Chapter 5: The Layman and the Gospel

The Gospel and Our World
by Georgia Harkness

Chapter 5: The Layman and the Gospel

In the previous chapter we looked at the functions of the minister in interpreting and communicating the gospel. But ministers are only half the Church, and numerically much less than half. The Amsterdam Conference estimated that the laity constitute more than 99 per cent of the Church. Regardless of numbers a good case could be made for the contention that the laity are the more important part of the Church, for churches could exist without ordained ministers -- did in the early church and in some churches still do -- but without any laymen there would be no church.

Laymen are of crucial importance from several standpoints. First, as just indicated, the layman is the "ultimate consumer" for whom the church exists, and there can be no "upbuilding of the Body of Christ" unless laymen are being built up in the power of the gospel. No church worth the name exists to give the minister something to do; the minister has something to do because the Church exists as the fellowship of believers in the gospel of Christ who need to be helped to be better believers.

Laymen are of strategic importance also because the vitality of the church depends upon them. This is true not simply because the laymen raise the money and select and pay the preacher. They may select and pay for an eloquent preacher and provide for beautiful music and an expensive staff, and the church may still lack vitality. What determines this point is primarily how much the laymen are interested in their church, working in it, making of it a going concern. A church which does not have an active laity with a sense of fellowship in the church and obligation to it is seldom, if ever, a virile church.

And, in the third place, the impact which the Church makes upon the world is mainly in the hands of its laymen. It is customary to speak of the pronouncements of the World Council of Churches, or the Federal Council, or the denominational assemblies, as if they were the voice of the Church. In a sense they are. Yet such pronouncements, framed usually by ministers, professors, and board secretaries with a sprinkling of laymen present, are from a practical standpoint far less the voice of the Church than what laymen do in their political, social, and economic life. It is laymen who make most of the decisions as to wages, prices, employment, investments, taxes, military service, crime and its restraint, housing, health, education, recreation, and the multitude of things that fill the newspapers and the radio programs. If the Church is going to make any very constructive dent on current evils, it is mainly the laymen who must make it.

This question as to who constitutes the Church is continually blurred in criticisms leveled at the Church from within and outside it. "The churches ought to be more friendly." "The churches ought to get closer to daily life." "The churches ought not to have any race prejudice." "The churches ought to work harder for peace." "The churches ought not to be so conservative and capitalistic." These comments, all of them true, are often made with a vague implication that somebody else is to blame, but seldom with a clear recognition that if these faults are to be corrected, it is mainly the laymen who must do the correcting.

The major problem which confronts the churches is the wideness of the gulf between what is preached and done in the churches on Sunday and the interests and activities of laymen through the week. Not wholly, but to a startling degree, there is a chasm between "the Church" and "the world," and the ordinary layman who stands in both is not able to build a bridge between them. This is not to say that most laymen are bad or that they are poor Christians. As individuals they are usually kindly, honest, and well-intentioned, desirous of doing right and following the Golden Rule as far as they can, and not unaffected by the preaching they have heard through the years. Yet by the demands of their social situation, and in particular their jobs, they are far more enmeshed within "the world" than their ministers are. Most of them are confronted daily by decisions in which it is not easy to know what is Christian, to say nothing of doing it; and all of them are played upon continually by non-Christian or anti-Christian forces.

This is a fact that ought to be recognized rather than blamed upon anybody. Our laymen are part of the contemporary secular world. They are continually being molded by powerful forces -- capitalistic, nationalistic, democratic, or pseudodemocratic -- and by many forms of community, which affect the life and thought of great numbers of them far more than what they hear in the churches. The family, the job, the newspaper, the radio, the movies, the Saturday Evening Post, the Reader’s Digest, the lodge, the service club or woman’s club, the billboards, the store windows, the politicians, the militarists, the manifold purveyors of culture and entertainment -- in fact the total social situation is constantly driving home the message of rival secular faiths. The ideological foundations of these other faiths are seldom carefully analyzed or theoretically defended, but they make their impact by such powerful and continuous stimuli that relatively few laymen in concrete issues oppose them with the counterclaims of the Christian gospel. Meanwhile these same laymen continue to hear and assent without much protest to the gospel as they hear it preached; for when presented in broad enough generalizations, it sounds familiar, true, and virtuous. Only when the minister gets very "radical" about either doctrine or social issues does serious protest arise, and even then there is a tendency to let the minister think his own peculiar ideas so long as not many people are influenced by him.

If this judgment sounds overdone, let me try to describe the dominant ideas, activities, and interests of a typical American layman.

