Wednesday, 19 November 2014

If you keep doing what you have been doing, you will keep getting what you have been getting.

I am not saying the Church is dying, after all it is Jesus himself who will built his church. And yet according to Barna, around 3000 churches annually in North America are closing their doors permanently. And if we are driving through our cities we may have noticed ourselves buildings that once were places of a thriving place where people gathered to worship God, but no longer.

To be sure, North Americans have embraced new attitudes on many issues, including that of cultural diversity. But powerful social forces and habits remain.

Some of my daughters friends are white like us, some are not. Some come from families having very little, some come from rather wealthy families. Some come from single-parent homes, some where the grandmother takes care of them, others from homes where the parents are happily married or simply living together. A few are challenged already, be it emotionally, intellectually or physically. But all those differences I as an adult notice do not matter to my daughter, none of these differences make a difference. They enjoy each others company and friendship. They don't notice those things that, in time, will tend to separate them.

By the time my daughter and her friends are in high school, our competitive culture, our fearful culture will have made efforts to convince them to stay with "their own kind." Over time they will be unemotionally segregated into groups. The good students will be influenced to stick with friends who are good students as well, the wealthy with the wealthy, the poor with the poor, blue collar with blue collar, white collar with white collar. They will have been taught that smart people hand out with people who will benefit them, other smart people. TV shows, movies and magazine covers will yell at them that beautiful people will enjoy life more and therefore any shortfalls from the idealized and idolized body image needs to be rectified, corrected.

I am afraid that my daughter by the time she reaches adulthood will be torn apart from her friends by the very differences that God intends for us to celebrate -- differences that not only make us unique but that leads to true love, friendship and therefore unity.

I don't think, I will find in the future a German or Chinese part in the Kingdom of God, just as I don't believe to find a section for Baptist or Mennonites or one of the other 30000 evangelical denominations. For one , God did not safe me to be a more, a better German, or to be richer, but to reflect him on earth. But why do we present to the world such a fractured picture of the kingdom? Because we allow social and cultural influences to inform our lives through our likes and dislikes. We have modeled our lives around social norms that are by definition are broken, because they are formed by a broken creation. Yes, they provide comfort and acceptance on the bases of language and culture but far less than on the basis of God's unifying spirit. We have to asked ourselves how deep reconciliation actually goes if reconciliation produces denominationalism, racism, agism, and creates economic barriers rather than removing them. That is not to say that the early church did not have the same problem, but I think they at least recognized and acknowledge the issues publicly.

In spite of how open and freethinking we believe we as church have become, segregation is still happening, now more than ever, in some ways. We segregate by denominations and traditions, less than by theology than we want to believe. We segregate by cultural background and language, even in socioeconomic classes and age. We are grouping according to likes and dislike of the music, pastor or the others that come, we segregate by preferences and so form tribes of people who all look, talk, feel and think similar. 

Some of these separations are both understandable and therefore difficult to avoid because the tendency of social habits remains with us all our Christian life. And indeed there are sociological benefits in teaching God's truth in someones mother language.  But if those "natural" separations become segregation, intentionally or unintentionally, they are sinful. When we separate from people who are different, we miss out on so many things intended to reflect the Kingdom of God on earth.

I think, C.S. Lewis in his book The four loves makes this point very well; Lewis mentions two friends, Robert and Charles who get together now and than. After Charles died, Lewis realizes that with the death of Charles he had less of Roland as well, never again would he be able to observe Ronald's unique reaction to one of Charles's jokes. Lewis notes, "In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets."
A similar dynamic we find at work when we segregate according to the standards of the world, when we segregate according to feelings, preferences or culture, race and alike. After all, we, the people of God, are the once who believe all people are made by God in his image [although that statement is certainly not true some 60 years ago]. We are the once who believe that all life is endowed with dignity and value and deserves our unconditional love. We are the once who are called to love with a love that overcomes all affects of sin, including excluding preferences and dislikes. We are the once who believe that heaven will be occupied by all people, of all races, of all shapes and sizes, from all tribes and languages and nations.

Sadly, though, I have to admit I myself tend to be just as "tribal" as the world around me. Most of my friends are Christians, I tend to hang out with people who will not cost me money and with whom I have exciting conversation and entertainment. And this is a shame, perhaps even a sin, because we are being called to follow Jesus and by default we will walk alongside a stranger, but only for a very short time if we overcome our powerful social habits. We are being called to love, to be mission minded, yet we often have a tribalistic attitude like everyone else. Which, in my view is a fundamental failure to comprehend and live out the full extend of the gospel. It is not only saying, but showing our failure to embrace the gospel as the unifying power of God. Perhaps unintentionally admitting that the gospel has not the power to join together what God's judgement on sin had separated.

Building the church around personal preferences is just as difficult to justify as building it on race, class, or gender and avoids the at times difficult and painstaking work of carrying our cross, adding to the suffering of Christ by being counter-intuitive and counter-cultural. And in so doing we testify to the God's unifying purpose for his creation before a segregating world. Yes, it is true, people often prefer everything to be just the way they prefer, what makes them comfortable -- their prejudices. Here I said it. But the cross including our cross should overcome these impulses.

I suggest that we don't keep doing what we have been doing in order to become something we have not been for a very long time. Let the reach of reconciliation reach us so that we are what we are intended to be . . . free of the powerful influence of social habit and the world around us and so witness to the reconciling love of God, who reconciles all things unto himself.

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