Chapter 19: A New Spirituality: The Sacred, Worship, Prayer, Work, The Church, and Where We Go From Here
“Whither shall I go from thy spirit? And whither shall I flee from thy presence?” “The earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord.” (Psalm 139:7, 33:5)
We have covered a lot of ground in this book. We have seen that because of the change in our common sense over the last twenty centuries we find a number of traditional Christian views to be inadequate and no longer tenable: Biblical literalism, the idea of a God who goes “zap”, the religious significance of miracles, and such doctrines as the Incarnation, the Trinity, and the sin and salvation complex. Perhaps more surprisingly, we have also seen that many of these traditional views are also incompatible with a proper understanding of our faith, with the love of God as preached by Jesus Christ.
But we have done more than lust work at the demolition of traditional ideas. We have also suggested interpretations that are consistent with our modern common sense, with our understanding of how the world works and with our understanding of the physical sciences — interpretations that are also consistent with our faith. Thus we have suggested appropriate ways of talking about God, and a way of understanding Jesus the Christ in a functional manner, and ways of reinterpreting Christian Myth. We have done this in ways that address our deepest need, that for meaning in our lives. We have further pointed out the crucial difference between faith and doctrine and have examined the impact that our faith must have on our lives; on our character, on the way we live and the way we treat other people, on the way we deal with money, and on our economic system.
Throughout all this we have emphasized the need for integrity: a moral integrity that holds us to our principles in all areas of life. We must come to understand that if we sell out our selves we have lost the only thing that is truly ours. This integrity can be understood as right relation with oneself. We who profess Christianity have further grasped that this can only exist fully in partnership with right relationship with God and with others in line with the teachings of Jesus the Christ.
But integrity also includes intellectual integrity: an honesty with ourselves that includes a demand for consistency throughout the different areas of our life. We do not believe one thing in church and another in science class and another in our business. We do not deny our heart for the sake of our head, nor vice versa.
And in fact in the course of this book we have seen how we can develop a theology (which is an explanation of our religion, a conceptualization of that which gives real meaning to our lives) that is consistent with both our faith and our common sense. What we have done is to point towards the development of a new spirituality, one that is not restricted to “sacred” buildings or to one hour a week, one which rather encompasses all of reality. In this final chapter we will consider the nature of spirituality, the sacred, the role of worship, different forms of prayer, the integration of our work world into our faith, the nature and purpose of the Church, and where we go from here. These discussions will of necessity be brief, but it is my hope that they will nevertheless provide an adequate overview and point the way for further development of these ideas.
1. What Is Spirituality?
We must begin with the question of “what is spirituality?” It might be defined as the awareness of God and the recognition of the sacred in our life. It includes the understanding that our quest for meaning is our most important task in life and that this cannot be satisfied with shallow answers, cannot be fulfilled with possessions or status or wealth. Spirituality therefore means that our awareness of the sacred and our drive for meaning have an impact on our lives, on the choices we make and the way we live. We sensitize ourselves to the pull of God and try to align ourselves with this pull. If our spirituality is real it pervades all aspects of our life.
We have said that we need a “new” spirituality. This is because the traditional models are based on a theology that does not and cannot fit with our common sense (and all too often does not and cannot fit with our faith). Even if we were able to suspend our common sense in the area of religion in order to buy into this traditional theology — something which many people have felt forced to do because they saw no good alternatives — we would then have a spirituality that is unable to adequately fulfill its role. Because it is incompatible with our understanding of the world it is unable to inform the rest of our life. It is restricted to a sheltered corner, walled off and protected from reality.
Therefore a spirituality that is worthy of the name — one that is able to address and inform all the areas of our life — must be founded on a theology that is consistent with the common sense that undergirds all these different areas. The main purpose of this book has been to propose just such a theology so that we now have the foundation we need for this new spirituality.
We accept our modern common sense. We accept and even embrace the discoveries of modern science. But we do not stop there, and we do not postulate a God who is in conflict with these. Instead, we see God as greater, as including this scientific understanding of the universe. God includes and transcends the physical universe as we know it. This physical universe itself works as a result of such an improbably fine balance of forces as to be cause for wonder at the very least; it is certainly congruent with our conception of God. Furthermore, we see this God, we feel this God, in and through the processes of this universe, coaxing us and pulling us to love and to wholeness.