There is, of course, no single type of layman. Yet his world is so stereotyped that we could choose one from an urban, suburban, small town, or rural church, anywhere from Maine to California and from college age to retirement, and find great similarities. It is to this stereotype that manufacturers of many kinds of goods appeal when they invest fifteen thousand dollars per page or twice that amount per hour for advertising layout. For purposes of convenience let us call our layman Mr. Brown.

What does Mr. Brown care about, and therefore spend his time and thought upon? If we assume that he is a married man, as he probably is, he cares a good deal about his home. He wants his wife and children to be comfortable and as well dressed as the neighbors, and he wants the kids to have enough education to get along in the world. He wants to be sure of a house to live in -- not a palace but just a comfortable one with room enough and plenty of equipment so that the wife will not have to work too hard. He wants her to do the things she wants to do, provided she looks after the children, is home to have dinner ready when he gets there, and does not have too many evening meetings at the church.

On Sunday morning Mr. Brown gets up and goes to church with a fair degree of frequency. He doesn’t quite know why, but he always has, and he supposes it is a good thing to do. He listens in a casual sort of way while the minister prays and preaches about the love of God, and forgiving our enemies, and getting rid of greed in the world. It seldom occurs to him to doubt that all this is true. He has heard it all from his youth up, and it goes with church. With the other half, or nine tenths, of his mind his thoughts range around -- about the deal he must put over tomorrow, about how business has not been going very well lately, about the repairs the car needs, about how cranky his wife was this morning and how poor the coffee was, about whether it will rain this afternoon and whether to go somewhere with the family or do a little tinkering around the house or just take a nap. With an inward sigh of relief he hears the minister say, "Let us pray," and knows that that is over till next week!

We shall leave Mr. Brown to make his own momentous decision about the afternoon. In any case after a good Sunday dinner, the Sunday paper, the Jack Benny and Fred Allen programs he feels better and relatively ready for the week.

At least he thought he was. It is not very easy to get up when the alarm goes off the next morning. But up he gets, swallows some breakfast, and is off to work. For the most part this is a mad scramble for forty, or forty-eight, or an indefinite number of hours per week. "What thou doest, do quickly," is a voice from the subconscious that never lets up its injunctions, though he fails to connect it with a biblical basis. He has people to manage, things to manipulate, always something demanding immediate and concentrated attention. If he does not give it, he loses his profits, or his promotion, or his job.

He thinks a great deal about whether what he is doing is right or wrong -- for getting results. He sometimes thinks, too, about whether it is morally right or wrong, and a loathing sweeps over his soul that he has to do so many things he does not believe in. But what’s a fellow going to do? After all, this is a decent job, as good as most people have, and he is as generous to his employees as he can be. High ideas about Christian ethics, or integration with the moral order of the universe, or building the Kingdom of God are all right in their place. But this is business! More than likely Mr. Brown does not have time to think once during the entire week of what he heard on Sunday, and if asked to say what the minister had preached about would be very hard put to it to say.

Mr. Brown’s two primary interests are his family and his job. Within these two intersecting circles he spends almost all of his waking hours, and their claims are so dominant that virtually everything else is judged in the light of them. However, he has a third interest which, latent in ordinary circumstances, comes acutely into the foreground in time of war or threat of war. This is his concern for his country.

In times of peace and relative security Mr. Brown loves his country to the extent of believing it is "God’s country," the best in the world, whose praises are appropriately heralded on Memorial Day and Fourth of July. When war breaks out, Mr. Brown’s somewhat lethargic devotion to his country is forced into acute emotional poignancy. He does not want his son to be killed any more than any other parent, but he sends him off with a lump in his throat and pride in his heart that his boy is patriotic enough to fight for his country instead of sitting it out like some yellow C.O.’s in his church. It’s all right, of course, to preach and pray about peace on earth. Everybody wants peace -- but now there’s a dirty job to do.

As the war progresses, Mr. Brown’s attitudes toward the Germans and the Japanese take on the color of what he hears over the radio and sees in the newspaper and the occasional movie he finds time to attend. Every news report of their annihilation by the thousands and tens of thousands fills him, if not with joy, at least with high satisfaction. After all, they started it. Let them have it!

Meanwhile mixed emotions tug at his heart. Jack has been wounded. He hopes ardently that it is nothing serious, but enough to give him an honorable discharge. His wife is so nervous she is ill; things at the office with all his best help gone are terrible; government orders have to be got out on time or there’ll be a lot of money lost. There is not much time or energy left to think about religion or the church.

Then comes the end of the war and the atomic bomb. He frankly rejoices that it was dropped, and he cannot see why the minister or anybody else should talk about its being a moral atrocity. Didn’t it end the war and maybe save a million lives? Anybody who talks about "repenting" for it is just plain "soft." But let the ministers talk if they want to.

