The Church and Guidance #1
There is a general impression today that the church is out of sync with society, holds to an outdated mode of thought and practice, and has disqualified itself to serve as any kind of conscience for social mores. Thirty years ago some popular entertainers, both with a Christian background, spoke of their dissatisfaction for the modern-day church. One said, “I don’t need to go to church and listen to some preacher tell me what to believe in. I don’t dig that at all.” Another member of the same singing group spoke with disgust of the “hypocrisy personified” that typifies the contemporary church.
Even though I don’t like what they said, it is hard to argue with their assessments. Some preachers come across a bit too eager in their condemnation of sin, seemingly blurring the distinction between sin and sinner. Love for the soul struggling with a fallen nature often fails to come through. The sinner feels the heat from the preacher, but doesn’t always sense compassion or hear the summons of a loving God to experience life anew in Christ. I’m not sure I’d want much counsel from such a representative of God, either.
Preaching requires that some attention be drawn to sinful and rebellious living patterns. But, that can never be allowed to be our primary focus, or to become regarded as what characterizes our preaching. Preachers are entrusted with the in-breaking of the kingdom, with announcing the good news, with boldly declaring, “The anointed One has come!” Those outside of Christ hearing such pronouncements now have fresh, new options for their lives.
Similarly, churches must give attention to their corporate persona. Do the local folks perceive that they care? Every community has broken marriages, disoriented kids, hungry families, and rebellious teens. Does the church condemn the sin and dysfunction of the fallen, or does it demonstrate care by providing loving counsel and modeling authentic discipleship? Serving the needs of the fallen is more demanding than condemning their choices, but it goes much further in creating the possibility for a genuine hearing of the Word.
Churches and preachers are sometimes called self-righteous, argumentative, misguided, unfocused, and overly harsh. At times those charges may be true. I don’t know of any Christian that would deny that we have at times come across in less than savory ways.
How do we respond? What should the church do? How can we alter community perceptions of our role and function?
I think it begins with how we perceive ourselves. We are not primarily judges of others’ behavior. We must, of course, uphold the standards and value of Scripture. And we must be aware of challenges that will come to us from those who don’t uphold those values. But we are first of all recipients of grace ourselves. As such, we are now the Bride of Christ, the Body of Christ. We are the Incarnational presence of Christ in the world. We are part of a lineage whose purpose is to embody the essence of heaven in our very being.
Jesus did that. “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 14:6). Jesus brought the essence of heaven itself to earth within his being. He modeled that with his announcement of the kingdom, his healing of the afflicted, and his friendship with the estranged. He made statements about those who don’t believe and accept his ministry, but he didn’t make judgment of others the defining element of his ministry. Instead, he made the in-breaking of the heavenly kingdom the heart of his ministry, with the call to everyone to come enjoy the presence of the Father.
I wish the entertainers I referred to a moment ago, two entertainers I am a huge fan of, could have encountered a church that embodied this kind of ministry. I hope all of you listening can experience it. And I hope all of us who bear the name of Christ will embody this kind of lifestyle in the church we call home.