I was in Turkey last week. My body still thinks I am there. My mind is definitely still there. It was a difficult pilgrimage in some ways. But it was a very stimulating one in almost every way.
For the first week, Gwen, my dears friends, and I fulfilled a long-held vision of taking one of the famous sailing cruises through the Aegean. I had very little idea of what I was getting into, especially since I let my friend do most of the planning. When I showed up in Bodrum, I met the people with whom I would be sleeping and eating on our little boat: two Belgians, four Dutch, two South Africans, four Americans, including me, and four Turkish crew members. They were nice people.
What I want to tell you about today is the small experiences I had of introducing myself to people whose English leaves a little bit lost in translation. Being the pastor of Circle of Hope is odd enough in the religion-saturated United States. Explaining it to the post-Christian Belgians and Dutch is even odder.
The bad news church
For instance, my now-new-Belgian-Facebook-friend was very puzzled about my very existence. In Belgium the national government still owns the church buildings for the state-subsidized religious groups. My new friend was very interested (as a former mayor) that the people of my congregation actually pool their money to support my work. Belgium is still highly influenced by the Catholic church, even though in 1967 about 42% of the population attended mass weekly and now it is only about 5%. My friend was also a bit shocked that I was married. When the subject of church came up, the first thing she had to talk about was celibacy! She was very concerned about the sex life of priests, since there has been a major sexual abuse scandal in Belgium for the last several years. I was meeting another person telling me the bad news about the church.
I think we forget that people are not necessarily antagonistic toward faith in Jesus; they really have no idea about faith in Jesus. They think it is about connecting to the bad news church. It is hard to imagine an intelligent person in Belgium signing up for the state-sponsored Catholic Church, run by deviant, politically-savvy priests holding meetings in empty, historic buildings. The only “issue” my friend had to offer when religion came up in our conversation was about celibacy! How unusual that I can have a wife! A sexually-active being, serving a community that supports his leadership — revolutionary!
More poignant, perhaps, was my small conversation with a Dutch passenger. She had some Christians in her background, so she was more in the know. Apparently, there is a “Bible belt” in Holland. She had ancestors from there and even knew about Mennonites, who got their start in the Netherlands. As soon as we started talking about Christianity, she made it plain that she was not happy about how churches judge others and hold to their bizarre convictions. Her first thoughts revealed her feelings about the notorious time there was a breech in the dike and people from the Bible belt would not come to help with saving the land because it was Sunday and they would not work on the Sabbath. It was the bad news church, again. But when I described to her what we were living as Circle of Hope, she almost immediately softened up. It struck a chord with her. She smiled at me and said, with a Dutch accent, “I would come to your church.”
Honestly, I think she is hungry for something. It is like she has been deprived of the church by a bunch of numbskulls who somehow took it over! I hate to be so negative, but the Catholic church still marching around in medieval costumes and the revival of Calvinist propositional-legalism is disastrous for evangelism. I know I am not supplying a lot of evidence for that, but I keep running into the bad news. What self-respecting Dutch person is going to ally themselves with people with so little love in their hearts that they would rather be “right” than serve their neighbor?
Incarnation is the answer
On one hand, I have nothing to prove. A person who wants Jesus can find him in the least likely places. We don’t worship the Christians or their churches. I am not the church’s history. On the other hand, we have a lot to prove. We are an incarnation of the kingdom of God, the presence of the future, as the Holy Spirit lives in us. If someone bumps into me, they should meet the love of Jesus. If they talk to me, they should hear some truth that resonates in some empty place in them prepared for God.
The old church is about gone in Europe and it is quickly disintegrating in the United States. Praise God! But do we have the followers who have the courage to incarnate what is next? Do we have people who can demonstrate the Lord’s truth and love to hungry people? I hope to be among them.
6 thoughts on “Incarnation is the Answer to Bad News Church”
Rod, I don’t think it’s fruitful to reduce the “old church” to the cartoonish stereotype of “deviant, politically-savvy priests holding meetings in empty, historic buildings”. The corruption in Belgian Catholicism is only one of the country’s problems, many of which relate to the long conflict between the French and Dutch speaking populations (Belgium hasn’t had a government in more than a year). You might just as easily argue that if the Belgian bishops and clergy had remained faithful to their Church’s teachings and tradition, then the Belgian people would have had cause to trust them and continue to view the Church as relevant. The Church might have been a unifying force, bridging the political divide between the Flemish and Walloon factions. Instead, it chose to protect its short-term institutional needs and lost the credibility and moral authority it needed to unify the country’s people. But just because the Church as institution is full of corrupt people, does not mean that the Church is itself corrupt. It sounds like you want to throw away the “old church” because it’s full of sinners. Well if that’s a reason to write off the institution and its traditions, then the church (even Circle) will never be cohesive and enduring, because the church is ALWAYS full of sinners. The Belgian Church didn’t collapse because it adhered too strictly to Tradition (a.k.a. “the old church”). It collapsed precisely because it turned away from a Tradition that is grounded in Christ and instead embraced political/financial/sexual power.
