Reflections on a Midwestern Church

It meets in a old, charming church building, not an office park or a bar […]

Zach Williams / 10.6.11

It meets in a old, charming church building, not an office park or a bar or a towering arena in the suburbs. Red bricks overshadowing gothic archways suggest a Methodist or Baptist past. From the lunch hall opposite the sanctuary one can almost smell the aroma of a thousand pots of coffee brewed and numerous potluck dishes served through the decades.

Don Shall

Updating has occurred. It is odd to see an espresso bar and metallic trimmings fill the foyer alongside the almond staircase and the understated clover windows of the narthex. Nonetheless, the combination puts everyone at ease, the young and the old. The aesthetic effort that went into lining the sanctuary walls with stained glass is also much appreciated, even if the windows’ tableau of rectangles illustrates how overstimulation has sapped our ability to build creative ornament into our churches.

Liturgically, there are no surprises here. Two worship songs with an acoustic drum band. An offering. Long announcements. Prayer. Another worship song out of the unwritten youth group hymnal. An air of lightness fills the sanctuary. Smiles and good humor abound. A shy man in his thirties whom I met at the espresso bar brings his pleasant wife to meet me in my pew. She tilts her head with interest as I explain how I came to this city, this skeleton of an old metropolis that the world has foolishly ignored since the factory jobs relocated.

There is no fire and brimstone here. No politics, no cultural reactionism, and, thankfully, no yawn-inducing victimhood. The people are courteous and thoughtful, refreshingly unconcerned with my line of work or the clothes I wear or the people I know. The church bulletin refers three times to the church’s aspiration to be non-judgmental. After a few conversations, that command seems superfluous. The executive pastor asks the congregation to participate in the upcoming AIDS Walk. In the big churches in the southerly region of our nation, priorities like these would seem radical, or, even worse, liberal.

Discipleship Is Not for the Timid

An usher hands me a paper bulletin, which outlines the elders’ vision for the church. They envision this church composed of “two communities.” Of one community this church “makes not a single demand.” These people are the despondent, the hurting, the outcasts of the world and from other churches, the dazed and confused, and the angry. Members of this community need only come to church and receive comfort.

Of another community the church “demands all.” This is the “community of disciples.” Each disciple makes “an intentional commitment to serve God and others.” Discipleship is not for the timid, the lighthearted, the fickle, or the capricious,” the bulletin explains.

I doubt the authors considered the syllogism this manifesto implies. It sounds as if a disciple cannot be despondent, hurting, outcast, dazed, confused, or angry. That a disciple cannot come to church casually. Instead, the disciple comes clothed in the antonyms of the non-disciple: fearless, grave, loyal, an insider, pacific. Church, it would appear, does not exist to comfort the disciple. The disciple exists to serve the church, exclusively.

Jake, the church’s young pastor, steps up to the stage. Jake is lively and passionate but not garish. He is effortless in his energy and his love for the Bible, along with his ability to look in a person’s eyes and convince the person of his worth. Within a few sentences it also becomes clear that Jake is boyishly fun—good at creating fun, good at having fun, good at enjoying fun. Jake is the leader, the energy center, the sine qua non of an infant nondenominational church unsupported by a diocese or synod or convention, and I like him.

Today’s sermon is part of a series detailing the church’s “Bedrock Principles.” This morning’s bedrock principle is “The Next Step”—that is, the next step in discipleship. Discipleship is concerned, Jake explains, with “the steps each of us need to take to be more like Jesus.” Being a disciple requires taking steps. These small steps add up over time, over years, until the disciple is presumably conformed into Jesus’ image. Taking these steps is what one must do if he wants to be faithful to Scripture, faithful to Jesus’s commands. Even to the extent discipleship is concerned with forgiving, it is in the spirit of obeying Jesus’s commandments.

The disciple is “not perfect,” Jake explains, but he keeps his eyes open to his heart, always seeking out a better knowledge of God, which comes principally through consistent study of the Bible.

