Several years ago I led a workshop at a Christian music festival. Standing before an audience of about a hundred people, I put a large blanket on the ground. Before I knew it, it was being littered with every conceivable object – skateboards, wristwatches, wallets, shoes, checkbooks, sunglasses, smartphones, candy, necklaces, and various other things. All I had done was ask the group whether they believed the Bible’s description of the first church sharing everything, and if so to place whatever they had on the blanket before them. They eagerly responded.
Rarely do we hear a word that pricks the conscience or disturbs our peace.
When I suggested doing something similar on Sunday morning to a pastor friend of mine he immediately balked. Not only was it impractical for a congregation of two thousand, he told me, but it smacked of communism and would lead to an uproar. Besides, taking Acts literally involved all kinds of exegetical problems: “Would tongues of fire also be required?”
Ever since then I have wondered why we Christians avoid tackling issues that hit us where it counts. Today’s churches preach on topics from A to Z, but rarely do we hear a word that pricks the conscience or disturbs our peace.
The prophets of old warned against false teachers who proclaimed, “Peace, peace” (Jer. 6:14). And Jesus himself said that he didn’t come to bring peace but a sword (Matt. 10:34). His message would sever those who were ready to lay down their lives for the kingdom of God and its justice from those who preferred living according to the values of Mammon.
When the apostle Paul was in the city of Ephesus a riot broke out. A successful silversmith named Demetrius, who made shrines of Artemis, was upset that Paul had led so many people astray by preaching that manmade gods were no gods at all. Demetrius called his fellow craftsmen together and explained how their trade was in danger of being ruined. They became so furious that soon the whole city was in an uproar. Paul narrowly escaped with his life (Acts 19:23-41).
Where does this kind of witness exist today? Haven’t we actually inverted the gospel by turning Jesus’ teaching into an inspirational message and the church into a therapeutic support group that makes us all feel better about ourselves, and accepts and affirms everyone just as they are? Oscar Romero once said:
A church that doesn’t provoke any crisis, a gospel that doesn’t unsettle, a word of God that doesn’t get under anyone’s skin, a word of God that doesn’t touch the real sin of the society in which it is being proclaimed, what gospel is that? Very nice, pious considerations that don’t bother anyone – that is the way many would like the preaching to be. Those churches that avoid every thorny matter so as not to be harassed, so as not to have conflicts and difficulties, do not light up the world they live in. (Violence of Love)
Do we want to light up the world we live in? Do we believe what is promised in the gospel, in the radically new kind of life Jesus came to bring, or are we content with a “gospel” of uplift – a spiritual narcotic that eases our pain but never leads to a cure? If we’re honest, most of us prefer to hear religious words that make us feel good and allow us to go on living like everyone else. We avoid the truth that confronts and convicts; we would rather have our consciences soothed than seared. We prefer an attractive spirituality, not one that gets under our skin. We want a religion that adapts to the culture and eases us into heaven, not one that threatens to turn our lives and world upside down.
In trying to be relevant and loving, the church has become more like a custodian of the culture than its conscience.
Not long ago a pastor I know began a divorce recovery group at his church. There was a burst of enthusiasm and the group grew rapidly. But something wasn’t quite right. Why were so many attending? Since Jesus was clear about divorce and remarriage, my friend realized that he had to be clearer about what he meant by “recovery”: learning how to live for God as a single person. This was not a place to find a new mate. Needless to say, my friend’s recovery group didn’t last very long.
This is but one issue where instead of remaining true to the gospel most churches accommodate the status quo. In trying to be relevant and loving, the church has become more like a custodian of the culture than its conscience. In being afraid of confrontation it has become ashamed of the gospel itself. Instead of experiencing the power of the gospel to overcome the principalities and powers that rule people’s lives, the church has become, as Francis Schaeffer warned forty years ago, “a sleepy institution merely operating on the basis of memory and afraid of being free where it needs to be free.”
A church that is free – this is what we desperately need today. Such a church does not depend on the liberties granted to it by the state.
“What a nation needs more than anything else,” wrote social critic Martyn Eden, “is not a Christian ruler in the palace but a prophetic church within earshot.” But what makes for a prophetic church? Though many Christians have spoken out on a variety of social issues, rarely do they do so in ways that are distinctively Christian. They are often every bit as partisan and political, as prone to rhetoric, and as quick to turn to those with the deepest pockets as anyone else. A prophetic church does not focus first on engaging in politics but on demonstrating a better way. It actually practices the truth it proclaims.
The faithful church will indeed confront the broader culture, but not primarily by pouncing on certain social evils or public policies. If we are concerned about society’s moral decline, we will concentrate our efforts on doing God’s will and holding each other accountable to it. If we are concerned about the breakdown of the family or the demise of marriage, we will demonstrate that in Christ husbands and wives can remain faithful, and that children are most happy when welcomed and nurtured in families. If it is the vulnerability of the unborn that outrages us, then we will surround expectant mothers and their babies with the kind of support that affords them a truly meaningful life. If racial division or injustice upset us, then we in our congregations will repent of our own complicity and find ways to demonstrate that black and white, rich and poor can indeed live and work together as brothers and sisters in Christ.
Jesus especially upset the religious authorities. When he exorcised demons, people often got angry because the evil amongst them was exposed. Jesus told his disciples that the world would hate them because it hated what he stood for: the revolutionary reign of God and his justice. Jesus’ disciples publicly bore witness to God’s new order and in so doing were known as “the Way” (Acts 9:2). They lived lives that were radically unlike those around them, and thereby caught people’s attention. They were said to be “peculiar” and “strange” because they lived out an altogether different vision of life (1 Pet. 4:1-6).
Our faith, if consistently practiced, will provoke confrontation and will cost us.
The first Christians didn’t fit into society, nor did they strive to. They had no vested interests in the empire and didn’t seek to benefit from it. They were done with the fruitless deeds of darkness and devoted to themselves to exposing them (Eph. 5:11). This provoked animosity on one hand but curiosity on the other. Those who accused them were not only silenced by their good lives (1 Pet. 2:12) but were even converted from their pagan ways (1 Cor. 6:9-11). The first Christians won new adherents not because they were in positions of power but because the truth they proclaimed had transformed their lives.
As followers of Christ we should know that our faith, if consistently practiced, will provoke confrontation and will cost us. This should neither surprise nor alarm us. As Oscar Romero reminds us, the church must suffer:
It must suffer for speaking the truth, for pointing out sin, for uprooting sin. No one wants to have a sore spot touched, and therefore a society with so many sores twitches when someone has the courage to touch it and say: “You have to treat that. You have to get rid of that. Believe in Christ. Be converted.” (Violence of Love)
But before the message of the gospel can provoke crises and confrontation in society at large, it must do so among Christ’s followers, spurring us to put our own house in order and to atone for our complacency and the many ways in which we have compromised. The church – a hospital for the sick and the wounded, a place where sinners are welcomed and the lost embraced – is the place where the truth sets free and where the Spirit makes new. We can opt to dispense all kinds of medications that kill the pain and assuage people’s consciences, or we can submit ourselves to the Great Physician’s knife.