Several years ago I prepared a paper entitled “The Future is X” in which I summarised the ideas that underpin the thinking of the majority of people born in the 1960s and 70s, those of us currently in our thirties and forties. One of the keys for the Church which I raised then is that the churches of the emerging generation are not missionary works in a post-Christian culture, but networks forged out of post-Christian people. It’s not about coming out of our Christian bunker to make forays into a fallen world, but about an indigenous church rising out of the surrounding culture to form the Body of Christ. Whilst we are not of the world we acknowledge that we are in it.
I want to address the question what is the surrounding culture and how can it be reshaped in a form that Baby Boomers and those born before the Second World War can identify as being the Body of Christ. The Millennial generations, Y and Z, are already rising up behind Gen-X and reshaping the world to suit their ideas: these are the people who are currently engaging with church through “youth” events. But it is Generation-X who is taking on the reins of the world at present, and it is they who will be our governments and our business leaders within the next ten years.
Over the course of several of my Night Patrols when I worked in one of England’s prisons I read a novel by Richard T. Kelly, a man born in 1971. His book Crusaders was about a Church of England church plant in a rough area of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and one of the conversations was between John Gore, the new Post-modernist Liberal-Lefty cleric from London who came to plant the church, and Simon Barlow, his peer in age and former classmate from seminary, a Conservative Evangelical and quiet Charismatic. Rev Barlow was vicar of the parish into which Rev Gore’s new venture was being planted. It went like this:
Gore: I won’t have any problem telling people that the faith can mean something quite different to any one of them.
Barlow: Oh will you? Nice, John. But you know what? You’ll be preaching to an empty church. Empty, mate. You know why? Because people who like that sort of guff, they don’t go to church. They don’t read the Bible. They go to the theatre. And they read the Guardian. People who go to church on a Sunday want to hear a sound man, someone who believes what he’s saying when he baptises their kids.
There are people who belong to our congregations who have not asked our permission to do so. These are the people I spoke of last time who belong to us at the social level. So how can we be tolerant without being wishy-washy? Can we be tolerant at all if we seek to proclaim the unchanging gospel of The One who is the same Yesterday, Today, and Forever? In response to this John Burke reminds us that there is only one thing the Church can do which the world, as a social state, cannot do: the Church alone can offer grace. Every other religion offers ways to earn God’s approval, only Christianity offers the love of God for an individual as is. In essence, tolerance is the world’s substitute for grace: but it is incomplete. Tolerance does not value people, it simply puts up with differences in behaviour or belief. Tolerance cannot accommodate mercy, the best tolerance can do is look the other way. If the Church is truly going to represent God to this generation we must do more than offer tolerance to those people who disagree with us, we must show God’s grace.
But then as Christians we have standards don’t we? Even with all we have learned about grace and the welcome of the God who came to meet us at our lowest point, there are some things that are inconsistent with life in Christ aren’t there? Of course we know that that is true, it is true, so please allow me to reassure you that acceptance of people is not the same as agreement with their life choices, behaviours or beliefs. Come as you are is tagged with but don’t stay that way. Yet we must remain patient with those new to community, and even more so with those new to commitment to Jesus. They may well misconstrue our acceptance of them with an agreement of their wrong thinking, but we must be as gracious with them as God has been with us. It is far too easy to stall the development of a seeker because we try to play God and “fix” some issue before God’s time is right. If a person within our fellowship has not made a commitment to Christ we cannot expect her to act as if she has. We introduce her to Christ and keep her in community while Christ works to change her into his likeness. Our task is to be her companions, Christ alone does the “fixing” as he did, and still does, with each of us. As Philip Yancey said in What’s So Amazing About Grace? it is only by being graced that we learn to show grace.
Tolerance, incomplete as it is when compared to grace, remains the highest value of the postmodern world, and as such it is an important bridge between our culture and that of the people outside our door. Tolerance is the world’s test for authenticity: do we practice what we preach, and is our preaching practicable? There are three key questions which the world asks of the Church, so let’s take time to look at them and come up with some Biblical answers.
- What are you doing in the local community to alleviate suffering?
- What do you think about other religions?
- What do you think about homosexuality?
Each of these is seen as an indicator of authenticity when someone encounters a local church, and these are not only questions from university-educated Gen-X but from all of “this generation”.
