The Prodigal Church
For my own part I hate and distrust reactions not only in religion but in everything. Luther surely spoke very good sense when he compared humanity to a drunkard who, after falling off his horse on the right, falls off it next time on the left.
– C.S. Lewis, “The World’s Last Night”
Once there was a church that loved God and loved people but had a difficult time showing it because the image they gave of God was rather one-dimensional and so then also was the way they attempted to love people. The church believed in a holy God, a just God, a vengeful God, and so they preached wrath very well, pushing the hearts of all who darkened the church doors with the imminent foreboding of their eternal damnation. They did their best to scare the hell out of people, and when that didn’t work, they cried and pleaded and begged. Wretchedly urgent, the church regularly reminded its people of the dire importance of obedience to God, of being holy as God is holy. And the church grew vividly aware year in and year out of the “thou shalt not”s of the Bible. And they came back for more. But fewer and fewer did. When some began to suspect this god was not quite love and that this god could never quite be pleased, they stopped trying. Some kept trying, fearful and diminished.
One day someone suggested the old way wasn’t working. People could not be won by a god who seemed angry all the time, and in fact it made no sense to expect people to have interest in a god who didn’t care about their happiness. The god of the old way seemed so preoccupied with holy things that he did not care much for people’s every day lives. Couldn’t we make the way of the church more practical, more appealing? The way we may see growth again, he reasoned, is to deconstruct the old way, remove the old barriers, and reassert that God is love. Where once the church emphasized God’s holiness, now they emphasized his love. Where once the church emphasized obedience, now they emphasized success. Where once the church emphasized sin, they now emphasized happiness. Where once the church focused on God’s demands, they now emphasized man’s specialness and abilities. If we help people tap into their inner potential, remind them of how wonderful they are, and how God loves them no matter what, people will be interested in church again. They changed the songs, the architecture, the style of dress. They took the crosses down. And lo and behold, people began to come again.
But as the years went by they noticed something. Little by little, they discovered that while some new people were discovering church for the first time, most who came were in recovery from the old way of doing church. And all together, they learned that many could not grow very deeply in their faith. They changed Sunday School to small groups, special music to video montages, began applying Bible verses to songs on the radio and movies at the theater. They deconstructed more things, made more things over. The church had — in their own estimation, cleverly — traded out the “don’t”s for “do”‘s, but even the regular dispensing of practical helps for victorious living wasn’t having the desired effect. People enjoyed the worship services now. But day to day they seemed no closer to God than in the old way of doing church. In fact, they seemed day to day less interested in God than before . . .
And he cautioned them, saying, “Watch out; beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.”
– Mark 8:15