You keep using that word: “biblical”

There is a scene in the film “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” in which the sleek and wealthy Lucius Malfoy insults the Weasley family, sneering at their lack of wealth and disparaging their friendship with “muggles” (non-wizards). In summary, Mr. Malfoy asks, “What is the use of being a disgrace to the name of ‘wizard’ if they don’t even pay you well for it?” To which Mr. Weasley responds, “We have a very different idea of what disgraces the name of ‘wizard,’ Malfoy.”

I was reminded of this scene this morning after reading a few things on the internet about the US Presidential election, and having a chat with my husband about a YouTube channel run by Todd Friel. The crux of the matter is the word “biblical.” In two separate internet spaces I encountered an individual (identifying himself as American and Christian) who was describing certain views or values as “biblical” and offering no explanation of the term or even reference to relevant verses.

For example, a certain poster on Facebook would appear to think that voting for Mr. Trump is “more in line with the Constitution promoting religious freedom, the value of human life, and Biblical values.” (I’ll pass over the question of what the Constitution has to do with “Biblical values,” although I think it is a highly pertinent one for US Christians to think through.) This man clearly feels that Trump is the lesser of two evils because a government under Hilary Clinton “would be the most pro-abortion, immoral, anti-Evangelical, anti-capitalist, pro-terrorist group of leaders in American History.” Given my roots in conservative Christian America, what I read here is a man who is determined not to vote for Hilary because her government would allow abortion and equal marriage to continue to be the law of the land. As an aside, how on earth this man can think that Mr. Trump’s platform will “promote religious freedom” in ANY way is utterly beyond me. This is a man who has called for the exclusion and registration of Muslims based on nothing more than their religion. If anything, the man is a threat to religious freedom. I’m not pro-Clinton, but the argument here in favour of Mr. Trump is laughable.

And what is the definition of “biblical” in this context? Constitutional? anti-abortion? Christian hegemony? anti-gay? I’m struggling to see a viable connection.

In the other instance Mr. Friel is presenting a piece to camera about the “biblical” guidance about owning a home in response to the rise of the “Tiny House Movement.” He says there are 21 biblical principles about owning a home, but only shares five of them. He uses no direct references to the Bible in any form, but spends a lot of time talking about how the outward actions are unimportant because it is what is in the heart that matters. Perhaps he is thinking of 1 Samuel 16:7 here: “the Lord looks upon the heart,” or perhaps Matthew 23:27 which emphasises that it is more important what is the inner reality rather than the outward appearance.

However he does not appear to consider those scriptures that remind us of the importance of actions and words as indicators of what is going on in our hearts: (Matt 12:34, Luke 6:45, James 2:14-26, Galatians 6: 7-8). Perhaps it is true that we shouldn’t expect one change in our outer lives to change our inner reality, but it is certainly true that making outward changes can, and will, effect our inner reality in some way.

The point is, just as Mr. Malfoy and Mr. Weasley had profoundly different ideas about “what disgraces the name of wizard,” those who identify as Christian also have profoundly different ideas of what is “biblical” and what is not. The internet allows us to encounter more and more ideas and interpretations of faith, and it is sad, not to say disingenuous, that there are people out there who still think it is acceptable to present their particular tradition’s interpretation of Christianity as truly “biblical” without so much as explaining what it is or where it came from!

The truth is that the Bible can be made to support almost any point of view or doctrine if certain parts are emphasised over other parts. The parts you emphasise determine the beliefs you see as central, and the method of interpretation (contextual, historical/critical, “literal”) effects the meaning of the words. Also your objective or subjective beliefs about the Bible will effect what amount of authority you give scriptures and why.

All of these things feed into the meaning of the word “biblical,” and it is naive at best and severely arrogant at worst to use the word with no context or explanation as some kind of proof-stamp that the writer/speaker has the “truth” all sown up.

There are some who have a very different idea of what “biblical” means, so much so as to make it seem we are worshiping different gods – or at least reading different Bibles. Don’t underestimate the importance of context, point of view and assumptions, and please don’t dismiss the differing opinions of others as ‘unbiblical’ just because they aren’t the same as yours.

