We have looked at some reasons for the huge frustration among many people with church going. In this final chapter we turn from the frustrations with this or that particular area of church life to a more pervasive inner frustration. Here is a comment that expresses a longing for perceived value.
"This generation will be attracted to an organization which will
be spiritually uplifting, provide moral guidance to their children
and be a supporting and loving community in the difficult times.
Spiritually uplifting to most people means they will have a good feeling
associated with the church. Moral guidance means there are some absolutes
in the area of human conduct that we must not be afraid to talk about for
fear of offending someone. A supporting community to me means support
in times of grief which all people must deal with at some time in their
life. In this generation we are competing with many other areas of
The old guilt trip of, you "should" go to church, no longer works in this modern world."
As we try to unpack each of these deeply felt needs, we realize that denominational organizations find it hard to relate to them. Usually there is the assumption that some new program is needed, and that will need the raising of more money. The already burdened congregations will chafe under this additional load. Rather than help, this sets up a vicious circle of nagging discontent.
On the other hand where people have a good feeling about church going, and go home spiritually uplifted, much else fits into place. What does it mean for a church service to be spiritually uplifting? It is easy to see what this is not. We get nothing from having to sing hymns full of outdated cliches to music that does not grab us any more. We hate having to listen to complicated sermons with theology that has no relevance to our lives. We object to being patronized and talked down to. There is no joy in the sense that we are no good, we should smarten up, give more, and attend more activities every week. The most awful thought is feeling 'I couldn't bring any of my friends here'. They would say "How can an intelligent person like you put up with this every Sunday?"
On the other hand what lifts our spirit is the assurance that both God and church going Christians understand our struggles, frustrations, fears, failure, and guilt. We need to learn about the empowering of the Holy Spirit in every area of our life. There must be opportunities to try out what we have learned with others. We know that prayer changes things, and we ought to pray, but we find it very difficult. The prayers in a church service should make it easier for us to talk to God as we drive to work, meet neighbors, deal with family pressures, do the chores. We would like to go home feeling "Hey, this is a wonderful way to live. I must tell others about it."
We also need moral guidance in the perplexing questions we face in the modern world. That does not mean pious moralizing, or ranting against sin to get us to repent. We cannot imagine going back to Victorian prudishness about sex. But we doubt whether our children will find happiness by sleeping around, living common law, and divorcing as soon as differences occur. We want to respect their freedom, but we wonder what we can say creatively about homosexuality, drugs, violence and vandalism, alcoholism, four letter words, chronic lying, and goofing off from school, work, and responsibility of any kind.
One way to approach this is to view the ten commandments as moral absolutes. It helps to settle that it is always wrong to murder, commit adultery, steal, bear false witness against others, or to live a greedy lifestyle. But the commandments as given to us have no detailed content.
The ideal is for each moral category to be discussed around the family table as situations arise in the news, TV programs, and the community.
Questions of property come under the prohibition of stealing. Our view of sex and marriage depends on how we define adultery. If murder is always wrong, what do we do about violence, war, police action, abortion? Jesus told us to interpret each of these questions in the light of loving God and loving our neighbor. If in doubt, we should do as we would be done by.
Once families have learned to discuss these questions honestly at home, church going should offer deeper spiritual insight from the Word of God, and a framework of moral guidance. A preacher should learn do that without nagging judgmentalism, and the message should be sweetened with great compassion. Nobody wants to go home more riddled with guilt than when they came. We also need to know how God intends to change us and perfect us for heaven. We will gladly listen to a preacher who can teach us the secret of looking to the Holy Spirit instead of trying to beat down our unruly instincts (Romans 8:4-9).
The third area of longing was for a community that will welcome us and our family and friends, warts and all, in sickness and in health, even when we are depressed and our faith is about non-existent. Evidently that is a tall order, and very few congregations know to meet such demands.
So it is time to shift focus from our sense of need to the Lord of the church. Jesus came from heaven and told that He came to meet exactly the three strands of longings we have outlined. In John's Gospel he speaks to our spiritual hunger. "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life (John 3:16). "The water than I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life" (John 4:14). "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life" (John 8:12). "If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed" (John 8:36). "I am come that they may have life, and have it abundantly" (John 10:10). "The Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything" (John14:26).
Jesus never gave us a list of rules for behavior in every kind of situation. But in Matthew's Gospel Jesus showed exactly how we should fill out the content of the ten commandments. As opposed to the way they were interpreted among his own Jewish people, He spoke about heart murder, adultery and divorce, swearing, enemies, and loving the way God loves (5:21-47). He emphasized a heart for God rather than the externals of religion (6:1-16), and there is a whole chapter that ruthlessly exposes hypocrisy (23:1-36).
There is also a huge amount about the kind of loving community he had in mind. "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you should also love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples., if you have lone for one another" (John13:34-35). We have to admit that in our churches we do not do that very well, but the vision for what he has in mind for us as community on earth is clear. He also expects that community to survive through death and resurrection to enjoy heaven for ever.
Jesus also made it clear that all this would be taught and made visible in a church of very ordinary disciples (Matthew 28:19,20). "I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it" (Matthew 16:18). We have noted in twelve chapters how we fear for the very survival of our church. The assaults of Satan seem to have confused us and made us ineffective. One response is to slip out of the battle, and live peacefully with our family and friends at home.
Another response is Paul's enthusiasm for spiritual warfare. "Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God" (Ephesians 5:10-13).
As our correspondent pointed out, nobody is forced to attend church any more. We do not need the union card to make it to heaven. And even in this life we can see that God neither makes things easy for church goers or tough for those who prefer to stay away. There are no brownie points from our community, or business, or the press. Parents have stopped nagging their children to get dressed and come with them. It is totally respectable for a politician to say "I don't attend church."
The net result is that we have finally discovered the obvious. The Lord of the church only uses volunteers to work with him. God is love, and churches are meant to make that love visible. But love and loving can only be chosen freely. If we ask "What do I get from going to church?" the Messiah says "It is a very costly. You have to take up your cross daily. You may lose your life as I did when I lived this out on earth. But you will certainly be crucified one way or another."
What on earth persuades volunteers to engage in this kind of cause? Much the same reason as volunteers work to save the environment with Greenpeace. Or volunteers sign up for their country in a war. Or people leave home to serve in a leper colony, or in the foul slums of a city. Some people serve because they believe in a leader and what he is doing. And bad causes also get a following. The Crusades never lacked for volunteers. Hitler had dedicated enthusiastic followers.
But whatever cause we join, we soon discover that we cannot do very much alone. And in the case of serving the Lord of the church in our city, that usually includes some kind of church going. We may have to change to another location, or another denomination, or to a quite new way of doing things. Missionary monks sailed around Britain to establish Celtic Christianity. Saint Francis called his rich friends to give up everything and learn to love with him. When the Anglican Church resisted his work John Wesley took the church into the fields. General Booth founded the Salvation Army. The House Churches moved from the historic monuments of England to private homes. The Base Communities emerged in the slums of South America as desperately poor people began singing and worshiping God. During the worst of Maoist persecution Christians mushroomed by the million in secret meetings all over China.
But whatever the church of the twenty-first century is going to look like, it seems very unlikely that Jesus will lack the volunteers to be his salt of the earth, his light in the darkest places, his grain of mustard seed, his yeast that leavens the whole world (Matthew 5:13-14, 13:31-33).