This article of mine appeared in 'The Evangelical Magazine' for December 2012 and I think has appeared in one or two other places.
THE CASUAL CHRISTIAN
To be casual today is usually regarded as a good thing; it is cool. To be ‘non-casual’ (stiff? formal? intense?) is not good. You need to chill.
One of the first books I read as a Christian was The Best That I Can Be by J. Oswald Sanders. On the front cover is a photo of Lilian Board, the ‘Jessica Ennis’ of the late 1960s, the ‘golden girl’ of British athletics at that time who died of cancer in 1970 at the age of twenty-two. Eyes closed, head back, she is straining every fibre to win the race.
The book is aimed at helping Christians to persevere and grow in grace. On the back cover the first sentence reads: ‘The casual Christian should read this book with caution’. The book’s title, the photo of the athlete (anything but casual as she strives to win) and the assumption in the introduction that every Christian will ‘yearn to know Christ better and serve Him more worthily’, all convey a message that is a far cry from what is implied in the word ‘casual’. Spiritual life and growth, it is assumed, do not sit happily with ‘casualness’. J.I. Packer once coined the apt title Laid Back Religion for a book on this theme.
Our culture is casual; we are children of our age; it is inevitable that we reflect it to some extent. Is casualness, however, always a good thing? Should not the fact that our culture is casual put us on the alert to casualness within the church? May it, indeed, be simply a form of worldliness?
‘Casual’ has a range of meanings. In the New Oxford Dictionary of English (2001) the primary definition of ‘casual’ is ‘relaxed or unconcerned…made or done without much thought or premeditation…done or acting without sufficient care or thoroughness’. One might add, lacking precision or attention to detail. Another meaning is: ‘without formality of style, manner, or procedure, in particular…: of a social event - not characterised by social conventions…relaxed and friendly’. Note the word ‘relaxed’ in both definitions. Now it may well be a good thing to be relaxed and friendly, but not so good to do things without sufficient care or thoroughness.
What does it mean though if church worship is commended as ‘casual’? Probably it means informal, not ‘stiff’ or ‘buttoned-up’. It is perilously easy however for other things to slip in under cover of being ‘casual’.
So when we use ‘casual’ or ‘casualness’ remember the range of meanings. I am suggesting that apart from obvious things like being friendly, which has little to do really with being casual, there is no virtue in a Christian or a church seeking to be ‘casual’. It is the attitude of mind that is important. Things matter; the basic attitude of ‘casualness’ is that things that are considered to be of less importance (at least), do not matter.
Let’s look at what evangelical casualness looks like, some possible causes, and some responses to it.
· the style or manner of leading;
· indifference to traditional order and content of services. I am not necessarily advocating the traditional, merely wondering if enough thought is being given to why we are departing from it and to what will replace it;
· failure to distinguish in importance between elements of the service – for example the reading of the Word, and a welcome to visitors;
· too little acknowledgement that we are meeting in God’s presence and have come to worship him;
· the way we dress (which is not the central issue though an obvious cultural trend).
· indifference to protocol;
· dislike of anything ‘formal’.
· a resistance to precision in doctrine. Sometimes there are good intentions behind this, such as evangelical unity; but is there not the danger of a ‘details don’t matter’ attitude?
(i) Postmodernism has left a legacy of suspicion about Truth – it does not exist or it cannot be found. Why bother then, to make much effort to seek it or define it? To the extent that this (unconsciously) affects Christians, we will cease to make much effort to be precise in doctrine.
(ii) We like to be ‘inclusive’ and dislike boundaries. As, in the way we dress, we do not distinguish much between a football match and going to church, so (more importantly) we make no distinction in the attitudes of mind we should adopt. We come to be stimulated, to receive rather than to give. We like to be ourselves, and not fit in to someone else’s programme. Yet biblical holiness consists in maintaining boundaries – between Creator and creature (the fundamental one – we bow in his presence), male and female, believer and unbeliever, clean and unclean (Ezek. 44:23). Believers are ‘set apart’ to God; we are to separate ourselves (in the right sense) from the world (2 Cor 6:15 -7:1).
(i) One suspects that if anything would lead to casualness in worship, doctrine and conduct, it is a diminished view of God. Is it possible that the concept of a gracious God may have slipped into that of a casual God? But nowhere in the Bible is God casual!
(ii) There is a popular strand of evangelicalism that tells us we are no more worshipping on Sunday than when we play cricket or enjoy a BBQ on the beach. If 24/7 worship is all there is to be said about worship, it makes everything the same. Services can be casual – why not?
(iii) It is becoming increasingly common for Sunday to be regarded as not special. The fourth commandment we are told is not binding on Christians. As this takes hold it is not surprising that we are casual about the Lord’s Day.
(iv) There is a tendency to treat matters of form, order and convention, which may be secondary, as if they were unimportant, which is not at all the same thing. Forms of worship always have a theology behind them. Contempt for form usually betrays ignorance of this theology and of the way our own forms reflect a (usually worse) theology.
Responses to ‘casualness creep’
First, a recovery of the sense of the greatness of God. When Moses meets with God he is told to take off his shoes; he hides his face and is afraid to look at God (Exod 3:6). Pure spiritual beings hide their faces and Isaiah is stripped bare as God reveals himself as the thrice holy (Isaiah 6:1-5). Peter asks Jesus to depart from him, for he, like Isaiah, is exposed to himself as God’s glory is revealed to him (Luke 5:8); John falls down as one dead (Revelation 1:17). To each of these men God is gracious, amazingly so, but the idea of ‘casual’ fits nowhere.
Second, a conviction that Christian worship is the hardest thing a sinful man or woman can attempt. Assuming we are meeting to worship God (and I suspect most Christians really believe that this is why they are in church) let us be clear that spiritual worship is not easy. It is not something that can be attempted without preparation, thought and concentration on God, his Word and spiritual things. If that is compatible with a casual attitude, so be it, but I doubt it. As for the forms of what we do, they may be secondary, but they are not unimportant. Subject to God’s Word, they should be determined by what is appropriate to what we are doing.
Third, a conviction that living and growing as a Christian is a struggle. We read of words like ‘toil’ and ‘struggle’ (Col 1:29; 1Tim 4:10) and ‘make every effort’ (Eph 4:3); of ‘pressing on’ (Phil 3:12-14), ‘pursuing’ and ‘fighting’ (1 Tim. 6:11,12; cf Heb 12:14), ‘running’ and ‘boxing’ and ‘pummeling the body’ (1 Cor 9:26-7). Striving, not casualness, should be the keynote of our lives and of our public worship. Our God is worthy of infinitely more, and certainly no less.