 

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Disbelieving Church: Being Nice

Disbelieving Church: Being Nice

[This post is part of a series of reflections on Disbelieving Church. If you have not already done so, please check out the Introduction for a little background and a few disclaimers.]

Some years ago, I was a young adult working three part-time jobs while carrying a full-time master’s level course load. Unsurprisingly, it was a stressful life, especially as some of my classes and one of my jobs was literally on the other side of the city – half-way around the beltway (ring road around Washington DC).  My supervisor for this job on the other side of the city was, unfortunately for her, the main channel through whom I learned just how much of a problem I had with women in positions of authority.

Without going into the details, which, frankly, I don’t remember clearly anyway, after one academic year on the job, we sat down and had our first honest conversation about her expectations and my behaviour and where the two hadn’t quite matched. We eventually decided it would be better for us to end the working relationship, but I remember this conversation as a striking example of a woman, who had every reason to be annoyed with and hurtful toward me, treating me with patient grace and uncompromising honesty, whatever her own emotional impulses might have been. I suppose I might even call it one of the rare – if not the only – times I have experienced what I would honestly call “speaking the truth in love.”

In my experience, Christians love to (ab)use this verse. Couching the most hurtful, backhanded comments in honeyed words so as to assure others (or, perhaps, primarily themselves) that they have behaved in a “Christian” manner. As long as the barb is veiled and the language caressing and apologetic the object of such comments has little chance to form a response to the subtext of the comment.

Take, for example, the new fiancé of the minister who is cornered in the church toilets by a woman she has never met. The woman does not introduce herself. Instead she begins by saying that everyone is happy the girl loves the minister, but goes on to say that she should keep in mind that a minister is the property of the entire congregation and refrain from public displays of affection. Frantically searching her memory while she listens, the only such display the girl can remember is holding her fiancé’s hand under the table during the after-dinner speech at a recent inter-faith gathering. How is she supposed to respond? How can she defend herself? While she’s still trying to understand what is being said, the woman pats her arm and says something like “you won’t mind me giving you a little hint, all in love, you know,” before she goes on her way.

Too many Christians have been brainwashed with the idea that they are meant to always be nice, always be happy, always be doing good. Church committees are full of honest, devout people trying to do God’s work, but they are also still broken, hurt people. While churches offer an outlet for energy, a distraction from hurt, perhaps even a place to belong and begin to heal, they rarely offer safe space for openly hurting people.

Instead the message seems to be that when we join up and “accept Jesus” our lives should instantly improve. The best believers are those who are most often in church, and when we are in church, we are happy and active, working for God’s Kingdom. Whatever incipient negative emotions and un-worked-through brokenness we carry to the church building is implicitly expected to be left on the doorstep as we go into the happy/holy church where it is all about God and not about us.

Unfortunately, however much we may try to live as if this approach to life and faith is true and possible, the reality is our brokenness is a part of us. We can’t leave it at the door. We can’t heal it simply with faith and prayer. We can’t make it go away by being lost in worship or in God’s work. We don’t become whole beings through believing in Jesus or through attending a church regularly. These things can be a part of the process of healing from brokenness and creating a more healthy identity, but they are not, in themselves, a cure.

As a result, churches too often naively foster a remarkably immature, un-self-aware attitude. People who are unaware of or not at peace with their own brokenness are far more likely to hurt others than those who know their imperfections. In reality both the aware and the unaware carry their brokenness with them, even into church, but with those who are unaware it is more likely to manifest itself in petty squabbles, power struggles, cliques, “speaking the truth in love,” and other relationship poisoning behaviours.

I knew a woman once who had a great desire to run a luncheon club for the elderly, but the members of her church catering committee wouldn’t let her near the kitchen, so she travelled across town by bus to run a lunch club in a different church. I’ve also known church members, both male and female, who complain constantly that no one helps them, and there is no one else to do the work if they don’t. Yet these same people are often surrounded by willing and able workers who are not volunteering because they don’t want to work with someone who is so controlling and critical.

