I came to a certain realization today at church: I think I’ve been placing too much of a burden on what the church is supposed to do for people. I’ve been frustrated for a very long time in regard to the way evangelical churches in North America regularly function with reference to what they are teaching. Now, I am only referring to churches that seemingly are self-conscious enough to recognize that their role is to disciple God’s people, and prepare them, as best they can, to encounter the living God in Christ each day and on that final day. Even in the most ideal of these churches I think I will always find myself, at a personal level, leaving dissatisfied.
Full disclosure: Like many of you, I’ve grown up my whole life in the evangelical sub-culture; even as the son of a Conservative Baptist pastor. I understand the inner-workings of what it takes for a church, particularly smaller to mid-sized churches, to function in our current cultural (and thus fiscal) moment. There are many pressures, not least of which is a spiritual onslaught which would like for nothing else but that the churches fail in their mission to make disciples of all nations and peoples, baptizing them in the singular name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. So, we have these pressures, and many more. And it is these on the ground realities that often hamper the work of God in Christ in the churches. But I think I realized today, even because of these pressures, that the churches really can only do so much; even in the most ideal of situations.
I think for all too long I have used myself as the measure and expectation of what I would think churches would be bringing to the people. Of course, this is a foolish standard. But I also think at some level, what I expect in itself isn’t even enough. I am conflicted about these things. I spend ALL of my free-time (meaning time not spent with family, per se) reading theology books and the Bible. Because of my background and training (in Bible College and Seminary) I am aware of the mountainous riches available to Christians in the history of the church. I have been being, and am being fed continuously from these riches as I continuously expose myself to them in vigorous ways. As I go to church I have to recognize that at best there might be an hour or two (tops) available for the teaching pastor and Sunday School teachers to attempt to expose people to the proclaimed Word of God in such a way that the souls of the laity are fed and lifted up. I have to recognize these sorts of time constraints and be realistic about what the church can actually accomplish in this time. So, this is the sort of positive realization I’ve been having about the church.
On the critical side, what remains to be a problem is that the churches set the bar too low. A Christian person, if they are so inclined, should be able to go to church and have their deep spiritual and theological longings met and fulfilled. Christ has raised up teachers in the churches for this very reason, and yet all too often we see (especially in my Free church tradition) pastors shrugging off their responsibilities to expose people to the riches I referred to earlier; often because the pastors themselves are not aware of them, or while in seminary (if they even attended) they simply saw them as not involving ‘real ministry.’ This point remains a raw one for me. While the local church, realistically, can only do so much, they can do much more than they are! Pastors will be held to a stricter judgment: meaning, pastors will be held accountable for what they exposed their people to, and what they didn’t. I’m not suggesting that all that I am referring to (like sacra doctrina – the sacred teachings of the Church) can be dumped on the people at the sort of technical levels the so called ‘professional’ theologians learns to think at. But, what I am saying is that the deep things that occupy the theologian’s mind and heart ought to be offered to the people in the churches, in accessible ways, so that they might grow. Remember, I’m just a lay person myself; I’m just like you, and you’re just like me. I might be motivated differently than some in the churches, but I have to think that my motivation to know Christ is something that God has put into me so that it might be inculcated in others in the church. In other words, it isn’t just the “theologians” who are to be occupied with the ‘deep things of God,’ but it is everyone in the Church. I don’t think the local churches are in fact doing a good job in this area, precisely because, I think, the pastors have shrugged this responsibility off as if helping people to grow ‘deeply’ into Christ is not ‘real ministry.’
While I am hopefully becoming a little more realistic about the local church’s role, as I have been writing this out it still appears to me that the local (evangelical) churches are failing even at their most minimal task of making growing disciples of Jesus Christ. The bar must be raised, not lowered; and yet in the revivalist/conversionist oriented churches we see it all too often being lowered in the name of doing ‘real ministry.’ It is rather foolish to think that real ministry can be done apart from a deep and abiding push into the depth dimensional reality of who the living God is as revealed in Christ. Real ministry is pushing people further into the eternal life they have come into union with in Christ (cf. Jn 17.3), and allowing the weight of this glory to propel people further into the inner sanctum of God’s Holy and Tremendous Life. I typically don’t walk away from church services with this sort of sense about who God is; things are way too domesticated. The Gospel is scandalous and foreign to our natural modes of thinking and conditioning. The local churches fail precisely at this point, at the point where they make the Gospel a pedestrian reality that seeks first the kingdom of man rather than the Kingdom of God in Christ; with all the good intentions in tow.