Spirituality is the recognition of this dimension of the universe, the recognition that God is the context within which we live out our lives. But spirituality is more; mere recognition, mere cognitive awareness, of this dimension is not enough. Besides a sensitivity to this dimension, spirituality also includes an aligning of one’s life with it, a directing of one’s self towards God in the way one lives. When this is given its focus and direction by Jesus of Nazareth then it is Christian spirituality.
2. The Sacred
The sacred1 has often been thought of as that which is set apart because of a special closeness to God. But how can that be if God pervades the universe and the world around us, if God is the context for the whole of our lives? We cannot confine God to a particular mountain top or building or one hour a week. There is nothing we do that is not in the presence of God.
In Chapter 10 we did in fact describe the sacred as that which is special and set apart, that which is beyond question, that which is of such value that it inspires awe and reverence. But sacred things are not set apart because they are somehow closer to God. Rather, the sacred is that aspect of the world, those elements in it, that point towards God, that help us to become aware of God and to direct our lives towards God. There is nothing in the universe that is intrinsically more sacred than anything else. To be sacred, a person or place or thing must be sacred to somebody. That which points us to God, that which emphasizes God’s presence and makes clear God’s love and reminds us of our need to respond to God — this is what is sacred to us. It is that which yields our deepest meaning to us, whether person, place, event or writings.
If we are Christians, if we are among those who try to order their lives according to the understanding of God, of love, of value and of true victory given in the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, then we proclaim Jesus as the Christ: it is he who serves as the compass or focus for the meaning of our lives. And thus Jesus the Christ is for us the epitome of the sacred.
Certainly there are other people or places or things or times that are also sacred to us. Many of these are derivative from the sacredness of the Christ, associated with worship or meaning to which he is the central direction-giver. Included among these might be those parts of the New Testament other than the Gospels which are consistent with Jesus’ teachings; other Christian writings; Christian places of worship or songs and prayers used in this worship; the sacraments; perhaps the life of a Christian we know or read about who exemplifies for us the way Jesus told us to live.
But there may also be other places or teachers sacred to us that are best described as auxiliary rather than derivative. That is, they have no particular connection with Jesus of Nazareth, so if we are Christians they must play a subordinate role, one that complements his role as central meaning-giver and direction-pointer. They point independently in the same direction as the Christ, much as we might use landmarks to complement our compass reading. If they assist our primary guide in pointing to the one God who is in all creation and who is pulling us to love, then they are auxiliary sacred for us. Such things might be included here as natural theology (the making of inferences about God from a study of the natural world); the teachings of other great religions — again, to the extent they are compatible; or even the Old Testament prophets, depending on how you view their relationship to Jesus.
So we see that “sacred” is not an independent characteristic of any person, place or thing. It is a relational concept. As we have said, to be sacred something must be sacred to somebody. It must help point them to God. And the sacred includes a variety of persons and things, writings and events, though necessarily of a quite limited number for any one person. For us as Christians the role of Jesus the Christ makes him the epitome of the sacred, but we also have other places and people whose sacredness is derivative from his and additional sacred things which are auxiliary to him.
Every one of these sacred persons or objects or events performs the same role for us: they are particular bits of reality that point to the God who is through all reality. They remind us that the whole world is full of the presence of God and that our lives are lived in this presence. Not just a portion of our lives, not just in certain times and places, but our whole lives.
Worship, whether public or private, involves the highlighting of the sacred and the reinforcement of spirituality. As a public activity worship also involves a reaffirmation of group identity, through shared creeds, hymns, and prayers and also through the reinforcement of human fellowship. The purpose of worship is not generally to give new information to people — after all, much the same group of people gathers regularly. In some cases worship can yield new insights as it helps people to gain a deeper understanding of religious truths. But more often it serves to remind us of what we already know and to encourage us to act accordingly. In our case, it reminds us of the presence of God in which our lives are lived, of our acceptance by God, of the pull of God towards love and wholeness, and of the direction to God pointed out by Jesus the Christ. Worship encourages us to live up to the commitment we have made (and are reminded of) to live according to Jesus’ teachings.
