Second thoughts about ministry, church, and faith: am I the only one who thinks this?
Some time ago, a church (Loop Church) was deciding whether to call me to be their pastor, so I wrote down some random thoughts, sharing my perspectives about faith and the church.
I expected there might be some questions and pushback about some of these points, but people seemed to appreciate and agree with them. Having come from a fairly traditional and conservative Evangelical and Reformed Christian perspective, here are some things I’ve come to believe. You might call these “second thoughts” after some years of life and ministry. What do you think?
1. Worshiping God vs worshiping the Bible
I value the Bible as the divinely inspired written document that is one of the ways God is revealed. (Note that God is also revealed in our created world, and through “the Word” — Jesus Christ.) The Bible is inerrant in all that it intends to teach. This is the heart of the issue, and where Fundamentalism gets us into trouble: people tend to assume that the Bible teaches us more about God and about life (eg. science) than it ever intends to teach. We tend to read into it, assuming that it is a guidebook for whatever aspects of life we want it to speak to.
Furthermore, we must keep in mind that our faith, love, and spiritual devotion are to God, not the Bible. Churches that make a big deal out of being “Word-centered” sometimes fall into a weird form of idolatry of the Bible. The Bible is simply the window through which we look and see the spiritual reality beyond. It is the container of Living Water, not the Living Water itself. God has given us the Word (Bible) and the Spirit. God has left for us the Word (Bible), and the community of faith … without the Spirit and the community of faith, the Word (Bible) is dead letters on a page.
2. Being a Christ-follower but also recognizing insights from other traditions
I am a follower of Jesus, and am rooted in the Christian and Reformed tradition. I am also aware that no one — or one group — has exclusive rights to God or to Truth. Through what we in the Reformed tradition call “common grace,” God is at work in the world in all kinds of ways that extend beyond the confines of the Christian church, and that wisdom about life — including even spiritual insights — can be found in people from other faith traditions.
Some Christians live with a heightened sense of fear of any insights or practices that are “outside the camp” of their own understanding of orthodoxy. In this regard they are taking their cues from the Old Testament Israelites in Canaan, where there was great fear about people from other nations who worship other gods leading the Israelites astray.
But there are exceptions in the Old Testament (such as the high priest Melchizedek and Moses’ father-in-law), where we find people loving, serving, and worshiping God who come from outside the Israelite tradition. And in the New Testament, we see this repeatedly in the Gospels (the Wise Men from the East, Jesus’ highlighting the faith of certain Samaritans, Roman military leaders, other non-Israelites, are some examples).
Another way of looking at this issue is to recognize the insights of, and seek to build bridges to, people from other traditions — as we see the Apostles, and especially Paul, doing in the book of Acts. I am much more in alignment with Paul’s approach.
3. A Kingdom-centric vs a Cross-centric understanding of the Gospel
For me, the central message in the Bible — and the interpretive overlay to the Bible and the spiritual life — is multi-faceted reconciliation through the establishment of the Kingdom of God. I see this as a different — and much more helpful — way of understanding salvation than what has been the primary message of fundamentalist and evangelical churches: namely a reductionist focus on one particular facet of reconciliation — reconciliation of individuals with God by dealing with the guilt of their sin through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.
Atonement through the cross is obviously an important part of salvation, but it needs to be understood in the context of the bigger picture of the Kingdom of God. This is, in my view, the key insight that separates Reformed theology from the typical Evangelical and Fundamentalist church. In today’s evangelical church, the emphasis is on a reductionist version of “the Gospel,” which boils down to the need to believe a certain atonement theory about the cross so that your sins can be forgiven.
If we don’t understand that this “Gospel” is part of a larger story, we misunderstand the Bible, and we will become increasingly individualistic in our faith-life, and will become irrelevant in our culture. The Gospel is about reconciling people together, setting captives free, overcoming injustice, bringing healing to hurts … it’s not just getting our sins forgiven so that we can go to heaven when we die.