Of course, the scientists had better be listened to. They are saying all around and writing everywhere that the bomb may be the end of us all. They are right; what we need is more good will on earth. And, of course, we could have it if it weren’t for the Russians.

Mr. Brown is terribly tired. He certainly does not want another war. He supposes the Marshall Plan is all right, though he hates to see the taxes go up to take care of the Europeans. He is willing to live in peace and good will with anybody on earth and believes we can, provided we keep the secret of the atom bomb to ourselves and keep a good supply on hand to be ready for the Russians.

Mr. Brown reads and hears with mixed feelings of the doings at the U.N. Of course the nations ought to co-operate. He has always believed in that. The minister preached a good sermon on it last Sunday. But how can you co-operate with the Russians acting the way they are? If there is going to be another war, let’s get ready for it.

As a consequence he has a similar set of mixed emotions about peacetime conscription. He hates the idea. There is Dick coming on, sixteen now -- and it will play the mischief with his education. But the admirals and the generals and the President say we need it. They ought to know. If there’s going to be another war, let’s get ready for it.

Peacetime conscription is undemocratic, the preacher says. Mr. Brown isn’t quite sure whether it is or not. But he is sure he believes in democracy. It is the American way of life. Here anybody can start, as he did, as the office boy at six dollars a week and work up. All it takes is brains and hard work. There is no need in this country for anybody to be unemployed or poor. If anybody is, it’s a sign he is shiftless. Altogether too many people are living off the public.

In politics Mr. Brown is a staunch Republican, but that doesn’t interfere with his friendship with Joe Doakes, who is an equally staunch Democrat. He was as startled as anybody else at the way the election went, and it looks to him as if we are in for a lot more government spending and waste of the taxpayer’s good money. But what he cannot understand is why anybody should be enough of a crackpot to vote for Norman Thomas, or why any real American should be in love with the Russians enough to vote for Henry Wallace. Capitalism has its flaws, of course, but preachers had better keep their hands off what they do not know much about.

Mr. Brown believes in racial equality. He always has. The minister preached a fine sermon not long ago on the brotherhood of man, and he agreed with every word of it. It is terrible how the Nazis treated the Jews. The British had no business to stay in India as long as they did. The people of every country ought to be free. The Negroes here are all right as long as they keep their place. But the way both they and the Jews are trying to push themselves in and get jobs and buy property is a caution! You have to keep your eyes open, or they will work their way in and run you out.

Mr. Brown contributes generously, both to the church budget and to other good causes like the Red Cross and the Community Chest. In the latter he is particularly glad to contribute to a Community Club for Negro boys and girls. He does not want them at the "Y" swimming pool with his children; and besides, the missus may be right in what she says about the danger of intermarriage.

He is glad to give something, too, to help the starving in war-devastated lands. He is essentially a kind man and does not like to think of anybody’s having to go hungry. However, he thinks the minister has rather overdone his appeals to send food to the Germans. After all, they started it, and it will not hurt them to have a little dose of their own medicine.

We can give only a passing look at certain other of Mr. Brown’s interests. There is his lodge, which he is sure has as much religion in it as the churches, and if one lived up to it he would not need the church. When the meeting of the official board of the church was accidentally placed on the same night as the Masons’, he was in a tight spot but decided the lodge needed him more because the minister was paid to run the church. There is also his service club, at which he never misses a Wednesday luncheon. His club does a lot of good by contributing to a hospital for crippled children, and anyway there is one place where you can get away from the women and be a man!

Other forms of recreation less void of female influence are the dinners and evenings of bridge to which his wife escorts him. He does not really care much about them -- is too tired after the day’s work -- but if you are a family man there are some things you have to put up with. If and when cocktails are served, he has to drink a little, not because he likes it but because nobody wants to be a wet blanket. On other occasions when he is among church people who do not drink, the conversation readily turns upon the badness of those who do. Mr. Brown adapts himself as best he can to either situation.

We must now leave Mr. Brown with his private moral and social dilemmas. Several observations are in order.

A first observation may be needed to counteract any impression that the foregoing description of Mr. Brown is an attempt to decry or ridicule the layman’s situation. If he fails to let his economic or political life be guided primarily by the Christian gospel, it is not because he is bad, unintelligent, or essentially weak. He merits sympathy rather than blame; and if he keeps his connection with the church enough to support it by his attendance and contributions, in spite of what must seem to him the irrelevance of many of its activities, he deserves much credit. Viewing himself, he ought to realize that he could be and ought to be a better Christian in his business and civic life than he is. Viewed by his minister, he ought to be seen for what he is -- a man caught in a situation so different from the minister’s that only by the most unusual discernment can he possibly look at the social scene from the minister’s point of view.