If we are to worship privately then we must find ways to perform these functions for ourselves, by ourselves. While this is possible at times, private worship is best considered as an auxiliary to public worship; as such, it needn’t fulfill the whole range of purpose that public worship does, but can be satisfied with lifting up one or two aspects. Private worship as a substitute for public worship is suspect and in grave danger of being one-dimensional. Not nearly as many people worship alone as say they do; even less do it well, and even in these cases it seldom (if ever) can suffice as a substitute for public worship. This is true even if one participates through radio or television in a public worship service. There is just no substitute for sharing the physical presence of other imperfect human beings who are also trying to be faithful, for we are called to support and encourage and love one another.
Another function of worship, whether public or private, is to evoke awe and wonder and to promote the attitude of worship as an appropriate response to God. Awe and wonder may be evoked by a number of facets of the universe — the sacred, beauty, the world, life itself — as well as by worship. But worship itself is appropriate only for God. We must remember that while the sacred may help us to worship God, we do not worship the sacred, but only God.
In the same way that the sacred points to the God who is in all reality, so worship — while it may be something we do in a separate time and place dedicated to this particular purpose — must point to a life that is lived towards that which we worship. The worship experience cannot be disconnected from the rest of our life. Rather it must be an epitomizing, a lifting up and making explicit, of the pattern that is present in all our places and times. So if our worship is successful and our life is successful, our life will take on the same pattern as our worship, the pattern of living towards God.
If has long been recognized that people come in a broad range of personality types, that people approach the world and interact with others in different ways. In the past century this observation has become more refined. Perhaps the best known classification comes from four basic dichotomies noted by Carl Jung and further developed into a grid of sixteen different personality types according to whether one is extraverted or introverted, sensing or intuitive, thinking or feeling, and judging or perceptive.2
For each of these sixteen “types” there has been developed a description of how people of this type interact with others, what they enjoy, what kind of occupations they do well in, and so on, even what style of worship they find meaningful.
But all this is ignored or forgotten when it comes to prayer. For when it comes to prayer there is an apparently irresistible urge to proclaim that a particular method or style is the way — the one and only really right way — to pray. For everybody. It must be that either our way of praying is so closely tied to our own personality needs that we cannot conceive of another way, or else that our way of praying is so important to us that we cannot bear the challenge of any alternatives. But in fact there is no one right way to pray.
For one thing, there are several different styles of prayer: corporate and individual, spoken and silent, set written traditional prayers and “free” prayers. Consider just this last pair: some people find prayers written by others to be meaningless for them, and find traditional prayers to become empty with repetition so that they are nothing but noise or, at best, pleasing sounds with no significance. Other people find that these same prayers focus their minds for them and contain a beauty of form and meaning that lift their hearts towards God. The important thing to say is that this is fine. There’s nothing wrong with either group of people. They are different people. Why shouldn’t they respond to different models of prayer? So we must expect differences in the way we pray just as we expect differences in our favorite hymns.
But still, even if we grant that different people should expect to use different styles of prayer, there are some important questions about prayer in general. What are we doing when we pray? What is its purpose? What is it supposed to accomplish? Does it make any sense to tell things to a God who already knows everything? Or to ask things of a God who doesn’t go “zap”, who isn’t a specific interventionist? Or to give thanks to a God who didn’t take any particular steps to bring about the specific things for which we are thankful?
To begin with, we do not think of prayer as communicating particular bits of information to God. God already knows. Rather than communicating, we are communing with God. The purpose of prayer is to put ourselves in touch with the God who is in all and through all, to reaffirm our own identities by confirming the meaning in our lives, and to verify whether we are living in the proper direction.
