“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.
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
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.