Friday, 9 November 2012

So you don't want to go to church any more?

There are some books that have an 'Alice Through the Looking Glass' quality. Who is looking at the world upside down - the author or me?

'So you don't want to go to church any more?' is such a book. It is by Wayne Jacobsen and Dave Coleman though I cannot understand why it took two men to write it. Apparently it took them four years. It is from the same publishers as 'The Shack'- 'Windblown Media'.

It is written through the narration of an assistant pastor called Jake who is in the spiritual doldrums. His church is big and successful but all is not well underneath. There is no spiritual reality. He is falling out with his senior pastor. His daughter is ill. Along comes 'John' a kind of angel/disciple/ Jesus figure (whom Jake for much of the book seems seriously to think may actually be the apostle John)who speaks of God as 'Father' and invites people to come to 'Father' (not 'the Father' or 'our Father'). The book has thirteen chapters in each of which John meets Jake in an unlikely situation - turning up just when Jake needs him, in a cafe, or even by a remote lake in the Californian hills. John just drifts around helping people in their relationship with Jesus. God through his prayer heals Jake's daughter.

Much of what 'John' says is fine, except that it is all nice. Everything is relational. He is very good on grace. Jake, who seems to have been living his Christian life as if he were on a treadmill, resigns from his ministry. His senior pastor is found to have had an affair. Jake starts up a home group, to find reality in community, but John reminds them (wise eh?) that changing the outward circumstances is not going to change the experience of relationships if they do not focus on Jesus.

Any organisation, is the message, can damage the relationship 'Father' wants for his people. Religion is bad, it is shame management; what counts is Jesus delivering us from shame. Institutional church is portrayed as universally authoritarian, manipulative, unreal, pressurising. More than once going to church (which we shouldn't say, by the way, as we 'are ' church) is described as going to a 'finely tuned performance' or a 'praise concert' with a 'teaching'. Well, if that is a church service, perhaps the authors have a point.

One could agree with a lot of what 'John' (the mouthpiece for everything the authors think is right) says - we must of course be focused on Christ as a church, though interestingly John never uses the word 'Christ' - it is always 'Jesus' and our relationship is primarily not with a triune God but with 'Father'. The problem is that this relational approach is set in stark contrast to anything institutional as if the church could be all organism but never organisation. Sure, things are bad in many of our organisational set ups, but you don't - indeed you can't - jettison organisation just because of that. This book is not only arrogant in its dismissal of 'institutional' church; it is idealistic and naive in terms of what could replace it.

Here is a Christianity where (i) community and 'real relationships' have become god; (ii) the Bible does not seem to exist except as mediated in some of the things (always positive, relational and encouraging, never challenging or guilt inducing) that John, in his wise style, says to Jake and his friends; (iii) an assistant pastor seems to know absolutely no theology and though he reads his Bible he always needs John to give him the words that actually help him; (iv) commitment is regarded as legalistic; (v) meeting together must be because people really want to and when they have found what they need they will not be able to stay away; (vi)and oh yes - preaching, the heart of worship, does not figure at all. All communication of the Word is done by John-like socratic dialogue. Very unauthoritarian, very egalitarian. You can do it around a cup of Starbucks. If you think I am joking I have this week received an email from a friend recently moved to America who is looking for a church; one he visited had comfy chairs with cup holders which fitted Starbucks cups perfectly; but there was no place for Bibles.

The trouble is, people seem to like this kind of book and think it is fantastic. Is it only in America? I fear not. People like it here. Are all hurt by church? Are all going to dysfunctional churches with anxiety-wrought, driven, driving pastors? Don't tell me that all evangelical churches are harsh, legalistic, manipulative and that they reward achievement, thereby reinforcing the tendency to works salvation. This appears to be the case in Jake's experience of church.

Sadly some churches may be like this. There are people who have been very badly hurt by church. I am not sure, however, that this is the book to help them. I fear this kind of book is fed by and feeds a Christian culture where people want the gospel to meet their needs, provide undemanding church and all with the assurance no doubt of eternal life - though the only mention of sin and forgiveness is in one phrase during a 'Lord's Supper' celebrated with cups of grape juice and bread during a garden BBQ which John assures them is what a church service is all about; worship after all is what we do all the time.

Everything, in other words, focuses on making life cosy here. It is a gospel of good human relationships through 'Jesus'. But who is this Jesus? He has no biblical or doctrinal content. Just think of all the time the early church wasted on Christological disputes - all they need have done was enjoy each other's company in their back gardens. But then, with John around every corner to give good advice, who needs the Bible, the Holy Spirit or Jesus Christ?

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