What about petitionary prayer, asking for help? If God isn’t going to respond by making sure we win the lottery or by effecting a miracle cure then what can be the purpose in this? Well, if you want a God to pray to who will give you a red bicycle for Christmas or solve all your problems for you, what you’re looking for is magic. God doesn’t work this way. But petitionary prayer nevertheless accomplishes several important steps for us. In the first place, praying for God’s help reminds us that we are not in control of the world or even of our own life, while reminding us that we are living in the presence of an infinite and eternal being. Besides being humbling — something that many of us need from time to time — this also helps us to take the first step toward solving a problem, namely that of admitting that we indeed have a problem and need help, even if we admit this only to God for now. And it also can accomplish the important step of putting our life and our troubles in proper perspective.
Furthermore, in praying for God’s help in dealing with a certain situation or problem, we cannot help but consider God’s will for us. If we pray with the right attitude, if we bring willingness to “listen” for an answer, this will make us more sensitive to the pull of God so we in fact may get an “answer” by becoming aware of the direction in which we need to go to live towards God. And lastly, this whole process prepares us to face our problems and to deal with them in the most constructive way by properly grounding us and focusing us and even energizing us.
But what about intercessory prayer, in which we pray for help for others? Will our interceding on their behalf with God lead to God’s interceding on their behalf in the world? No. We must be consistent with our earlier conclusions about how God does and doesn’t act. We are not dealing with magic when it comes to others any more than in praying for ourselves.
But what, then? What good does it do those for whom we pray for us to become better grounded and focused in prayer?
We cannot deny that there are some real possible benefits here. To the extent that our prayers do put us in better touch with the will of God, and to the extent that we are a part of the situation in which those for whom we pray find themselves, this can lead us to participate in some real improvements for them. And to the extent that we are serious in our prayers for justice or peace or healing for others we become allies with God in the struggle for these, and we proceed from prayer to right action. (Prayer is not meant to be in lieu of action.)
Certainly these are not inconsequential. They may at times prove to be decisive. But the fact is that in intercessory prayer we aren’t praying for us to help the other person; we pray for God to help them. I must repeat: the conviction that God does not work as a specific interventionist requires us to conclude that God does not respond in this way. God is not a genie in a bottle who responds to the magic words. Nevertheless, I must admit to an uncertainty here. My understanding of the pull of God and the connections of this world causes me to wonder whether indeed there isn’t more to it than this, more that can be said, more that can be experienced. Certainly intercessory prayer doesn’t hurt: it can help you, it can help you help the one for whom you pray, and it may even do more.
As for prayers of thanksgiving: if God did not specifically cause us to be fed or clothed or housed or otherwise fortunate, for what should we be giving thanks? First of all, for a universe constructed in such a way as to make all these things possible. For creation itself; for life itself. Second, we give thanks to God for the pull to wholeness and goodness which results in so many particular concrete instances of good. And third, we give thanks not in order that God will know that we are thankful but precisely in order to make ourselves thankful: to help ourselves realize not only how lucky we are in comparison to so many others (which is part of it), but how fortunate we are just to be in this world; to help us appreciate the many blessings which each and every one of us enjoys; to rekindle in us the sense of wonder and awe and gratitude in response to all that we so often and so cavalierly take for granted.
So indeed these different types of prayer have purposes and meaning and can play an important role in our spirituality. And certainly there are other kinds of prayer that can have meaning for us: prayers for guidance, prayers of praise, prayers whose goal is meditation on God or a feeling of union with God.
But we must remember our differences. Just because a particular type of prayer can be an important part of our spirituality, and in fact is for some people, doesn’t mean that it must be for everybody. And this brings us to another problem that is a hindrance to many people, not just in regard to a particular kind of prayer but in regard to the whole idea of prayer in general. This is the traditional idea of prayer as withdrawal from the world, as time set apart from our normal activities. Now it is true that we all need times of withdrawal, times of quiet and meditation, of solitude and reflection. (Those who do not recognize this probably need such times more than anybody.) But such times, as needful as they are, are not necessarily any more sacred or any more prayerful than other times. What we have here again is the error of making normative a particular style of prayer. John A. T. Robinson observes that “Our traditional forms of spirituality have been adapted from the monasteries for the millions,”3 which doesn’t make a lot of sense. The lives of most of us do not resemble those of monks. Robinson admits that he is one of those who never had much luck at praying in the set aside “empty spaces”. Too often they simply remained empty. But in his activity, in his busy involvement with people, he found the addressing of God and the communion with God that we call prayer: “My own experience is that I am really praying for people, agonizing with God for them, precisely as I meet them and really give my soul to them.”4
Surely Robinson makes a valid point here. We can fulfill the functions of prayer in our activity as well as in our “empty spaces”. In our caring, our hospitality, our struggling along with others to find love and to do what is right, we can and must seek the guidance of God, trying to better sense God’s pull; we can and must intercede on behalf of others, give praise and thanks to God, and try to focus our lives on living towards God. Since people are different, there is no one way of doing these that is right for everyone. Some will benefit greatly from traditional, set-apart prayer; others will do better at — and benefit more from — prayer as an aspect of their activity. Each of us must use that form that works for us. But shouldn’t we all be trying to live in such a way that our whole lives can be offered to God as prayer?