I think your broader point is that the Church is most compelling and fruitful when its body is faithful to Christ. When we aren’t faithful to Christ, we quickly (and rightfully) lose our appeal and legitimacy in the eyes of the world. I’m confident that the Catholic Church (or Dutch Reformed church, or whomever) would agree. Belgium, like Christianity, is deeply fragmented. We won’t heal the Christian Church or the Belgian nation by discarding either whenever they become corrupt. These bodies, like our own, can only be healed from within by renewal through Christ. You can tear down the historic buildings, toss out the vestments, marry off the priests, discard the Catholic tradition, and replace it with the “next generation”, but it won’t make the slightest difference. The only thing that will save Belgian Christianity (or any body of people) is renewal in and faithfulness to Christ. We don’t need a revolution to “get it right this time”. We need people to faithfully follow Christ; only then can we begin the work of healing the schisms within the Church, including debates over issues like priestly celibacy and ecclesiastical governance.
Oh, we do not agree this time, Chuck — not completely, at least. Yes, being grounded in Christ is our only hope. But I am talking evangelism, not saving Belgian Christianity, or any “ity.” 1) I was just channeling a resident’s imagery — I only really know what the natives tell me. Defending cartoonish is not that fruitful. 2) We always need a revolution. Jesus was not renewing Judaism, either. I don’t want to throw away the sinners, just their institutionalized anti-evangelism. Their lack of fruit is evident.
I guess it’s not clear to me what you mean when you describe the institutional church as “anti-evangelical”. I agree that the Church in Belgium closed itself off to the people, alienating existing members and all but precluding the possibility of evangelizing new ones. In that very real sense, it has completely failed its mission in the world. What concerns me is that a lot of American churches have reacted to that by swinging much too far in the opposite direction, to the point where they’re always restructuring themselves to try to remain relevant. At a certain point, you become indistinguishable from the culture, because the culture, rather than Christ, has shaped your theology, liturgy and ecclesiology. These things matter, and they become meaningless if subject to cultural whims. The organization of the church and its means of evangelization can certainly evolve over time to serve the mission, but the church needs to be very careful not to destroy itself in the process. Art makes a good point below, that the church would benefit from listening to the people it exists to serve, but it shouldn’t change its message or meaning just to make them more comfortable. All this talk of “revolution” smacks of rebranding the church to attract new customers by meeting their tastes rather than their needs, and that can only end badly. The point of evangelization is that everyone needs Jesus, but not everyone has heard the Gospel, so it is our mission to share it with the world incarnationally. We might change our strategy for sharing the good news, but we shouldn’t change the good news itself to satisfy their tastes. Too often the lines between the gospel and the church as institution become blurred to the point where we can no longer locate the truth at the center of it all. We need to be very careful that the truth doesn’t become a casualty of revolutions against outdated conventions or ossified institutions. If the Church becomes post-Christian to satisfy a generation reared on relativism, then it divorces itself from Christ and ceases to mean anything at all.
Having said that, I think you’re right on the money with the observation that their lack of fruit is evident. Churches have a way of collapsing when they go off mission. If, as a church, you aren’t living in truth, then you’ll ultimately be subverted by the community of Christians that is.
i really like how the people with whom you spent the most time on this journey are the ones you are talking about/ mulling over what their lives and experiences mean to Jesus and our mission, instead of just fixating on the sites you visited (which I’m sure were grand, too). You’re not a very good tourist… but you’re a really great pilgrim.
I happened to read from the Celtic Daily Prayer book this weekend (July 25 Finan Reading) –
“As a channel of nourishment, as a stimulus to holy deeds, as a link with all holy lives, let everyone use the church, and to the utmost of their opportunity. But beware of mistaking its services for Christianity. What church services really express is the -want- of Christianity. And when that which is perfect in Christianity is come, all this, as the mere passing stay and scaffolding of struggling souls, must vanish away.” – The City Without A Church, Henry Drummond
If I could be honest about the passing stay and scaffolding of my own religion to those I’m meeting, while being bold about the remnant of Christ that dwells in me, I would be pleased.