Such behaviours and brokenness are, of course, inevitable in church life. Churches are, after all, populated by people, and people are always imperfect. The particular problem that churches seem to have, is an institutional incapacity to confront such childish and controlling behaviour. “Don’t upset her, we need someone to run the kitchen!” “Don’t start him off, you’ll never hear the end of it.” “Don’t contradict him, just ignore his nonsense.” “Don’t let her get to you, just do your best.”

In effect, we tiptoe around people who are as destructive to the hearts and minds of others as the proverbial bull and even build emotional structures into our communities to protect and enable these people in their destructive behaviours. Why? Because we have to be nice. Christians love people, right?

Yes, Christians are called to love people.

Read it again. Christians are called to love people. Like Jesus did.

Love is not tiptoeing around on eggshells so we don’t upset people. Love is not enabling other people’s destructive behaviours. Love is not telling the wounded not to mind if so-and-so said or did something because “that’s just her way” or worse because “we can’t run the church without him.” When blown up to extremes this can end in scandals about child abuse, but it happens in small ways every day in our churches.

Why?

Why are churches incapable of dealing with actions in their midst that basically amount to emotional abuse? Why do we excuse hurtful patterns of behaviour? Why do we dismiss complaints about controlling church members? Why are we afraid to confront people whose behaviours and beliefs are destroying our communities?

Within the Baptist churches there is a particular difficulty, especially as regards destructive beliefs, because Baptists affirm freedom of conscience, but this can’t mean that anyone can believe or do anything as he or she pleases. The reality is that, in any structured society, one person’s freedom is always balanced against the freedom and wellbeing of the rest of the group. That is why we imprison murderers and other violent offenders, but churches, in a misguided attempt to be welcoming or loving, allow freedom and licence to serially destructive people and subsequently spend an inordinate amount of time cleaning up, or simply living with the collateral damage.

When my boss sat the 24-year-old me down for a chat, I was recalcitrant, defiant and disrespectful. In contrast, she was kind and patient, but she spoke the truth, she called me out on my behaviour, she challenged my assumptions. Eventually, she helped me to understand myself better and to begin to change. I needed to change, but without that conversation it would have taken me a long time to realise it and even longer to understand why and how.

Churches need to be able to do this, or they will be doomed to continue to be places where harmful behaviour thrives, selfish people manipulate and control those more vulnerable or less strong-willed than themselves, and opinionated people grow steadily more certain in their prejudices because no one can be bothered to argue with them. In the worst cases, churches are places where these behaviours are not only tolerated, but bred by the existing church culture.

[Image of Jesus clearing the Temple with the caption “If Jesus did this today, you know that a bunch of so-called ‘Christians’ would tell Jesus that he’s not acting like Jesus.”]

Jesus did not avoid the hard conversations or the difficult confrontations. He did not accept the exploitative actions of those who controlled his religion or affirm their self-righteousness. He rebuked and corrected his own followers when their actions or words were unhelpful. He worked for growth, fullness, honesty and inclusion.

If those in churches would seek to follow Jesus. It’s time to find a way to confront and deal with exploitative, selfish, controlling, and hurtful behaviour within congregations. Human brokenness breeds more brokenness, and healing requires difficult conversations, radical vulnerability, ongoing sacrifice and frank courage. It needs a whole lot more than simply “being nice” to people.

It needs love.

Disbelieving Church: Salvation

Disbelieving Church: Salvation

[This post is part of a series of reflections on Disbelieving Church. If you have not already done so, please check out the Introduction for a little background and a few disclaimers.]

Attending church was a regular feature of my existence from infanthood until I reached the age of 34 years, 4 months and 2 weeks. Since that time I have attended two church-related events, neither of which was a Sunday morning service, and both of which caused me to experience symptoms of anxiety.

From my earliest memories I have been conscious of a presence that I have always called God. As a young child I was taught that the proper response to this presence was make Jesus “the boss of my life” and be baptised. This I did at the age of 7. Over the years I had many subsequent encounters with the presence called God, and each time I interpreted them through the lenses of the conservative Christian world in which I was living.

