Hi there churches, we need to talk.
A long time ago, I wrote about the plot holes that I’ve noticed in the Christian narrative I’ve chosen to live my life by. These plot holes bothered me so much, I even wrote about them twice. Now, if you’re not game to read my (incredibly insightful) previous posts, I’ll give you a quick summary: my experience as a Pentecostal, mainstream Christian, has been one of constant, passionate focus on personal salvation. Recently, I’ve been working with a large Christian NGO, and have been challenged by the lack of action for the poor and marginalised I’ve seen in the church throughout my 20+ year Christian journey.
I’ve been thinking a lot since I wrote those two posts, thinking about how one can find balance in the midst of these somewhat contradictory statements. As part of this thought process, I want to try and reconcile the Two Churches that I’ve witnessed in my Christian walk. A quick note – these are generalisations, so please don’t take them as gospel (pun horribly intended).
The First Church is the Mainstream (Evangelical) Church. Here, the message is simple: Jesus Christ, the hope of the world, came to seek and save those living in sin. We each have sin in our lives and, through accepting Jesus’ gift of salvation, we can be free from the power of sin, which separates us from God. This was the type of church I grew up in – Pentecostal, and full of fire. We lost ourselves in debates about the Brownsville Revival and the Toronto Blessing. My experience of church was dynamic and powerful, and no doubt I didn’t win myself many friends through my strong sharing of this message. But beyond the need to “bring people to church” and “win souls” there wasn’t a narrative of action. In fact, the focus on living “your best life” kind of seems downright selfish at times. This personal focus is at the core of the Mainstream Church.
The Second Church is the Traditional Church – the Anglican, Presbyterian and Baptist ministry streams to name a few. The Traditional Church affirms the beliefs of the Mainstream Church, but focuses on Christian action instead. One particularly great example of this that I grew up down the road from is South West (formerly Spreydon) Baptist Church in Christchurch, New Zealand. Many great programs were empowered to run out of the church, including mortgage repayment schemes, daycare centres and multicultural groups to name a few. Whilst the focus of the Mainstream Church is personal, the focus of the Traditional Church is community based: to serve those in need, and in doing this, help bring the Kingdom of God to earth.
My experience is that despite the common ground the Two Churches share, the dialogue between the two can be quite harsh. The Mainstream Church looks at the Traditional Church and says “You’re backslidden! You only focus on service – where are your calls to salvation? Can any good come out of only serving the poor and never confronting sin?” In response, the Traditional Church says to the Mainstream Church “You’re backslidden! You only focus on challenging people about sin! Where is your service to the poor? Where are your actions to back up your grand statements of faith?” And so this discussion goes back and forth.
It seems to me that people out there who aren’t Christians (hi if you’re reading this – thanks for making it so far into the post!) are very comfortable with the idea of Christian action, such as feeding the poor and caring for orphans and widows – but the Christian message of sin, righteousness and redemption tends to switch people right off. I’m not surprised, because it’s a really confronting thing to consider the possibility of sin existing, and of having a need to be ‘saved’. As Paul says in the book of Corinthians, the Gospel is a foolish message to those who don’t believe it. Christians tend to, therefore, either bash people with the Gospel (turn or burn!!!) or not mention the Gospel message at all (“Preach at all times. If necessary, use words.”). But, if we’re keen to maintain a vibrant Christian faith, we must stay true to how Jesus lived – and he found a balanced way to share the truth in love.
So in the Two Churches, which way of living out the Gospel is more correct? The truth is, neither way is “right”, we have to find a balanced road between the message and the action of the Christian faith. The Mainstream Church has begun to recognise the value of James’ words:
What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions? Can that kind of faith save anyone? Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing, and you say, “Good-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well”—but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do?
Faith without actions is dead. Strong words that should remind us in no uncertain terms that we have a responsibility to live out Jesus’ love every single day. You can see the changing focus of thought leaders such as Hillsong in this area. Meanwhile, for the Traditional Church, the challenge remains to not only do amazing work in the community, but to have a strong salvation narrative, as Paul says in Romans:
For I am not ashamed of this Good News about Christ. It is the power of God at work, saving everyone who believes—the Jew first and also the Gentile. This Good News tells us how God makes us right in his sight. This is accomplished from start to finish by faith. As the Scriptures say, “It is through faith that a righteous person has life.”
That’s a strong message! Jesus came to bring about a radical change in the world – and we see that change through the incredible work of people who have followed Christ through the centuries. This message – that we need to lose our life to truly find it – was backed up by Jesus’ life and deeds. In Him, the pattern for our lives is clear: both action and mission are important.
When churches around the world commit to following Jesus in both action and mission, we can address the plot holes in the current Christian message and reconcile the Two Churches. It’s time to stop pushing a single-sided agenda, and look at the Biblical evidence for a balanced faith. It’s time to leave behind old ways of acting and thinking, in order to find a balanced way forward.
Yes. It’s time to talk, and it’s time to change.