The local church must understand its local community, and acknowledge its responsibility to address the social injustices of its neighbourhood. The difficulty many new ministries face is that too much can be attempted too soon. Nevertheless, the heart of compassion, an ethos of concern for those beyond our doors, should be evident from the outset of any Christian adventure, even if only to say “we know what is going on, but at the moment we are too small to do more than this one thing”. The world may not know much about Christians, but they know we are supposed to be loving and caring. They also think we are supposed to be tolerant, yet when you get down to asking individuals what they mean by tolerance they actually mean compassion. The world expects Christians to be compassionate.
The grace of God is the strongest point in the good news of Jesus. Grace is what makes Christianity unique as a message and it must be told over and over again. We must experience grace for ourselves; not just have a personal theology of grace but have personal testimony of the liberation found in God’s perfecting love. This is the story of “tolerance” we can tell to those coming to us for God’s help. The local church is the only place where practical grace can be found: we are not so much evangelists as e-vandal-ists, here to destroy the walls thrown up by society and to repaint human lives with the amazing love of God revealed in the cross of Jesus Christ. I quoted Cornelius Plantinga to the Baptists a few weeks ago, of how sin is the vandalism of shalom. I want to encourage you to see grace as the vandalism of inequality, intolerance, and injustice.
So how do we help broken people who come to us for help? What happens when their questions go beyond a hypothetical test for authenticity and we are faced with a broken, hurting person? Our first desire should be to see the child who is muddy, and not the mud on the child. The priority of our thinking demonstrates our foundation on either law or grace. Even those who appear to have it together, where you can’t see the mud, still have need for Christ which only he can meet. John Burke tells the story of a woman he calls Cassidy: who felt as though God had a big “tote board” of her sins upon which God kept score of how much she had suffered against how much she had sinned. Her god would remind her that she’d not suffered enough to repay her sins. She said that when her friends or family tried to reach out to her, to hug her physically, she would flinch. Touch actually hurt: physical pain along with the emotional pain of isolation. Many people share her experience. (I have felt that way at times, it’s one of the emotional symptoms of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.) Cassidy described the huge risk as she opened up about the past to others in a small group. Happily she felt loved and accepted, but many don’t, even when they have come to church. Cassidy hid her pain at church for over a year, Burke says no one knew she was hurting, and he reminds us that many even within our congregation suffer under huge silent burdens that only grace, mediated through an accepting group, can unload. (Remember last session and the lonely leader, uncomfortable in the presence of many other people who “loved” him.) Joseph Myers tells us that small groups in the church sense are not always the answer, but fellowship which is based on genuine friendship and affection is unbeatable. Supportive small groups must be based on the idea of asking each other how well they are living up to a corporate standard, then offering forgiveness and encouragement for those who fall short. This sort of group exposes problems but does not offer solutions: it is the Law. What is needed is grace and truth, without condemnation, even in failure. Seekers need to know that it’s not for them to try harder next time, but to learn to depend entirely on God.
When we begin with salvation by grace, but then backpedal into walking by law, we make a mistake. People don’t grow like that, they may conform outwardly but they will stay broken inwardly. This is just as true for Christians well into life with Jesus as it is for new converts. As with feeding babies, growth is a messy process, most new believers do not need discipline, they need patience. Mature Christians must assess the trajectory of the church and the point at which a specific person is sitting when faced with an issue. Is this the rebellion of a mature believer, or the stumbling of a toddler? It may be an exhibition of the same outward behaviour, but is it a mature Christian falling back or an infant falling forward?
One final point before we move on to the questions of sexuality and other religions: it is always important to ask hurting people what help they want. Sometimes hurting people don’t want to get better, and sometimes it isn’t the obvious that is their priority because they know the underlying cause. I have told the story before a time when I went forward to prayer during a healing service at one of my previous churches. I had a cold and the prayer group immediately went to work on that, laying hands all over my face, head and back and praying for a release of my fever. But for me it was just a just a sniffle. What I had wanted prayer for was a bout of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the physical and emotional pain I was in; pain which was so much bigger than my runny nose. Remember what I said earlier about how when I am sick it hurts to be touched? This group praying for my sneezes and putting their hands all over me was not a blessing for me: in fact I went away even more upset and anxious than I had been when I went forward for prayer. I lost faith in that prayer team and stopped going to prayer meetings for a month even though I was a Church Councillor and the Prayer and Missions Coordinator. In the same way we must actively work against the Mister Fix-it person who wants to give quick answers to everyone’s deep problems. Such people are possibly the most destructive force in church.