All of this means that I was well versed in principles of penal substitution before I had any idea that is what it was called. I was taught the Romans Road and given instructions on how to make and use a “witness bracelet” – the red bead is Jesus’ blood, the black is the sinful human heart, the green is new life in Christ, etc. All of these things were as much a feature of my mental landscape as the principles of mathematics and grammar or the history of the United States.

As a teenager I remember a girl in the youth group recommitting her life to Jesus after describing her first profession of faith as “fire insurance.” I remember being somewhat surprised by this statement, my faith was never about avoiding hell or going to heaven. Even then it was just, simply, about following Jesus and persevering in relationship with the Presence that had always been at the core of my being.

It was not until I began to study theology in my early twenties that I learned there are other ways of understanding salvation – theories of soteriology, if you will. In soteriological studies penal substitution takes its place alongside other theories of salvation such as theosis (roughly translated as divinisation), Christus Victor (Jesus triumphant), satisfaction (an honour focused version of substitution), and scapegoating (also known as mimetic theory).

One of the most life-changing courses in theology I ever took was entitled “What is Salvation?” I will always be grateful to Dr. Tarmo Toom for opening my eyes and my thoughts to the many, many ways in which the concept of salvation has been worked out and understood over the long history of the church. “Jesus died for my sins” is, historically, a very recent understanding of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Fast forward a few years and I met a man who was fascinated by the concepts of scapegoating and mimetic desire as a way to understand the work of God in Jesus. It took me a while to understand this rather opposite way of looking at the cross, but once I got it, it wouldn’t let go of me. A God who would kill his own son in punishment for (anyone’s) sin, is a terrifying prospect. A God in the form of a man who drew violence to himself by refusing to participate in the violent and oppressive systems of his day; that God, I can get excited about.

So, over the last 10 or 15 years my understanding of the concept of “salvation” has altered so much, that I find traditional (Free/Protestant) church language to be, basically, offensive.

I don’t know what happens when people die – if the soul survives in another form or another place. Perhaps we cease to be. Perhaps we are drawn into the heart of God – love and peace. I do know that I don’t believe in the traditional understanding of heaven as a place we are reunited with our dead loved ones – harps, clouds, angels, or even some glorified version of life on earth without dirt or bad things. I don’t believe in it, not because I wish to deny its existence, but simply because its existence is irrelevant to me. Following Jesus provides me with plenty to do on this earth, to make the world a better place right now rather than betting on an “eternal” (which has nothing to do with duration of time, by the way, so “10,000 years” is categorically false) life after death that I have no reason to expect apart from particular readings of a few passages of scripture and highly questionable reports of near-death experiences.

It follows logically that I do not believe in hell (as a place of eternal torment/damnation for not believing the right things) either. I have slowly, but irrevocably, come to the realisation that I wouldn’t follow a God who would condemn divinely created people, the objects of divine love, to such a place, for any reason.

There are plenty of ways to understand and interpret the relevant scripture passages without a necessary belief in either heaven or hell, and, as I have no firsthand knowledge of “life after death,” I prefer to remain an agnostic on the subject.

It follows then, that the reasons for belief in and following of Jesus have nothing to do with where we go when we die and everything to do with how we live while we are here. In fact, you could almost say that I don’t believe “salvation” is necessary, at least not in any traditional sense.

So, I’ve come to realise that I don’t believe that Jesus died for my sins, but I do believe he died because of our sins.

I don’t believe he died for me. He died for us.

Jesus died because we (humanity) wouldn’t listen and we don’t see, because no lesser sacrifice would have made his point. In the end, he died because human beings killed him rather than face the truth, or even the possibility, of a God who lives among and serves the weak, the outcast, the hated, and the unclean. It was humanity’s lust for power that killed Jesus. Not an abstract, Platonic concept of sin operating within a sacrificial, divine justice system.