Work? What has work to do with the sacred and worship and prayer? The fact that this question can even be asked is good evidence of the problem we have had with a constricted spirituality. But in fact our spirituality cannot be limited to certain times and places. The sacred is special to us, but it points to the God who is in all places and times. Worship and prayer may take place in a time set apart, but they cannot be a serious endeavor on our part unless they give direction to the whole of our lives. And the place where this has been the most problematic is the arena of work. How does our faith impact on what we do to earn a living? How does our spirituality inform and give meaning to the hours and days and months and years we spend in our occupation?
You can relax: I’m not going to tell you that you ought to like the fact that you have to work, or that every bar of soap you sell or widget you make should give you a sense of fulfillment or should be understood as for the glory of God. Not that this would be bad; it just strikes me as unlikely. But apparently — judging from surveys — a majority of us actually do like what we do for a living. This is certainly something to strive for. And fulfillment in one’s job is not only a hoped for satisfaction; it is a condition that employers need to work hard at bringing about through the sharing of planning and responsibility, for the sake of productivity and quality as well as for the sake of employees. But many workers still don’t have this sense of fulfillment, and even those who do may not like the obligation of doing what they do to earn a living. I don’t like having to work — why should you?
Of course there are some good points to the necessity of work. Civilization did not develop on this earth where the living was easy. Civilization developed where people were challenged, where they had to work together to bring food out of the ground, where without irrigation the earth would bring forth nothing. Certainly there is some analogy here to our lives as individuals. How many of us would cope well in character and accomplishment with not having to work? Some would, of course; but many would not. Many in those circumstances do not. Furthermore, much material progress is engendered by the necessity of work. But this still doesn’t mean that we like having to do it.
Not only do the vast majority of us have to work for a living, but what we do in the course of our jobs is generally not up to us. It is determined by our bosses or by our customers or by necessity. And we need to do well enough at these tasks imposed upon us to support ourselves and our families. How can our faith, our spirituality, inform our decisions and our actions on the job?
The need for integrity comes up again. We must act in ways that are consistent with our principles. In the first place this puts a negative limit on what we can do. As followers of Jesus Christ we simply cannot engage in dishonest or deceitful practices. We cannot participate in any activity that may cause harm to others, such as producing or selling an unsafe product or dumping toxic wastes. We cannot cheat on our customers or even our competitors (though certainly we need to make a decent profit from the former and we can work like the dickens to outsell the latter). If we are given the option to make more money by going against our principles in any of these ways we must say, “No.” Or else we must choose the money, in so doing deciding that we are not going to be Christians after all .
We can be thankful that we live in a country which has legally mandated respect for the rights of workers. We have substantial protection against dismissal for refusal to violate the law and for refusal to go against our consciences, and substantial legal recourse if this does occur. But the time still may come when we have to choose between our livelihood and our faith. This is a painful and difficult choice which we may hope never to face. But if we believe what we say we do, is it not also a clear choice?
This refusal to participate in unethical practices, while an important part of our faith and our integrity, is only a negative limit. Our spirituality means more than this. It recognizes that all of our life is lived in the presence of God. We are called upon to nurture the best in others, to show hospitality and acceptance, to put ourselves in right relation with others through caring and sharing. This doesn’t mean accepting less than satisfactory performance from someone else: we must expect others, just as ourselves, to do their best and to contribute their efforts to the success of the enterprise. We have a right to expect — but we must also foster and enable — others to do their jobs adequately and competently.