Now: what do we think of other religions? Actually the choice between religions could only be made if there was a direct compassion between beliefs. There isn’t. Our “tolerance” of other belief systems allows us to celebrate their existence without having to find some way of either defending the claims of Christianity above all else, or of falling back into brand-loyalty when all is much the same between religions. Christians claim that God intervened in the world by making Godself known in Christ. Christianity is objective, so it doesn’t actually matter what we choose to believe about Eternity, what matters is what God said for Godself.
Jesus is unique among religious leaders in claiming to reveal the nature of God. Only he acted in ways that cause our generation to consider the viability of his claims. The question is not about whether Christianity is right and other religions wrong, but about whom God is and whether God has revealed Godself. Sometimes we need to tell others about the limited claims other religions make in order to explain Christ’s uniqueness. Buddha, Krishna, and Mohammad never made the claims that Jesus did, therefore Christianity cannot be compared alongside Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, or any other religion. The Bible does not teach that Christianity is right and every other religion is wrong: the Bible teaches that God is right and individual people are wrong, but that they can be made right in Christ. It is true that religions all teach the similar things about morality, but they don’t teach the same things about the nature of God or the solution to the human problem. Not every religion claims to have been revealed by God: indeed only Christianity, Islam and Judaism claim that the Creator has revealed Godself and clearly expressed God’s will. All religions claim wisdom to address the human condition, but only these three religions claim that God has expressed an opinion. Indeed the Buddha, an Indian mystic named Siddhartha Gautama, never claimed to reveal anything from God despite the syncretistic claims of many Buddhists who believe that he is a god. The point is not that Christianity has better arguments; the point is that Christianity has a unique stance and therefore cannot be compared to other religions.
Christ is the only way to God: this is what Christianity teaches, and this is what scripture blatantly declares. The Church has a responsibility to hold to this, but we cannot hold it arrogantly or in a way that looks “intolerant” to this generation. We must make it plain that according to God it is okay to be in the process of finding out about Jesus. So what about those who die before they find out about Jesus? The Bible teaches that God looks at the heart, not the religion, of every person: even of Christians. The Church does not have the power to send people to Hell, but it does have the capacity to turn them away from Christ. We need to remember that.
And so we reach the biggest stumbling block of our era, and of the Uniting Church in Australia as a denomination. There are already people who are same-sex attracted within the Church: the question is whether we allow them to identify themselves and talk openly about what they think so that they can find hope and support and allow God to work in them. Paul and Jesus taught that whatever we face, God created each of us for a purpose and we are much more than the sum total of any and all of our parts, including our sexual attraction. It is our various sub-cultures that polarise the issue, not the gospel and not Jesus. We know that God does not see an individual same-sex attracted person as “gay”, but as a person. We also know that God does not want people to be unfulfilled or lonely, so when anyone seeks God for healing God is not interested in tearing them away from the love of their life. Change is painful but it is a process that always leads to greater fulfilment. How much more credible to the gospel, and the world, do we look if we can say to a gay man seeking God that he doesn’t have to move out of his boyfriend’s house, although sleeping in a different bed might help him to find the space he needs.
Seekers are looking for people to be like, so Christian lives look attractive because seekers long to be seen as people created by God; not as something deviant that is to be feared. The answer for all people is to give God control over their lives. God alone must be the centre; not sexuality, or tradition, or ethnicity, or brokenness or hurt. Christians who have been through what unbelievers are struggling with can help them to disconnect from thoughts that take them down the roads they no longer wish to travel. It is sad to say but sometimes the world can show more care for us when we are low than the Church does. When your greatest struggles seem to happen at times when you are feeling disconnected from the Christians in your world, what do you say to the unbelieving mates who have gathered around you, and what do you say to the Christians when they come back? Church is supposed to make us feel empowered and encouraged, like we matter. “Gay” is not all that gay people are because one attribute or relationship is not all that anyone is. Life is not about “being X”, habits are not a valid source of identity or definition of human nature; life is about becoming what God intended. Individuals have needs that only God can meet through His community: the Church must seek to meet what needs we can, but we can always meet the need for acceptance.
Thinking back very briefly to last time we know that people search for community on their own terms. No-one wants forced belonging: we must permit people to lead themselves in the same way that God permits them, and to learn from God how God does this. Social space is the first area of connection and the one from which people decide to move towards a different level of belonging. When we seek to set up avenues of connection, and then let people move themselves rather than insisting on doing it for them, we are doing what the world is looking for. Compassion is letting people belong to us on God’s terms.