More than any doctrinal statement, the structure of this compound sentence reveals the ideas underlying Jake’s sermon. The clauses are like weights on scales. The imperfection is on one side of the scale, light as a feather, almost an afterthought. Some pastors kiss off this side of the scale out of the conviction that man’s “imperfection” runs only skin-deep. For Jake, the minimization stems from an altogether different conviction, one that concerns the spiritual condition of the post-conversion individual. This conviction receives its expression on the other side of the scale, weighed down with striving and purpose, as if carrying a boulder.

It’s Simple But Tough

The weight of Jake’s entire sermon is distributed similarly to that of the latter sentence. There is such thing as legalism, Jake explains. Some people have been burned by legalism, of course. But those people mistakenly swing to the other end of the spectrum and act as if God has issued no commandments. They say that Jesus does not require the disciple to act, that he only wants his disciples to sit there and not do anything and be happy that they are saved by God’s grace. They say that Jesus had no commandments. But no, friends, Jesus had commandments.

Among those commandments: Read your Bible. Visit this website that outlines a plan to read the Bible in a year. Pray. Ask where God is leading you in life. Join a small group. Slowly but surely, you are get in the habit of following Jesus. It becomes easier over time. And that’s what Jesus wants: for you to follow him, for those small steps to add up. Some people think it is good enough to simply accept Jesus. You can do that and yeah, maybe, you’ll get to heaven. But what God wants is discipleship, for you to be more like Jesus.  It’s simple but tough.

Jake issues a word of caution. The point of my focus on obedience is not guilt, Jake explains. We do not obey out of guilt. We obey as a response, a response to God’s love. We read our Bibles, we pray, we enter small groups, we serve others, all because we love God.

This reassurance demonstrates Jake’s sincere faith in the power of words and the rationality of his listeners to overcome the clearly contrary idea animating his sermon. Jake reassures the disciples that they can do nothing, can perform no action, to earn God’s approval. Then he asserts that discipleship is about action, action, action, and more Christ-seeking action. God loves you enough to get you in the door, but in this place we work. You can’t just sit around and do nothing. But that does not mean God’s love is conditional. What about a few little commands should/would make you afraid that your status with God depends on your actions?

Neither Protestant nor Catholic

In its essentials, Jake’s sermon reminds me of what I heard every Sunday growing up in the Shangri-La of Evangelicalism. Absent from Jake’s address is the proposition, proceeding from a certain anthropological conviction, that a disciple remains in part—in large part—a person whose desire lies in indulging himself. I suspect Jake believes that the disciple’s self-indulgent tendency wanes after he becomes a Christian. He could marshal biblical support for refusing this conviction (“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ . . .”). Once “saved,” the pastor assumes, a disciple is no longer powerless against crucifying Jesus with his sin; he is empowered to follow his Lord closely.

“Seek.” “Act.” “Read.” “Pray.” “Join.” “Get in the habit.” “Follow.” Emphasis indicates ideology. Repetition makes explicit the implicit. The repeated structure of Jake’s sentences—in which the disciple is the subject, and action verbs are profuse—reflects an ideological judgment about the post-conversion individual, a conclusion based on his own empirical observation. Jake’s heavy emphasis on obedience is the natural outgrowth—in fact, the only morally responsible outgrowth—of a theology that dismisses the disciple’s continuing addiction to his own indulgence.

Jake will say that he is merely reading Scripture literally, that his emphasis is the interpretation of a disciple “serious” about being “faithful to Scripture” (“What shall we say, then?”). Really, his emphasis reflects an ideological presupposition he brings to the Bible. It is perfectly logical to explore the judgment that, upon expressing faith in Christ, the disciple is substantially more willing to obey. But the disciple’s life, including his Bible-reading habits and his private thoughts, prove this judgment groundless.

We should not call Jake’s theology—with its faith in words, rationality, and the disciple’s will—something that it is not. It may be sincere, and it may be well-intentioned. It may even be coming, by and large, from a place of love. But it is a kind of Christian ethics. It is graceless sanctification. It certainly has no root in the Reformation. It is a prehistoric pattern of thought impliedly formalized into a new theology—described as Protestant, but in fact neither Protestant nor Catholic. Its repeated emphasis on the decision to obey provides far more insight than its doctrinal statements or its organizational manifestoes. Justification by faith alone and sanctification by works alone is what this sort of Evangelicalism proclaims.