The church culture of which I have been a part has been dominated by the perpetuation and propagation of just such a divine justice system, desperate to warn people of their ultimate destiny after death and bring them into the fold of right belief and right relationship in order to save them from “the wrath of God.” For those to whom this belief is dear, there is nothing more loving than attempting to save people from eternal torment.

When I took my first steps on the road towards ministry, I thought I could coexist with such people in the (I thought) wide family of the Baptist church which so values “freedom of conscience.” I learned, however, that I could only coexist within that context by keeping silence and allowing my silence to be taken as consent. In time it became impossible for me to maintain my silence because doing so had become living a lie – allowing other people to believe I agreed with them when, simply put, I did not. My desire to live honestly, with no real or perceived pressure to suppress my true beliefs, has driven me out of church.

Eternal life is now. Heaven is here. Salvation is wellbeing and life and hope in this life, for all. The job of Jesus’ followers is to follow in his footsteps, seeking to bring that wellbeing and life and hope to those for whom such things are far from reality. The death of Jesus is a tragic reminder that standing for such principles is costly, dangerous, and potentially deadly, and all who seek to follow him should count that cost.

I am an immigrant 

I am an immigrant 

I am an immigrant.

As a young adult I discovered that I felt more at home in a country other than the one in which I was born. There seemed to be no reason for this affinity with a place I first saw when I was 17, but it was undeniable nonetheless. As a result, in my mid-twenties I left behind my family and friends and moved across an ocean. In time, I fell in love and started my own family.

My husband calls me “the acceptable face of immigration.” My skin is white, if I don’t speak, it is almost impossible to tell I am not native. My accent is soft, so even when I do speak, I don’t sound jarringly foreign, just a bit exotic. Recently I was walking in the park with my son. The wife of a friend was with me and her little girl, not yet two. As we neared the gate to the park, a middle-aged couple was entering, they looked at me and my son, smiled and nodded, but they seemed not to see my companion with her bronze skin and her mixed-race daughter.

The distinction was so subtle and over so quickly that I sometimes wonder if it was really there, but it felt like a slap. I thought of the gentle dignity of the woman walking beside me and wondered how many such silent slaps she had endured in the seven years of her marriage. The irony was, I am just as much a foreigner as she, but my skin saves me from similar slights. The injustice of it burns, a slow but constant fire. I may be the acceptable face of immigration, but I am still an immigrant.

During the recent campaign debates over the UK’s membership in the European Union, much was made of immigration as a serious issue. European freedom of movement has allowed sizeable communities of “foreigners” from EU countries to migrate to the UK and begin building a new life for themselves here. Their presence has given rise to what I once saw styled on Facebook “Schrödinger’s immigrant: the one who lazes around on benefits whilst simultaneously stealing your job.”

In the wake of the triumph of the “leave” campaign, reports of hate crimes against immigrants – or simply those with darker skin or different clothes – seemed to skyrocket. Nationalistic, racist voices were quite loud for a few days, until all the major political parties in the UK began to fall apart and national focus turned to survival and forming a stable government.

Now the country in which I feel most at home, where I have legally gained indefinite leave to remain, is in the midst of seismic political upheaval and drastic change. I can only watch as events unfold, worried about the outcome, concerned about those at the bottom of the economic food chain, uncomfortably aware how easily my family and I could join them, shamed and angered by anti-immigrant rhetoric, and wondering how it will all combine to create the world in which I must somehow teach my son to live as a positive, compassionate, and peaceful person.

I am an immigrant. I have no vote, instead I am at the mercy of a system that does not have my interests or those of my family at its heart and a population that is so desperate and demoralised as a result of austerity policies that they are turning against those they (or their media) identify as “other” in their search for a scapegoat. I escape most of it. I do not need to live in fear, but it is there in the background. I have rarely felt so powerless, and that makes keenly aware of those less fortunate than I. Immigrants whose ‘foreignness’ is obvious. Refugees, desperate for some security and safety for themselves and their families, who are being met with fear and hate. Of course, not everyone mistreats the alien and the stranger badly, but no one should. It shouldn’t even be a possibility.