But in the context of these minimum requirements we can and must add more. We must add the positive elements that come from our faith. At first sight this may seem difficult. We may not see how our responsibilities and routine tasks are at all connected with our faith, whether it be making parts on a production line or totaling numbers and billing customers, whether it be keying data into a computer or serving up hamburgers, selling real estate or planning the next step in company expansion. Quite often, except for the calling to do our job to the best of our ability and to do it honestly and ethically, the specific tasks of our job may not have much to do with our faith. Much that we do is religiously neutral. Whether we meet our production quota or design a better widget or cook a better hamburger may be important to us but matters to very few others. Only a few people are so fortunate as to do as part of their job something which has a positive impact on others.
But the rest of us still have the opportunity to make an impact — often a very big impact — on the lives of others. For most of us our daily work involves innumerable contacts with other people. It is impressive to see how an otherwise enjoyable job can be made miserable by the pettiness and immaturity of a few people — in fact, by just one person if he or she is good at it, or is the boss. But it is also impressive to note how an otherwise humdrum or tedious job can be made bearable, enjoyable, and even a place for growth when people of good will act cheerfully, courteously, kindly and caringly toward one another.
Courtesy is a good place to start, courtesy along with cheerfulness. You don’t feel cheerful? That has nothing to do with it. Cheerfulness is a way of acting, not a feeling. We can make our part of any interactions pleasant and polite. And this is not just a matter of propriety or social etiquette. Rather it is an important ethical and religious question: what kind of environment do we create for our co-workers? What kind of atmosphere do we help make in which other people spend two thousand hours each year? By having respect for others, by cheerful courtesy, we can at least make our part of this environment a pleasant corner in which others feel built up instead of put down, sheltered instead of battered.
This means, too, refusing to take part in the all-too-common gossip and back-biting. Complaints about someone else — which so often are directed to everyone except that individual — must be shared, in private, with the person concerned. Certainly confrontation may be necessary at times — but it can be done as discreetly and lovingly as possible.
And we can do more. We can care about these people and not treat them simply as animate machinery that we use as needed to get our own jobs done. We can care about them as people: people who have families, people who have unguessed talents and interest, people who feel lonely or anxious or unfulfilled. We can rejoice in their triumphs and commiserate in their sorrows, whether these happen on or off the job. We can encourage growth by the way we interact with people — growth in maturity, growth in spiritual wisdom, growth towards God.
We may not be able to choose the tasks we do to earn our living, but we can choose how we treat other people. Does this seem small and unimportant? If you think so then you are part of the problem in this society. You had better go ask the people who come home and snarl at their spouse and children because of how they’ve been made to feel, or the people who suffer silently while stress mounts and ulcers and high blood pressure take their toll. The fact is that we can make our places of employment — where we spend more waking time than any place else — into environments that tear people down or that build people up. The cost of working in a place that tears us down is immense. But if we do not leave our faith at the front door of our workplace we each have substantial opportunity — and substantial responsibility — to contribute to the creation of an environment that builds others up, that reflects right relationship, and that will build up ourselves in the process.
6. The Church
We have seen that our spirituality is informed by the sacred and by worship, but that it cannot be limited to these arenas and that in fact our spirituality is directed by these into the whole of our life, to the God in whose presence we always are. Given the broad role and all-inclusive realm of spirituality, we need to ask: what is the Church? What is its purpose?
First, a preliminary note: by Church with a capital “C” I do not mean any one particular organization. Rather I mean the totality of all those groups and organizations that function self-consciously as Christian churches. (The fact that there are some organizations about which it is questionable whether they function as Christian churches is beyond the purview of this discussion.)
The Church is, of course, a human institution. As such, it has both the strengths and weaknesses that you would expect. It suffers at times from inertia and an unwillingness to change, from internal power struggles, from putting its self-preservation ahead of its mission, from the abuse of worldly power, from misinterpretation and misunderstanding, from persecution by others and (far worse) persecution of others. But it also has the ability to endure through the ups and downs of history and the comings and goings of individuals, to teach the message of Jesus to generation after generation, to inspire countless men and women to perform deeds of love and mercy, and even with all its failings is able to help a certain number of people choose to really focus their lives on love of God and love of others in accordance with Jesus of Nazareth.