A second observation is the main theme of this book -- that if the layman’s life is to be radically affected by the Christian gospel, the Christian faith must be communicated to him in language that he can understand. He hears in church a great many platitudes and familiar moral exhortations which do not move him much, with now and then a sermon which gives great comfort and support to the inner life. He hears, at least in some churches, words about sin, repentance, forgiveness, atonement, incarnation, redemption, the kingdom of heaven, eternal life, the grace of God and the saving power of the living Christ. What this has to do with him, or with the world of sharp competition and rising prices, he has only the vaguest notion. The minister might as well be talking Greek or Hebrew. That such terms stand for ideas which have any bearing on the world in which he moves six days of the week and most of the seventh would be a startling discovery. It is a discovery he is not likely to make unless theologians and ministers do a much better job than we have thus far in stating the eternal truths of the Christian faith in language both simple and relevant to the layman’s world.

A primary principle of educational psychology is the law of apperception; nothing has meaning until it is apperceived in terms of what has already been experienced and known. This law we violate continually in our preaching. There is no more pertinent verse in the Bible than that which says, "And I sat where he sat." We cannot expect the layman to see the gospel from the minister’s point of view until the minister sees the world through the layman’s eyes.

But in the third place, the layman himself must do something about the situation. It is not all his fault, but neither is he the helpless victim of circumstances. We can do no more here than to suggest the direction that needs to be taken. The way out lies along the channels of fellowship, study, action, prayer, and personal witness.

Most learning is done in a social situation, where those of kindred interests unite to learn from a common source or -- often more effectively -- from one another in a pooling of insights and experience. This is as true of adult learning and of Christian learning as any other, but it is a principle we have hardly begun to apply to the problem now under consideration. Only as laymen decide they care enough about the applications of the Christian faith to unite in study under leadership, or to unite in discussion to learn from one another in a fellowship, are we apt to get far toward bridging the gap between the Church and the world.

Sermons and ministerially-led discussion groups are not useless. But they are likely to be far less useful than serious study initiated and carried through by laymen themselves. This is for two reasons: first, the minister by the detachment of his vocation knows less about the layman’s problems than laymen do; and second, such groups too easily run into one more discourse to which by long conditioning it is customary to listen passively without being very much stirred to action.

But can laymen be aroused to initiate or participate in studies of the relation of the gospel to their jobs? In Europe it has been done far more extensively than here. The Ecumenical Institute of the World Council of Churches at the Chateau de Bossey near Geneva has as one of its major functions the bringing together of groups of people of a common profession -- Christian doctors, lawyers, educators, industrialists, political leaders -- for a week or ten days of mutual probing of the applications of Christian faith to their vocations. A similar enterprise at the Evangelical Academy at Bad Boll, near Stuttgart, Germany, has made a significant start toward bridging the gap between the Church and the industrial worker by inviting representatives of the Trade Unions and Workers’ Councils, including sometimes communists, to discuss the implications of Christianity, while on other occasions employers and Workers’ Council leaders have met together for mutual discussion of the applications of the gospel to industry. Perhaps better known is the Iona Community, where on an island off the coast of Scotland a group consisting half of theological students or young ministers and half of artisans live and work together during the summer months, leading a life of discipline and prayer as they jointly rebuild the ruined medieval abbey. Other such projects are the Sigtuna Institute in Sweden, the Kerk en Wereld center near Utrecht in Holland, Cluny in France, the Zoë movement in Greece, and numerous other less permanent arrangements by which Christian laymen meet occasionally for a week end of conference on matters of mutual Christian concern. (For a fuller account of these projects see Centers of New Life in European Christendom by Walter M. Horton, which may be secured from the American Office of the World Council of Churches, 297 Fourth Ave., New York. Descriptions of several of them are to be found in issues of the Christian Century for Sept. 11, 1946, Jan. 22 1947, August 18,1948, and Sept. 1, 1948. See also We Shall Re-build by George MacLeod [American edition published by Kirkridge, 808 Witherspoon Building, Philadelphia, Pa.] for a description of the philosophy and work of the Iona Community.) Though our distances are greater in America, so are our financial resources; and there is no reason why similar projects should not be developed here if laymen saw the need and value of a shared inquiry as to what Christianity actually means in the daily job.

But obviously such conferences, though they can be enormously stimulating and eye-opening, are not enough. What can be done in the local church?