The chain linking Evangelicalism as an association of churches is the elevation of self-will. And a chain it is. In this particular strain of its theology, Evangelicalism shares an activating conviction about the capability of the will with Wayne Dyer, Mohammed, Emerson, Rousseau, and others. It stacks Bible verses on this conviction, setting it apart from the foregoing and lending it unassailable credibility.

The Inquisitor

Poor Jake! Like me, Jake is hypnotized by the inquisitor inside, who convinces us that we are capable of sustained obedience. The inquisitor trudges forward with his head down, humorless, frequently looking back to make sure Jake and I are striving to keep up with the inquisitor’s pace. Never at a loss for words when it comes to pointing out our shortcomings, big and small. He waits on us to get our acts together, get sin out of our lives, before we can we come too close to him. The inquisitor carries an endless “To Do” list for Jake and me. And as much as he insists that we may follow him unconditionally, he will tell Jake and me to try harder, to keep on keeping on, to check off each task from the list. The inquisitor never makes a move in my direction; he only drags me along reluctantly. I must make myself fit to approach him, but try as I might, he’s always just out of reach. The inquisitor wears sandals and an old Arab robe. He has long hair and a beard, and Evangelicals frequently refer to him as “Jesus.”

Monty Python

Perhaps the Bible preaches graceless sanctification. Perhaps one should not bring to the Bible a different presupposition about the spiritual condition of the post-conversion individual. On this point the theologians will forever bicker. But graceless sanctification would be no less vicious for being true. It exacts a particularly severe cost from the disciple programmed in his fallen state to treat approval like heroine—the anxious, the child of the alcoholic mother or demanding father, the adult who subliminally associates his well-being with his moral compliance or practical industry. It also offers nothing to Ivan Karamazov, the one whose gut-level reservations about the insidiousness in the world and his uncertainty therein are the concrete shoes he wears on his walk to the altar. Evangelicalism tells Ivan there is something wrong with him, he is indulgent and perhaps a little selfish, he just needs to try a little harder to have faith. For both of these types, entry into the community of disciples guarantees a term of membership full of angst, shame, and guilt.

The Evangelical account of discipleship weighs on the anxious disciple, and turns Ivan away, because it borrows the logic governing the rest of this merciless world: for the businessman, a promotion is success; for the child, obedience is success; for the socialite, high demand; for the sexual animal, the bigger number of partners; for all, the more and the greater and the higher. And for the religious, the more steps he takes in following Jesus. But Ivan, seeing human nature for what it is, and the anxious disciple, seeing himself for what he is, expect that striving to end in failure.

Jake’s faith in the post-conversion individual is no less like every other mannequin in the window for wearing religious clothing. The authority of this religious clothing gives it a particularly sulfuric acidity to both types mentioned above. The religious clothing gives it the persuasiveness of a siren call, a stern and all-knowing whisper of “You must…” sounding in the ear of the anxious disciples among us, taunting them with the conclusion, and the evidence, that they are not taking enough steps to follow Jesus.

Friends of mine say that Jake’s theology will decimate every disciple, anxious or not, in time. I am not so sure. I have seen Christians move untroubled and undeterred though the decades measuring their “closeness of God”—unconsciously—by the number of verses highlighted in their Bibles. Others somehow possess the psychological capacity to withstand the endless demands of graceless sanctification and—like Jake, I think—the ability to remain gentle and genuinely non-judgmental. For still others, of course, graceless sanctification is the clothing within which they hide the Ivan Karamazov or the anxious disciple for fear of him being seen in public by those in his Bible study.

But even if a member of the discipleship community is not decimated by the Evangelical ethic, he suffers a loss. This disciple fails to experience the relief of learning that God has known all along how ethically bankrupt the disciple is. He fails to experience the exhilaration of a momentary desire to act altruistically. He fails to experience the delight of learning, like late-breaking news that class is cancelled, that he need not do anything for approval. He fails to experience the terror and, from time to time, joy one receives by answering the question, “What do you want?” He fails to experience Jesus as anything other than a bland, humorless older brother with an endless “To Do” list. He fails, in other words, to experience beauty.