Church in a Trance
[note to readers, a shortened version of this article was featured on theOOZE.com: Church in a Trance]
Growth and improvement are fundamental to faith. The concepts taught in the Bible naturally make us better if we learn them and apply them, but it takes time. Growth happens through a continual process. Maturity takes time, but this is no cause for alarm or disgust. We can live at peace with growth – not ever content that we’ve arrived, but keeping our progress in perspective. We can be happy, even comfortable, with growth.
I’ve always felt that the church, like the Christian, is in a state of constant growth and improvement. I imagined that the church would continue to change and improve, ridding itself of old ways and ideas, methods and prejudices, ever growing into a better representation of Christ on Earth. When people complained about some flaw in the church I often found myself agreeing with them, and believing that through constant growth the church would rectify the flaws. We should keep doing what we’re doing, just keep trusting God, and just keep growing, and eventually we’ll achieve great things.
But some change comes a different way. When John the Baptist proclaimed his message, he called his listeners to repentance, that is, a complete turn-around rather than incremental change. When we realize that we’re on the wrong path, we should stop, look at a map, re-evaluate, leave our current path and take the right road.
As I’ve written before, I believe the church is at a crossroads where the basic foundation of beliefs must change. The religious system that currently stands today must adapt to new beliefs. We need to re-evaluate everything we’re doing, and why we’re doing it. This is not growth or incremental change, this is repentance. We’ve made the church into our own kingdom. To make it into God’s kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, we need true repentance. To find true repentance we need a true vision, a vision of where we should be going, so we can turn around, and go that way!
I want to call the church to repentance through a vision of the future. I’ll give it a shot…
The church is in a trance. We sleep. We indulge. We self-perpetuate. We shelter ourselves. We exclude others.
We fight a few battles but they are the wrong ones, battles which serve to lobby for our own interests but fail to respond to God’s calling.
We invest a tremendous amount of resources (time, money, talents, influence) to establish our own kingdom. In my view one of the best ways to see the error we’re making is to look at how we’re investing our resources, and to see what this investment is yielding. So, what we are doing with our resources? We’re using them to organize, to staff and to equip our church communities to function. We invest a large percentage of our resources in producing weekly worship services, running offices, organizing child care, planning events, and creating outbound communications (both for sharing spiritual thoughts and advertising our calendar). In summary we organize ourselves to produce worship services, communications and events. Of course we do, that’s the business of running a church community. That’s how we keep the lights on. Our members want such services and are investing in the local church to maintain these activities. What we are building with these resources is more of a religious system than a God-seeking endeavor. I call it “our own kingdom”.
We also raise money to fund external activities and missions in foreign countries, but how much of our effort is simply trying to duplicate our own religious system in these other locations vs. investing in making the world a better place?
So, what’s wrong with investing in a religious system? We’re in a trance. We’re doing a dance where we just follow along and keep doing activities, but in getting caught up with these activities, we’re avoiding much of the real meat of kingdom life, like nurturing relationships, responding to God’s calling, and helping the world. What if there was a way to spend 10% of our time administrating, organizing, and producing a religious environment, and the other 90% investing in real living?
Here’s a vision of what this could look like, organized around some key “vision” words: Responsibility, Acceptance, Freedom, and Response.
Responsibility: The global church is a massive group of people with a common thread: faith and the work of the Holy Spirit. We should recognize the tremendous resource we have, and realize the tremendous responsibility we have to utilize this resource for the common good. Too often we view the world outside the church as messy, ugly, transient and doomed. We wash our hands of it and do our own thing! Well, what if what Jesus meant by the Great Commission and by the example of his life was more comprehensive than just spreading a message? What if it meant “start a fire that transforms the whole Earth into my kingdom”? What if it meant to care, not just to preach and judge. What if our concept of the end of the world is wrong or off by thousands of years? What if Jesus, through the work of the Holy Spirit, is planning to make this place we live in into something amazing and is willing to take 10,000 or 100,000 years to do it? On universal time scales of formation of planets and life and death of stars, this is still a tiny instant in the cosmos, a flash of drama and vibrance in the universe. If this is his plan, we need to wake up and get with the plan!
We’re largely ignoring the world around us, while people are hurting and need real love, relationships, and material help. If we close our eyes to the world we are not offering any of those things. No matter how much we preach about “love”, if we love only ourselves the rest of the world is not getting any benefit. What if we turned the global church into a global “world improvement” movement. I don’t mean improving the world into our own image of a giant religious system, I mean investing our time, money and effort in really caring, really transforming, really fighting injustice.