The fellowship principle can be joined with study, action, and prayer in the small, informal, self-conducted group which for lack of a better name is usually called a cell group. Elton Trueblood in Alternative to Futility calls it "the fellowship of the concerned." Its main idea is a co-operative inquiry and sharing of experience along some line of mutual concern, with meetings at regular intervals and often with self-imposed disciplines. The cell idea is not to be recommended unreservedly, for it has in it dangers as well as values. Cell groups can be harmful when they withdraw from the main stream of the Church, become ingrowing, adopt a "holier than thou" attitude. Nevertheless, they can be vitally helpful when they are an integral part of church life and their members are humble, seeking, vitally concerned Christians. In the sharing of Christian experience and mutual reinforcement in the faith the idea has affinities with the Methodist class meetings of an earlier day; and when the cell principle is integrated sufficiently with the rest of life, it reminds one of those early Christian groups who "day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, . . . partook of food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people." (Acts 2:46-47[R.S.V.]) Vital interest in a cell group can never be superimposed; but if a co-operative search for the bearing of the gospel on daily life seems a matter of great importance, a place may well be found for it even if it means the elimination of something else from crowded schedules.

Reference has been made to the need not only of fellowship and study but of prayer and action. These are too large themes for detailed discussion at this point. Yet clearly both are of such paramount importance that we shall not make much headway without them. It needs to be stressed that neither prayer nor action can be very effective unless each is reinforced by the other. Though there ought to be no oversimplification of either the Christian ethic or the devotional life, a good share of our perplexities in both fields would disappear with a more active conjunction of the two. If we do not "pray without ceasing" for a better society and seize every opportunity however slight to act on the side of the ends we pray for, the power of God is apt to sound like melodious words and the resources of men seem wholly inadequate to cope with the difficulties. This is another way of saying that we must try to find the gospel in its fullness if it is to be very effective anywhere.

Laymen need not be daunted in this undertaking. Even in the absence of organized effort by church leaders there are enormously important things which any layman can do to discover, to act upon, and to communicate the gospel.

We have said repeatedly that the Christian faith is both something to be believed and something to be lived; it is both truth and power. For the gospel as a body of belief there are books available; and while few can take a full course in theology, anyone who can read the English language can find out, if he cares to, what the basic tenets of the Christian faith are. (For a bibliography of relatively simple books on basic Christian beliefs consult the appendix of my Understanding the Christian Faith. To the list there given should be added three excellent books that have appeared since it was published, H. F. Rall’s The Christian Faith and Way (Abingdon-Cokesbury, 1947), James H. Nichols’ Primer for Protestants (Association Press, 1947), and Nels Ferre’s Pillars of Faith (Harper, 1948). The discovery costs something, but it is a cost which any person can meet by earnest inquiry.

The faith to be lived is far more costly. It is at this point above all others that he who would have it must give it. We have scarcely touched the possibilities of lay witness to the gospel within the conditions of the common life, and we are not likely to have any far-reaching, deep-going evangelism until laymen realize that it is their responsibility, and not the minister’s only, to present the living realities of the gospel to their fellows and win them to Christ. One of the most trenchant statements in the Amsterdam Report is that which says, "The Church must find its way to the places where men really live. It must penetrate the alienated world from within, and make the minds of men familiar with the elementary realities of God, of sin, and of purpose in life." This the Church is not very likely to do unless laymen give their witness in the midst of their daily tasks.

Such witness takes many forms. (For a description of many forms of witness by both clergy and laity see the chapter entitled "The Gospel at Work in the World,’ in Volume II of the Amsterdam Series, The Church’s Witness to God’s Design). There is no "rule of thumb" for doing it. Unctuous piety must be avoided. Often the most effective witness is that which emerges naturally in the human situation when issues arise and decisions must be made in which one can either drift with the tide or take a forthright Christian stand. When a person is unmistakably Christian, his neighbors and associates will find it out, and there is a sense in which it is true that what one does speaks louder than what he says. But such unconscious, unspoken witness ought never to be an alibi or substitute for the spoken word on occasions when speech is appropriate. Witness we must, by word and deed, if the gospel is to mean anything more to the world around us than an inherited body of moral platitudes, eminently respectable but of doubtful practicality.

Will such witness be heard and heeded in our time? The obstacles are great, but there is no need to despair. The Christian gospel, both as truth and power, is intended for all men. There is nothing esoteric about it, and it is the testimony of the ages that "whosoever will may come." There is no race or nation, no economic, cultural, or social stratum where the doors are impenetrably closed before it. Whether they are opened in our time to the saving of our world depends on the joint efforts of all Christians.