I did not grow up in a Christian home. I never attended church or Sunday School, and only found my way to youth group in my later teens. To save a very long story, my mother has always had a simple faith that was at least partly fed by TV. In those days there was no Joyce Meyer on the screen, or Hillsong etc. But Sundays could always be counted on for the “Hour of Power” (straight after a Catholic service that as a child struck me as mysterious and weird). My mother loved Hour of Power, and Dr Robert Schuller. And she supported him financially. We had the gadgets. Keys to positive thinking. Books of promises. A quick google search readily finds a string of quotes from Schuller. I can’t believe I found one I remembered – “Turn your scars into stars“. I am sure we had a key ring, pendant, piece of crystal or something with those words engraved on it. Looking back, it was an apt phrase. In a funny way, it gave us something to hang on to. To hope for. Schuller was certainly a peddler of hope.
I have never watched the show as an adult, and had all but forgotten that chapter of my life until I read on Scott’s blog that the Crystal Cathedral is now bankrupt. The comments on the article from “Christianity Today” were interesting. People seem to be blaming female leadership (Schuller’s daughter), wrong leadership decisions, the need for Schuller Snr to move on. As of tonight, only one comment questioning the validity of the 20th Century church phenomenon captured so well by the crystal cathedral. Time to look outside the glass house.
I have been following a discussion with interest over at www.rodneyolsen.net on why men hate church, and have just finished listening to this mp3 about the topic on 98.5 Sonshine FM. Now not being a man, maybe I am not suitably qualified to comment, but it seems to me that there are a few assumptions being made. Firstly, that the current church paradigm is appealing to women (ironic really as it is developed, delivered, and often actively preserved by men). Secondly, that men only want to sing battle songs about an oddly shaped red leather ball etc (this seems to me to be a stereotypical image of manhood that is not necessarily inclusive of all males), and thirdly, that the problem is the fit between men and church culture, rather than the problematic fit between expressions of church and culture more broadly. I don’t dispute the inherent challenges of the current dominant church paradigm for attracting men (or anybody for that matter) – I just think that the problem is broader than merely a gender issue. The way we do church in the west is fairly tame – lots of cosy bring a plate dos, rosters, singing, listening, sitting – the comments on the mp3 are fairly realistic in their depiction of church. But is this what church is meant to be? Is it perhaps a cop out to say that men are not in church because it is too feminine? I am not sure that Jesus and his apostles established this kind of church. In the mp3, there were talks about BBQs and other ways of bringing in and engaging men. Sounds great, as long as it is not just a more macho version of the same thing – a
cosy rugged Christian club that is focussed inward. The early church was all about mission – mission that demanded your life, all of you, and quite often – your life literally. They spent time learning, fellowshiping and in worship, but the drive was ever outward with more people to be reached, often at great cost. It was life on the edge. Dangerous, exciting. Now if the pulse of church these days was constantly elevated by the risking all adventures seeking to be Jesus to our culture, maybe the men would be on board. And women too. I for one want to be part of church like that. One does not need to be male to feel that passive cosy church is somehow missing the mark. I don’t think the problem is the feminisation of the church, we have just forgotten what church is about in the first place.
Love him or hate him, Charles Darwin had a point. Species that are well adapted to their environment survive. Those who are not, do not. It occurred to me that this theory (the bane of modernist Christians everywhere) might well be applied more broadly. Those of us who refuse to use a computer are maladapted in our environment. With the passing of enough time, there will be no-one left who remembers first hand the pre-digital age. What about the evolution of church? There is no doubt that the church as we know it today is a different animal to the early church of the apostles. The structure, theology and style is perfectly adapted to modern culture. Therein lies the problem. The environment has changed, evolved. We live in a time referred to as post-modern, a slippery term that is as hard to nail down as the sociological construct it describes. It almost seems as though the church is now an endangered species. Parts of the church have responded with “supersize me” methodology. There is an attempt to realign church and culture through pursuing “bigger” and “better”. Other parts of the church are in a state of atrophy. The church must evolve, or it will go the path of all living things that do not adapt to their environment. This does not mean the church needs to be indistinguishable from its host culture, nor does the message need to change. The message of Jesus stands for all time, and will always fly in the face of culture. But our ecclesia, the “how” of church must adapt to survive.
