Tim Challies had a convicting analysis earlier this week concerning the shallowness of Evangelicalism. I think that more and more of us are fed up with the state of the American Church in general, and Tim puts a fine point on our flailing around:
The shallowness of evangelicalism leaves it largely inequipped to deal with the difficult issues. If we are to be a people that brings hope to the hopeless, purpose to the purposeless and joy to those who know only sorrow, we must be prepared to give answers that are biblically-based and Scripturally-satisfying. To do this we must wrestle with the difficult doctrines of sin, love, sorrow and suffering. We must be prepared not only to give an answer for the hope that lives within us, but for the suffering that causes us to draw upon that hope and to take our refuge in Christ Jesus, the One whose death gives us hope for now and for eternity.
Amen to that.
Yet I think that for the Church in America to really live out the Gospel it has to go one step further. While I agree that the Church must do a better job with our answers, I believe even more strongly that we must radically improve our praxis, the very practical living out of the faith that lies behind those answers.
While I may get dinged by some for suggesting this, if it were merely an issue of biblical answers, I could type up an appropriate set of Bible verses, add in a dash of exposition by a famous Christian of yesteryear, and simply hand out the right pages that would address the specific problem of this person or that. In this way, no one could ever claim that they didn't get answers to their pain.
However, if you'd just had your world ripped apart, is a package of answers wrapped neatly in a bow going to assuage your anguish or make you feel loved? Not likely.
If Christianity were just about answers, then it's reached its pinnacle because you can Google for answers and get a gazillion and a half Web sites—including this one—ready to dispense Christian truth at a moment's notice.
But we're not the Blog of Christ. We're the Body. That Body wasn't created to go into the hellholes of Earth and hand out a tract, but to be the very arms of Jesus around a broken person who needs a shoulder to cry on more than she needs someone armed with a relentless set of answers.
This isn't to say that Tim's wrong. No, he's absolutely right. The problem arises in that answers must be accompanied by someone who cares enough to go the second mile. Postmodern people expect that everyone will claim to have answers, but they're more willing to listen to those bearers of truth who demonstrate compassion first and answers second—and for good reason: the rightness of what we believe was never intended by God to exist in a vacuum barren of human interaction. We're the Body of Christ (and not merely the Answers of Christ) by His wisdom, and we gut the Gospel if we think we can casually drop an answer bomb on hurting people and walk away. Yet how many thousands of times a day, especially on Sunday, does that happen in our churches, workplaces, and homes?
No one supports apologetics more than I do. The Bible clearly states that each one of us should know that of which we speak. Still, the fact remains: one of the primary reasons the Western world doesn't take the Church seriously (and even the Western Church doesn't take itself seriously) is we thought we could trade godly, compassionate relationships for easily dispensed solutions.
Any regular reader of Cerulean Sanctum must get tired of me preaching this, but the whole truth is that the Gospel transforms fully only in vital community. Ignore community long enough and the power of the Gospel to change lives is diminished. Not because the Gospel failed, but because our practical expression of it in community failed. This is wholly our problem and not anything that's wrong with the Gospel.
How so? If we're not willing to sit for hours on end with the grieving congregant who just buried his fiancée days before their wedding, what then should we expect of him when it is our turn to mourn? Our lesson to him is that it is easier to quote a few appropriate passages of Scripture than it is to give the one thing we value more than anything else today: ourselves. Over time, people learn that only short, well-rehearsed scripts can be expected and not a knock on a door that reveals an empathetic face ready to listen rather than dispense answers. Pass enough of this anti-Christian interpersonal neglect around within a worshiping community and I can guarantee we can make Sunday (and the rest of the week for that matter) as empty of God's compassion as the darkest portions of hell.
Answers matter. But in the end those answers have a proscribed destination: people. Why then are we so willing to ignore people or give them only a minute of our time on our way to whatever we deem in the moment to be more important than they are?
We will never have a greater mission than to be Christ to the people we encounter daily. If we can't make room for them, then no matter how much of the Bible we memorize, nor how many answers we're equipped to provide, our ministry will bear no fruit.
3 thoughts on “The Practice of the Practical Gospel”
The beauty and wisdom of God are seen in the inseparable combination of community and apologetics, a matter of prayer by our Savior not long before his death (John 17).
You know,Sam, I was thinking of that passage, too.
Oh my. When I started reading the post, I thought it was another post slamming the “Church” for its failings. I’ve seen so much of that out internet recently.
I’m glad that you had something far deeper to say.
In my experience, having the answers is easy. Walking out vital community or relationship Christianity, or however you wish to put it requires surrender to the Lord. And not just of the pastor of the church, but of a significant segment of the local body.
And, ultimately, it also requires a surrendered church to walk out the compassion and love to correct, even to the point of Mt 18.
The Lord has blessed me with such a church. May the Lord bless you with one also.