It makes me angry, this sense of powerlessness. It makes me angry, the lurking fear. It makes me angry, wishing for a better world for my son. It makes me angry when those with privilege (be they MPs in Westminster or white Americans failing to understand that #blacklivesmatter is a movement that needs to be heard and respected) dismiss the concerns, fears and needs of those who do not have the same privilege.

It makes me angry, and I don’t know what I can do to change it.

Disbelieving Church: God’s Plan

Disbelieving Church: God’s Plan

[This post is part of a series of reflections on Disbelieving Church. If you have not already done so, please check out the Introduction for a little background and a few disclaimers.]

In my time in membership of Baptist churches I have several times experienced what is usually called a time of interregnum, that is, the period between when a minister leaves a church and a new minister comes to that church. Inevitably a lot of work falls on the diaconate (or Leadership Team) during this period of time, as various people take temporary responsibility for the things the minister usually does – principally pastoral care and pulpit filling, but many other little details as well.

When a minister announces s/he is leaving a church, the planning begins. First the church and minister bid a fond (or perhaps not so fond) farewell to each other, most often in a special service that includes gifts and kind words. After this the church usually begins a process of self-examination, clarification of strengths, weaknesses, goals and dreams. This information is used to create a sort of dating profile (or, more professionally, job specification) to share with potential ministers.

A “search” or “personnel” committee will then begin to seek for and examine possible candidates, looking for a good match of goals, desires, values, theology and talents in a new minister. If one is found, an initial conversation is often held with the search committee or diaconate followed by one or two trial services in which the church is given the opportunity to meet and listen to the potential minister. A church meeting is then held to decide whether or not to “call” the potential minister, and, if all parties are happy, plans can begin for the induction service.

Throughout this process, which is in many ways eminently practical, both churches seeking a minister and ministers seeking a church will speak of seeking the will of God in this situation. Often this is accompanied by ernest entreaties for prayer, asking God to make that will plain or reveal the divine Plan. I have little doubt that in most places that prayer is sincere and ernest, but I have often wondered if it is misplaced.

A friend of mine who was contemplating his future once said to me that he was convinced God had no set plan for this portion of his life, but rather that God was offering him a number of choices, through all of which God’s plan could potentially be worked out. He found the choice difficult, but I can’t help wondering if this scenario is closer to the truth than the prayers that assume there is a Plan we are trying to find and must follow in order to stay within God’s Will.

Think about it for a moment. Let’s assume that God is the all-powerful, all-knowing being that many, if not most, Christians believe. God can see all time at once and knows all that was, that is, and that will be. (This is not the same as saying God causes all things to happen as they do, that’s another conversation.) This all-knowing God, who sees our mistakes before we make them, has created a perfect plan for each human life and each Christian community.

God knows exactly what this Plan is, but leaves it to human beings to pray and seek this Plan by trial and error with no more to go on than hunches, feelings, subjective readings of scriptures, and impressions of divine leading. If human beings stray from the Plan, they suffer for being outside God’s Will, or, at least, they receive less than God’s best because they are not following the perfect Plan.

Surely if it is indeed so necessary for us to follow God’s perfect Plan for our lives, a loving God would provide a more certain way to do this than hints, hunches, impressions, interpretations, and emotional/spiritual experiences? Otherwise the whole thing seems more like a game of blind man’s bluff. With every human being blind, and God dancing ahead on the path making the odd noise when asked.

I find it impossible to believe in such a God. 

It may be true that God wants “what’s best” for us, but as that phrase has no concrete meaning, it is probably better to abandon it all together. Certainly there are choices we face in which certain options are clearly better than others. (Do I kill the person I am angry with, or do I walk away and seek counselling for my anger issues?) But there are many more decisions to which there is often no clear solution – the better of two goods or the worse of two evils – (which university to attend, for example, or which candidate to vote for). In such situations it may be advisable to pray, but it is also advisable to consider other sources of information.