On the weekend I read an interesting article in The Age (Saturday's A2) called "Digging to the soul", by Chris Fotinopolous. He quotes Nick Cave as saying "God deserved much better than what He has been getting". A bit of a sad indictment on Christian music, yet something about it resonates truth for me. Chris writes that the Christian pop song is "essentially a morality tale told dishonestly", and is usually heard on tv shows by evangelical preachers "arguing for the preservation of a social institution known as God's Kindom, a morally insular and homogenous place where the cries of the lost and forgotten do not reach the ears of the occupants." I wan to protest and say this is not so, the very heartbeat of the Kingdom is to embrace the lost and forgotten. Yet I think the words are readily drowned out by yet another cheesy lyric of self actualising faith statement, hallelujah. Nick Cave wrote a very provocative song called "God is in the house", on his mellow "No more shall we part" album. You can read the lyrics in full here. The sentiment expressed cuttingly by Cave as he writes that there is no cause for doubt or fear as "God is in the house". Outside the house are the broken – sexually, chemically, morally.
At the end of the song comes the sting in the tail.
" For no-one's left in doubt
There's no fear about
If we all hold hands and very quietly shout
God is in the house
God is in the house
Oh I wish He would come out
God is in the house".
Mournfully (in lyric and voice) Nick wishes that God would come out. In this song Nick has the ring of the prophet – he shines an peircing light into an attitude that pervades the church and sorely needs correcting. As the Age writer intimated, the Kingdom of God is not to be reduced to little Christian feel-good enclaves. Jesus himself said he did not come for those who are well, but for the sick. It is time for us to stop wishing that God would "come out" of the house (as if we could contain Him), and join with Him amongst the broken and the lost.
Neil Cole likes his farming analogies when he talks about church life. In that regard he is in good company. Farming images frequently featured in Jesus' stories. The harvest in particular was a dominant theme (for both Jesus and Neil). This is a metaphor the church still uses, especially in relation to yearning for growth. How many times have I heard earnest men and women passionately seeking God for the harvest, measured usually by the crops stored in the barn. That is where the church comes into her own – eveything needed to process the produce is safely ensconced in the barn. What seems to be missing is cheerfully heading out of the barn with a fistful of seeds and time to spend with those who come our way. It is God that grows the seeds. I am so thankful for this, for gardening and how things grow is mostly a mystery to me. But I do know how to plant seeds. Neil Cole says that church should take place in the fields not the barns. Sounds pretty good to me.
On Friday night we had a reflective gathering at church contemplating the stations of the cross. We did not adhere to the traditional Catholic stations. People contributed art work, reflections, visualisations etc on parts of the story of Jesus' last hours that spoke to them in some way. My contribution was this reflection on Jesus in the garden of Gethsemene before he was arrested:
Sometimes when we reflect on the terrible journey that lead to the crucifixion, resurrection, and our subsequent redemption, we forget the humanity of Jesus. The divine Son of God and creator of the universe was overwhelmed by grief to the point of longing for death, anything to escape the horror of what lay ahead. We may subconsciously think that “surely Jesus knew that he would be all right”, or that “he could take it because he was powerful, the Son of God”. But this is not the picture we are given in the garden. This is an image of a reluctant terrified child, who knows that he must experience what is to come, but whose very being is filled both with dread and the futile hope that another way may be possible. The agony is real. Jesus is unquestionably divine, but in these moments it is his humanity that screams out to us from the pages of Matthew's narrative. For Jesus the forthcoming separation from his father was devastating beyond measure. A terror greater than death.
In Jesus time of need, his friends sleep. One of the darkest moments in the life of the son of God passes them by unobserved. The pain of Jesus is loud and clear as he laments that his closest earthly companions could not stay awake and watch with him for even an hour.
One hour for a friend. It does not seem much. Imagine yourself in the sandals of Jesus in the garden. We will most likely imagine great dispair and isolation. However, like the disciples, we may struggle to grasp the depths of Jesus torment as he waited for his ultimate destiny to unfold on the cross. For some of us not too much imagination is required, for we have also experienced dark places of the soul. But we need not face them alone, or be overwhelmed by them. Jesus shares in our suffering, and like him, we can draw strength and hope from our heavenly Father.