In business terms this kind of responsibility is also called “Ownership” or “Empowerment.” Give the people in the organization a sense of how their organization depends on them, their ideas and efforts, to meet the overall vision. The church should function like a grassroots organization, globally mobilized with individuals taking ownership, individuals empowered, to make a difference where they are and around the world.
In social terms, this kind of responsibility is also called “Maturity.” When a person is a child the world revolves around his wants, needs, fears, and his desire for comfort. We don’t relate with anyone out of compassion or selflessness, but instead relate out of our own self interest. We do this innocently and don’t realize this until we grow up and have to face responsibility. At that time we change our mission to achieve the greater good of our family, like getting a job, keeping the house, changing diapers, etc. As we grow further in maturity, hopefully we realize that the world is bigger than our family and we try to give back to our community, notice the needs of our neighbors, fight against injustice we see around us, and help to lead others to have a common vision. Can the church grow up now? Can we move from childish, shallow, self-focused behavior, to a more mature outlook where we see that the world needs us? There’s no downside. If we grow up, wake up, and care, we better accomplish everything Jesus called us to. If we invest less in our weekly religious activities to do this, I really don’t think he’ll mind! After, isn’t true worship to care for widows and orphans? In a trance, we still define true worship as a heart-gripping song. Church, it’s time to wake up and snap out of the trance. Time for some Responsibility.
Acceptance: This is a hard word when we really mean it. A harder to define spiritual word that essentially means the same thing is “Grace.” Grace is what happened when God decided to accept us, to offer relationship to us, and to love us unconditionally. He used his supreme authority to offer us a promise of friendship. Since he did that while we were messy, ugly, and self-absorbed, it means that he accepted us the way we are. He didn’t put other conditions on his offer. That’s what we mean by Grace. Christians throughout time have struggled with the definitions of salvation, atonement and grace, and there are MANY opinions of when and how our good standing with God comes about. However I really feel that the traditional salvation message that says “we are rejected and doomed for punishment, and when we ask for forgiveness then we become perfect and therefore acceptable to God”, is not consistent with the message of Christ. He came to rescue the prisoners and offer them full access to himself and the Holy Spirit. He infused the naked hurting world with goodness, available to anyone and everyone! No strings attached. How can Grace ever mean “conditional love”? If it’s unconditional then it can’t depend on our lifestyle, our set of ideals, our frequency of reading the Bible, our participating in a local church, or our frequency of committing “A-list” sinful behaviors! As Jesus said regarding the harlot, “let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”
This means the “regular” sins of self-indulgence, prejudice and arrogance were at the same level as the “A-list” sins like prostitution. Do we treat regular and A-list sinners the same? Don’t we all have lists of unacceptable and acceptable people? Do you realize that based on the typical ideals of the church, we are perfectly fine with accepting a selfish man who leaves his family to marry another woman, but we reject the poor single mother who decides to move in with her boyfriend? How can we ever have lists of rules that make people good enough for our acceptance? If we are so worried about being corrupted by other people, we should be more concerned about the arrogant childish people we hang out with, than the moral implications of A-list sins (like sleeping with your boyfriend). I’m not justifying wanton sinful behavior, I’m advocating a new concept for us wanton judgmental types, called “Acceptance”. We should accept people the way they are. On the other hand, we should NOT accept hate and injustice. This would be inconsistent with our ideals of unconditional love. I would be more agreeable to kicking someone out of church for their prejudices and hateful words, than for their moral correctness. However, love and grace compels me to put up with those people too, and to try my best to include them in our community, since I have my own similar flaws. Maybe through a better example from me, and if I speak up against injustice, I can help the prejudiced hateful person to change.
So what does Acceptance look like? It means that we look at people the way that God does. We lavish love and goodness on the world, without regard to who will receive it. We see the potential of all people to be in a relationship with God and to respond from their point of pain and shame, to God’s offer of eternal friendship. If we do this, we can NO LONGER make our churches bastions of moral rightness. Invite everyone, judge no one! Lavish love on all people and partner with them to make the world a better place. This should not be controversial theology, but unfortunately many of us have been taught to hate and to be caught up in legal arguments of moral rightness. If Jesus cared to the point of accepting others with unconditional love, why can’t we?