The Baptist churches I described at the beginning all go through a practical process of discernment, identifying characteristics, needs, and goals and spending time getting to know potential candidates. They may chose to dress things up with spiritual language about seeking God’s will, but when it comes down to the decision, each person involved is drawing on a gut feeling or a calculation of the facts or what s/he thinks would be best for that congregation. God may or may not be involved in the factors which influence the decision, but to wonder what God is “saying” through this situation or suggest that there is a divine mandate to call (or not to call) a certain individual as the minister is, I think, to place too high an importance on the process.

In reality many churches and ministers which go through this process end up in a disastrous relationship. Such relationships can end in nervous or mental breakdowns, early retirement on ill-health, loss of faith, splitting or closing of a church or any number of other disasters. To suggest that people who find themselves in such situations have failed to follow God’s plan is, I think, adding insult to injury. They made the best choice they could based on the available evidence. Unfortunately, it turned out badly.

Equally, many ministers and churches enjoy long periods of fruitful and positive ministry together, but the same church could easily have had just as positive a time with a different minister. To suggest that a church selected the correct minister because his or her time in post was positive or the wrong because it was negative is to employ the famous logical fallacy post hoc ergo propter hoc.

As an aside, to suggest that it was in God’s will or plan for things to go badly in order for the parties involved to learn some kind of lesson has appalling consequences on one’s concept of God. If a parent arranged mental and emotional suffering for a child in order to teach that child a lesson, we would call it abuse, not love. Although some may wish to claim that the rules are different for God because “his ways are not our ways,” the excuse doesn’t hold water. Divine ways may be beyond our comprehension, but one cannot simply change the meaning of something and put it down to divine incomprehensibility. Day is not dark. Blood is not yellow. Fire is not wet. Love is not abusive. To call God loving and still credit God with manipulative or abusive behaviour shows a serious lack of connection between faith and reality.

Although I have used the example of churches and ministers seeking one another, I believe the conclusions also apply to personal decisions. If one believes God has a perfect Plan, it is dangerously easy to get stuck in a holding pattern of praying and waiting for some clear guidance. Perhaps there just doesn’t seem to be any guidance in a given situation, so one continues to wait, perhaps for years. As the waiting continues, bitterness or sadness can grow, as it is easy to feel one has been forgotten or abandoned by God.

If, however, we abandon the idea that God has a Plan which will be revealed to us at the due time (or when we ask the right way or have been good enough), more positive possibilities for life open up. We could consider whether God might be waiting for us to make a move, prepared to work with us in whatever we choose to do, or we could come to believe that God prefers us to explore our options and develop our gifts without prescriptive divine guidance. Perhaps such a change in perspective could free the bitter, sad or stagnant Christian to be more creative with his or her own life. At the least, it could save us from wasting time and tears begging for guidance when we could be doing something positive.

So, when faced with a decision for your own future or the future of a community of which you are a part, by all means pray, if that centres you and helps you to see more clearly, but don’t stop there. Seek wisdom in written sources or positive friendships. Seek clarity on the options. Consider pros and cons. Try to understand your own gut feeling and where it is coming from. Explore or test your options. Make the best decision you have on the available evidence, but don’t agonise over making a choice that is in keeping with God’s Plan, or ask that famous unanswerable question, “what is God saying in this situation?”

To summarise: I don’t believe God has a perfect Plan for each life (or each congregation), even less do I believe it is our responsibility to discern it. If it is true, we’re all blind in the dark and God’s sadistic.

Disbelieving Church: Evangelism

Disbelieving Church: Evangelism

[This post is part of a series of reflections on Disbelieving Church. If you have not already done so, please check out the Introduction for a little background and a few disclaimers.]

When I was about 15 years old, the pastor of the church in which I grew up decided it was time to retire. He had been in the church for more than 25 years, and I had never known another pastor. His sermons often went over my head, but I remember being deeply impressed by his exposition of Mary being overshadowed by the Holy Spirit. One year he did an intensive focus on Servant Leadership, and throughout my childhood I remember one of his key themes being “every member a ministry.” It was a reminder to a very large congregation, that being a Christian and part of a church called for commitment and action, not just attendance and social interaction.