4. The church as a place for deep community vs a spiritual infusion program we go to with a bunch of strangers and casual acquaintances
I believe the core challenge for churches is to be loving communities, and thus help people experience love and learn how to share it. This is the great challenge and great opportunity for churches is to provide “deep community” where each attendee is truly known by a group of people (the good, the bad, and the ugly), and where that person experiences genuine love and support.
Part of us wants this, and part of us fears it. People are drawn to larger churches today not only because they have the talent and money to create inspiring experiences on Sundays … but also because they allow them to be anonymous, and to be taught and led in worship by people they don’t really know. This may create less hassle for them, but it also cuts them off from opportunities to really understand how the spiritual life works and gets lived out. It fosters spiritual idealism as church members project onto the leaders and other church members a level of faith and spiritual maturity that they don’t really have. Such projection holds people back in their spiritual lives, because they see spiritual maturity in unrealistic, idealized terms.
One caveat needs to be mentioned: this “deep community” needs to be tempered by an openness and hospitality to newcomers, so that it doesn’t become an ingrown and unhealthy place. The church can be a place of deep community, but it always must be open and welcoming to newcomers.
5. Spiritual Formation as Heart Work vs an Intellectual Experience
I believe that the process of sanctification (or spiritual formation) reshapes our hearts and souls, not just our minds and our wills. In churches today, spiritual growth is often viewed primarily in terms of gaining new knowledge (Bible knowledge) and changing our behavior, making us conform to certain moral standards that are deemed important to whatever church context that we’re in.
But I think there’s more to the spiritual path than that.
The power of the Gospel, as it comes to bear in our personal lives, transforms our hearts and character … and manifests as the fruits of the spirit (Galatians 5:22–23). This doesn’t happen without an intense process of inner healing. So spiritual maturity manifests itself as gentleness and genuine love — not simply knowledge and spiritual zeal — and this gentleness and genuine love takes time, energy, and intense spiritual work to develop.
This also means there is an important place for the wisdom of psychology and sociology to help us understand emotional brokenness and healing. The process of sanctification (spiritual growth and development) involves working through the core wounds that all of us grow up with, given our broken world. It also involves facing our shadow side, which includes, but is broader than what Evangelical Christians tend to think of as our “sinful nature.”
An emphasis on spiritual formation as heart work keeps us from spiritual and intellectual bypassing.
I engage in the study and application of the Bible to life today with as much intellectual rigor as I can, bringing to bear the insights of science, philosophy, and scholarship to this work. At the same time, I try to be vigilant about the danger of intellectual / spiritual bypassing. Spiritual bypassing is when we avoid the real and difficult aspects of life by over-spiritualizing everything. Intellectual bypassing is when we over-focus on faith as a matter of knowing and learning … not a matter of feeling and living.
As the old Reformers put it, we need “heat as well as light,” and that heat comes from hearts that are full of love, not just heads that are full of spiritual knowledge.
6. Outreach vs desperation to “grow the church”
The church is called to be outreach and mission-focused. Our reason for being is not simply “to meet the needs of” — and do what pleases — the people who are already in the church. We want to reach out to others, and invite them join us on the path of following Christ.
But at the same time we want to be (with God’s help) self-sufficient, self-supporting, and content at whatever size we are. We don’t want to feel pressured to grow in order to satisfy budgets or other internal needs. If we do, our “outreach” becomes more about meeting our needs (for growth) than it is about meeting other peoples’ needs (for spiritual awakening).
Some people advocate for continual growth in church attendance by saying that “all living things grow.” That is an inaccurate and unhelpful statement to apply to churches. We have a word for organisms that maintain a constant, unchecked pathway of numerical growth: cancer.
We want to be a healthy, self-supporting community at any size, and not have people feel pressured to join with us because we are desperate for more people. Hopefully as we are reaching out in love to our friends and neighbors, more people will join our community, and growth will happen. When growth becomes our focus, lots of bad things can happen.