How much more influence and positive effect on the world could we achieve with this type of truly loving attitude?
Freedom: With acceptance and responsibility we unlock the true meaning of salvation. The word “salvation” means some sort of liberation, leading to “freedom!” Freedom from what? Well that depends on what has you captive. For many of us in the church tradition, we are captured in a trance of self-indulgence, and a cycle of judgment and hate based on idealistic moral rightness. On the other hand, many people in the world are captured by tangible chains like addiction, exploitation, poverty and hunger, and sickness with lack of access to health care. Broadly, the majority of people in the world are captured by the evil behavior of others, including neglect, abuse, intolerance, harsh work ethic and unkind treatment. People are trapped in relationships and economic situations. They need kindness, education, opportunity, support, access to basic health care, or advocates to free them from oppressive exploitation. Carrying the true message of Freedom to the ends of the Earth means liberating people from the evil caused by others, and working as hard as possible to fight harsh living conditions.
What does Freedom look like in our own relationships? We can practice salvation, liberation, freedom in our own dealings with other people. When we accept them the way they are, and empower them to partner with us for a common cause, we can liberate them to make their own choices, to choose how to relate to God, how to make a difference, and how to reduce the pain and evil in the world that they can control through their own actions. When we offer Freedom to our children, we teach them to be adults (eventually) who value the opinions of others and can choose their own direction in life, their own contribution in the world, instead of forcing them to comply with a huge set of expectations. When we offer Freedom inside the church community, we release people from following rules, and treat each other as partners to achieve a common cause. We can organize ourselves, mobilizing to each contribute where we are able. No longer should we use our church resources to bring about conformity.
What’s the opposite of Freedom? I call it “Control.” The reason I am so serious about the church’s need for repentance is how it has used its position to control the masses. Control is about expectations, judgment, threat of rejection, and compliance to group norms. Control requires a System of Control. A System with a hierarchy of power, elitism, norms and enforcement of those norms. The church has been particularly susceptible to the lure of Control because of a wrong understanding of Grace. We think Grace means compliance, earning God’s acceptance. On the other hand if Grace is unconditional acceptance, then we find ourselves in the wrong, in desperate need of repentance ourselves. We realize that WE are the sinners who have wandered onto the wrong path by using our resources to create a System to propagate our own idealism.
The System of Control is our own kingdom. The System of unconditional acceptance, and therefore Freedom, is the kingdom of heaven. Which kingdom will we invest in?
Response: So, what does God really want? He went to a lot of trouble to offer friendship to us. He came to Earth as a man and died on the cross to make a way for us. What is his Will? We often justify all of our choices by saying we’re doing God’s Will, meaning what we think the Holy Spirit is guiding us to do or what our interpretation of the Bible dictates that we should do. What does God really want? I broadly call what God really wants, “Response.” If you are a married man, what does your wife really want? Does she want compliance? Does she want slavery, good works, usefulness from you? Maybe sometimes, but she will tire of robotic slavery quickly if you don’t respond to her need for relationship. When she offers you her love, what does she want? A Response!
What we often call worship is better called a Response to God’s offer of love. He wants a friend. He wants to relate. He wants to partner with us. He would LOVE to have a relationship that matures beyond a childish self-absorbed lop-sided relationship (like a child with its mother), and move to a relationship of mutual choices, truth, sharing, and partnership for a common cause. God is WAY above us, but he offers to be our partner and friend, more like a PEER. A mature relationship with God comes from taking responsibility and not just robotically following steps that seem like God’s Will. Like your wife, God is not thrilled with endless songs of adoration. He would rather have your honesty and time. He would rather work WITH you on a common cause then have you work FOR him as a tireless slave. Do you think the angels in heaven really sing “Holy, Holy, Holy” all the time with nothing else interesting going on? If you were in heaven with God, is that what you would do? What would God want you to do as his best friends? I think it would be time for a great banquet! With lots of relating and catching up, lots of honest communication!
God really wants a relationship. That was his offer of Salvation. It’s an offer of acceptance and friendship. It requires that we walk in the Freedom of our own choices and personality. It requires that we acceptance differences and flaws in others. It requires that we GROW UP and take some real Responsibility.
It is just impossible to relate to God while we’re still in the Trance. It’s time to wake up and grow up. It’s time to repent. Can we change? God is waiting for our Response.