What is the purpose, the function, of the Church? It proclaims that it is the Church of Jesus Christ. This must be the primary determinant of what it is about. It claims to be the body of Christ in the world today, that Jesus the Christ is its head. If this is to mean anything at all significant then the purpose of the Church must be to encourage people to adopt Jesus of Nazareth as the compass for their lives. It does this in a variety of ways: by teaching about Jesus of Nazareth; by teaching and preaching his values and his understanding of God; by providing regular reminders of these values which are so different from those promoted by Madison Avenue and the American Dream; by helping people experience the sacred in a way that reinforces the sacred meaning-giving role of these values; by providing an arena in which people can lend mutual support to each other in trying to live out a life based on these values; and by setting an example in the way the Church itself acts and treats people and deals with issues.
This is what it means to be the Church: enabling and leading people to follow Jesus Christ, not in their words alone but by living towards God, by putting Jesus’ message at the center of their lives. At their best, individual churches can encourage the kind of small groups that can give us some of the benefits of the “radical response” discussed in Chapter 17 without the accompanying drawbacks. Caring groups can meet regularly to share, to create community with one another, to discuss how members are doing in their own struggles to be faithful, to make sure that each one takes the questions of faith seriously. People can be held lovingly accountable to one another as an aid and encouragement on this journey we call life,5 as well as supported during the difficult times that we all have.
Of course the Church must also embody Jesus’ message in its own life. In worship, in structure, in mission and in day to day activities it must show what it means to have Jesus’ teachings as compass and focus. In every way it knows how the Church must stress the sacred importance not only of God but also of serving God in the right way — a way that stands in opposition to so much we are taught by our society which sometimes pretends to be Christian.
This will mean involvement in both personal evangelism and social justice. Sometimes it will lead to numerical increase and “success” in worldly terms, but sometimes it will mean taking unpopular stands and sacrificing this “success.” But the Church’s role is not to be successful. It is to be faithful. Indeed, being faithful is its only true success.
7. Where Do We Go From Here?
The purpose of this book has been to show that we do not need to adopt all of the traditional Christian concepts and beliefs in order to be Christian, to propose some alternatives in keeping with our faith and our modern common sense, and to make the point that being a Christian has more to do with living a certain way than with believing certain doctrines. Where do we go from here?
The purpose in doing all this is to enable each and every one of us to confront the message of Jesus of Nazareth. This needs to be our first step: to confront the message that the true meaning in life is found in loving God and in loving others, that the only true success is a life lived faithfully. We must face his challenge to not only believe this but to live this, to live our lives towards God.
Only you can decide whether you will accept this challenge or reject it. Do not consider it lightly. It is not a path of comfort and complacency. There is much at stake for you either way.
For those of us who have decided to try to live our lives towards God with Jesus as our focus, we can insist on our right and our obligation to develop a theology that makes sense to us and that is faithful to the message of the Christ. We must try to make our families, our churches, our communities, and even our world the kind of places they ought to be. We need to live responsibly, to put ourselves in right relationship with our selves, our neighbors, and our God. And we will find in this a joy, a freedom, and a wholeness of self that is unobtainable in any other way.
And now we need to get on with it. There is much to be done.
1. For the purpose of this discussion I am considering “holy” to be synonymous with “sacred”.
2. These types are best developed and most used in conjunction with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator Test. See Isabel Briggs Myers, Introduction to Type (Palo Alto, California: Consulting Psychologists Press, 1976), and other material from this publisher.
3. John A. T. Robinson. Honest to God (The Westminster Press, 1963) p. 92. See pp. 91-104.
4. Ibid., p. 99.
5. A number of churches have fine programs along this line, but I am particularly impressed by the Covenant Discipleship groups recently being developed in the United Methodist Church. (See David Watson’s Accountable Discipleship [Nashville: Discipleship Resources. 1984.])