When this pastor retired, he was eventually replaced by a tall, somewhat charismatic southerner with an impressive memory, an engaging preaching style, and a soft voice. Apart from his ability to quote entire epistles from the New Testament without looking at a page, the thing I chiefly remember about his ministry was his emphasis on evangelism. He ran special evening sessions on “friendship evangelism,” all about getting to know non-believers in order to create an opportunity to tell them about Jesus, and every sermon seemed to contain some reminder that being a Christian meant evangelising others.

As a socially awkward teenager with an introverted personality and almost no friends outside the church (I was schooled at home), I left the church every Sunday feeling like a failure because I had never “led someone to Christ.” Going to church became a regular invitation to beat myself up for failing to be a proper Christian. I dreaded hearing that message again and again and knowing I could never live up to it.

When I returned to the area of my childhood having gained my BA, I looked elsewhere for a church family, and eventually settled in a congregation which and with a pastor who nurtured my gifts, challenged my faults, and allowed me to explore what following Jesus as a young single adult might look like for me, rather than imposing a pre-made ideal of a perfect Christian. In that environment I thrived, living faith in my own way in my work environment and participating in the conversations that came up as a result, but I still never “led” anyone “to Christ.”

Eventually I came to the UK and began to experience a slightly different kind of church culture. It was here, for the first time, that I began to hear in the calls to “reach out” to the community in “mission” an increasing desire to fill emptying church buildings and replenish aging and dwindling congregations. I began to question the motives of evangelism, and to hear stories from people who worked with those on the edges of church, and of society, who said that those people wouldn’t come to church because they felt judged and unwelcome.

There was the story about a prostitute who finally came to church after several invitations from a friend, only to leave because of the judgemental looks she received; the one about the young people who came along in response to a charismatic minister, only to be put off by the sniffs and whispers when they went out for smoke breaks in front of the church. Then there was the story from a friend in the US who invited a lesbian couple to church, but, when they came, members of the regular congregation complained that they didn’t want “those kind of people” in their church.

Instead of punishing myself for my inability to “share the gospel” as I had been repeatedly taught, I began to think that Christians wanted to reach and evangelise people, to bring them into their churches, in order to force them into a predetermined mold of correct Christian behaviour and absorb them into existing church structures. New people are always needed to perpetuate the church’s existence, but too often they are implicitly expected to do this without challenge, difficulty or change to “the way we do things.”

The people I knew who connected best with those outside church, the ones who were sometimes labeled evangelists, seemed to be the people who connected least with those inside church. They ignored the labels, the walls and the incipient purity laws of those inside church, and simply connected with, helped and listened to people.

In recent years, I have come to be highly suspicious of the idea of “evangelism.” It is too often connected with ulterior motives – a desire to prop up and perpetuate the institutions of church, a desire to force the wider society to live by the moral and religious rules believers hold dear, a desire to save people from hell in the next life (often without first attending to the hell in which they live this life).

At the Baptist Assembly a few years ago, there was a session highlighting the work of those people considered to be pioneers within the Union. As the head of the pioneer collective interviewed one pioneer he asked what was the most important thing this minister had learned as he attempted to plant a new kind of Christian community in the South West. “Not to see people as targets,” the young man replied. The assembly laughed, but I didn’t think he was telling a joke. It is not a laughing matter. I believe he put the finger on one of the greatest problems of the contemporary church, and his aim was so accurate the assembled company didn’t even know they had been hit.

So I have concluded that I don’t believe in evangelism. I believe in living with, sharing with and talking to people. There is no ulterior motive. There is no need for moral policing. There is no worry whether or not my church will survive. There is no need for me to “save” or “convert” anyone for their eternal soul or for the good of my finite religious community. There is no need for me to skillfully (or clumsily) bring the conversation around to my life-changing relationship with Jesus Christ. I am free to build relationships or not to do so, as I am able, and simply to seek to practice love to the best of my ability with my family, my community and my world.

Some people may wish to call this evangelism. Some may even call it “friendship evangelism.” I don’t. The term carries too much baggage. For me, at least, it is time to let it go.