[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 a teenager there was a popular song among the Christian set that began “Jesus is the answer for the world today.” I think I may have even attended a youth retreat with the title “Jesus is the Answer” and a matching t-shirt. I cannot remember for certain, but I do remember one of the female chaperones singing the song passionately while she filled the vehicle with fuel before we headed back to Northern Virginia. Even then, I felt a little niggle of doubt. Jesus is the answer? Sounds nice and pat. How does it work?
Several years later I was sat on the steps of a church in Cardiff talking to a fellow aspirant to ordination (albeit in the Anglican Church) when we were approached by a woman who had just come out of the pub across the street. “If anyone asks, I was here talking to you,” said the woman. She was clearly unkempt and not quite right, whether under the influence of a substance or mentally ill or merely distressed, I was (and am) not qualified to say. My companion was kind to the woman, and I tried to do my part, though I felt oceans out of my depth. We kept her calm and talking until the uniformed services came to deal with her.
Eventually she was removed, and I was left wondering what possible “good news” the church behind me had to offer this woman. “Jesus loves you” wasn’t going to change her life. Praying “the prayer” wasn’t going to instantly change her into a healthy, sober, peaceful individual. Even then, I instinctively knew that what this woman needed was radical love, deep sacrifice, and, above all, expert care, probably lasting for many years if not the rest of her life. The congregation of which I was then a part had next to nothing to offer her. Many of the members would have looked askance at her if she had entered the building and, possibly, even shunned her.
Here was I, a Christian, with access to the holy power of God and able to call on Jesus – the answer to every question and problem – helpless in the face of the abject need and helplessness of a stranger on the street. I could not offer the answers of faith to the problems of life. I felt frustrated, small, and confused.
It is possible that this post is more a reaction to the embedded theologies of my childhood, than my adult experience of church. The langauge of “having the answers” is less prevalent in churches these days than it was 20 years ago. Perhaps the church is beginning to catch up to the idea that the answers it is offering are answers to questions fewer and fewer people are actually asking.
However that may be, there still seem to be churches where the question and answer motif is favoured – perhaps through the use of the Alpha Course – or similar Christianity 101 type programmes. I remember hearing a story about a children’s talk in church in which the speaker clearly described a squirrel, but the child that raise a hand gave the answer as “Jesus.” Even that young, that child had been indoctrinated to give “Jesus” as the answer to every question, without engaging the brain and considering whether that answer made any logical sense.
Churches seem to be geared towards answering the big questions “why am I here?” or “Is there a God/who is God?” or “what’s my purpose in life?” It doesn’t seem to me that these are the questions that most people are actually asking. Hanging out with other mothers in mother and baby play groups, I hear concerns about the sleeping or eating habits of the children, domestic relationships, money and holidays.
Friends with chronic ill-health or other disabilities are concerned about how much they will be able to accomplish today while feeling so poorly, whether the government will erroneously judge them “fit to work” at the next assessment, when a new seeing-eye-dog will become available, or helping their deaf friends to access the services they so desperately need but are excluded from because of poor English skills.
My husband comes home from work talking about colleagues, and their concerns are similar – money, relationships, children, health, holidays. Everyone is stuck on the same treadmill, and we are all trying to practically make our lives work, to find people with whom to share love, to help those we love to live the healthiest and happiest lives possible.
These aren’t the traditional “big questions,” but they dominate lives in our society. The closest attempt to a Christian response to such concerns is to invent “biblical” answers to these every day questions, and teach people exactly how to live their lives, down to the most intimate detail, in order for God to bless them.
I don’t believe church has the answers. It isn’t even asking the right questions.
Instead of trying to get people to ask the questions to which we have ready-made answers based on what a questionable concept of “biblical truth,” I think it is time for the church to leave its truths on the shelf somewhere and spend some time discovering and sharing in the questions people are actually dealing with every day.
What has the church to say to the rural community whose doctors’ surgery is closing and the local people, particularly the elderly, who are concerned about where they can go for help? What does the church have to say to the homeless, mentally ill or addicted person who wanders onto their steps while seeking to escape an awkward situation? What does the church have to say to the LGBTQ individuals walking past its doors or sitting in its pews, afraid to be honest about their own identity for fear of abuse and rejection? What does the church have to say to Muslim communities who face racial and religious persecution in the streets around her buildings?
This is a sample of some of the questions I think churches should be thinking about. Nothing to do with immortal souls. Nothing to do with proof texting. Nothing to do with being right (or proving anyone else wrong). Everything to do with helping, loving, sacrificing, spending more time with “sinners” and “outsiders,” and building a more positive world.
And if the church building has to close for lack of attention because Jesus’ followers are out doing good and helping people; well, would that really be so bad?