes the essence of Christianity about works, which cannot be the case. Second, cannot a person who has no belief in the risen Savior make a claim to Christianity based his “way of living” if we posit that Christianity is a way of living. I agree that Christianity also cannot be summed as a “way of thinking”, but I also have never seen that promoted, so that may be a bit of a strawman. Mental assent to truths has never been sufficient (James 2:19). Romans 10:9 seems to indicate that we must have knowledge coupled with belief and confession: “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” There is no “way of living” encapsulated in this simple statement of the essence of Christianity. I will, however, run quickly with you to other passages in James (e.g.: James 2:17-18) that make clear that a faith unaccompanied by works is dead. I think you and I will agree very quickly that a way of living (transformed living) is intrinsic to the essence of Christianity – it is a natural and inescapable resultant. I do not think, though, that the phraseology of “Christianity is a way of living” is a helpful way to capture that truth, and it risks minimizing or eroding any necessity of knowledge that leads to faith.

  • Kathy Jo Blaske says:

    “God of grace and glory, on your people pour your power… Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, for the facing of this hour.”

  • Oh yes! Thanks. Augustine, just like all other great people throughout history, was a flawed man. He had his hang-ups (especially around sex) and tends to be discredited for that reason, and once discredited in one area, everything he did and said is suspect. If we judge folks that way, where does it lead us? Thankfully, I believe God works through even flawed folk.

  • Anne says:

    Maybe you are selling yourself short. Your last paragraph seems pretty transformational to me. (Full disclosure – I do belong to a congregation of about 15 people. We aren’t transformed but we love each other and are ready to love anyone who comes in the door.)

  • Marchiene Rienstra says:

    Having spent significant time at the Church of our Savior (and its many offshoots) in Washington, D.C. I think they come as close as I have seen to what the church needs to be, and they have the tools, use them, and share them with others in their retreats etc. and writings by their members, such as the book “Call to Commitment” and many others. Living in Jesus’ Way, this small group has had far more impact than the many larger churches in Washington D.C. as well as elsewhere. Their disciplines are possible, yet demanding, and commitment to living the Gospel more and more fully is the key.

    • Daniel Bos says:

      Thanks for the suggestiion. I found “Call to Commitment” and “Journey Inward Journey Outward” at Hekman Library.

  • James Schaap says:

    Thanks for allowing me to think that slouching doesn’t mean I’m somehow off-road.

  • Eric Van Dyken says:

    The second quote above needs challenging, I believe. “The Christian religion in the U.S. rarely produces the experience of transformation…people who can live the kind of life that Jesus lived…powerful, compassionate, loving, courageous, inclusive, status-quo challenging.” This is actually a bearing of false witness, and is not something to be proud of. First, the author of the quote cannot know that to be true to the extent that the author cannot possibly know the lives of individual Christians in the U.S. to any significant degree to be able to make a judgment that transformation is rare. He/She speaks from a point of ignorance. Second, there are many visible fruits that contradict this statement of rarity on its face.

    The quoted church leader goes on to say “(It) often produces angry, small-minded, judgmental people who divide rather than unite, who exclude rather than include, and who ultimately contribute to the deep resignation and cynicism about the Christian faith that is so prevalent in this part of the world today.” Here the church leader seems to unwittingly be describing himself/herself as his/her cynicism and judgmentalism regarding a host of strangers is on full display. I don’t think this a quote that should be held up for admiration.

  • Jason Ellis says:

    Emphasis on orthopraxy over orthodoxy is Moralism. The North American church has no shortage of moralists be they of the Religious Right, Social Gospel Left or various other shades. In my, admittedly anecdotal, experience the believers with the most transformed lives who make a difference to those around them have a healthy embrace of doctrine at their core.

  • Nolan Palsma says:

    Steve:
    As presider of the Religious Leaders of Ridgewood, the group is constantly asking the question: “How do we stay around the table with so many diverse faiths represented?” I find myself not only trying to live out the gratitude of my Christian faith but also to respect and learn from the other faiths around me.

  • RLG says:

    Thanks Steve, for a thought provoking article. You have obviously received many responses already. For me, it seems very simple. Truly loving God and neighbor is the ticket. Most of Christianity only complicates the life we are to live, and thus complicates the issue of finding a life acceptable to God, thus the diversity of responses to this article. Both David and Job worshiped the one simple God of creation (not the complex Trinity of Christianity) and were both exonerated by God. David was called a man after God’s own heart and Job was called blameless and upright by God. The Old Testament adage of love for God and neighbor (which would also be a creational norm) seems to be the ticket for finding meaning in life and before God. Thanks Steve, for your challenge in this article.

  • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

    Friends, thank you all for your comments and a good discussion. I especially appreciated that it didn’t feel like anyone was really “taking sides” as in a debate, but rather trying to generate a conversation, give input. I trust it was also clear that my agenda wasn’t to be a blast against anyone (alright, maybe a bit toward the pietist, holiness folks) but more about a genuine conundrum we face in the church. Of course, we all are seeking a more transforming church, but what that means and looks like remains fuzzy.

  • Daniel Walcott says:

    “What that means and looks like remains fuzzy.” Yes it does. I want to be a part of a transforming church, but there are so few role models showing what this should look like. Why is that? I believe we see part of the answer in the comments above, we are too good at slinging labels that seem to suggest one is not orthodox enough. “Orthopraxy over orthodoxy is moralism” Maybe, but I can appeal to Moses, Isaiah, Micah, Jeremiah, Peter, James, John, and yes, Jesus to say orthodoxy without orthopraxy is empty religion. Jesus said the whole world will know he lived by how his followers love one another, he said when he returns he will say to those on his right, “come you, blessed of my father … I was hungry and …” There is not one place in all of Scripture where one reads anything close to “you had the correct view on arminianism, or supralapsarianism, or what title to call folks from another denomination, ….” But, being a follower of Jesus? Yes. Walk as Jesus walked? Yes Where do we go from here? I am weary of the church becoming big business. I am weary of straining out gnats. Becoming a transformed church? I want this!

  • How many of us wonder if we have made a difference? Often we don’t know. Two of my favorite movies, “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “The Five People You Meet in Heaven” answer that question for the main characters. Perhaps that is why I like them.

  • […] tension is something like what fellow Twelver Steve Mathonet-VanderWell seems to be wrestling with in his post earlier this week.) The trick, I suppose, is figuring out where you are in that tension, and whether […]

  • […] Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell’s recent post on The Twelve, Slouching Toward Augustine, ignited some cognitive dissonance for me. (And cognitive dissonance is good, as Steve reminded me […]

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