Friday, June 11, 2010

Who's Hostile to the Church?

I was listening to a sermon recently on what is often called "The Parable of the Great Banquet."  Basically, Jesus tells of a person who had a great, big, party.  But although lots of people were invited, they all had excuses for not coming, so the person sent for more guests.  Jesus makes fairly clear that the person throwing the party is not pleased to be snubbed by the original invitees.

While granting that the parable seems to be most directly about God's relationship with the people of Israel, I don't think the preacher was out of line applying it to the dedication of Christians today.  As a specific example, he talked about the growing problem of declining church attendance, which most denominations in America have been struggling with for many years now.

The thing he said that caught me by surprise was when he said that "it's not that people don't like church.  They're not hostile to church.  It's just 'second.'"  The point, of course, was that even among people who profess faith in Christ, there is a tendency among many to prioritize other things.  I can certainly agree that this is a problem.

But, given that I have been reading a lot of material that specifically suggests that, yes, many people are "hostile to the church"--if indeed (as the article referenced in my reflections from a few years ago indicates) "friendly to Jesus Christ"--perhaps my surprise at hearing a preacher say that people aren't "hostile to church" is only to be expected.  I thought the rest of the sermon was quite good, but I spent quite a bit of time wrestling with this inconsistency.

Ultimately, and despite the seemingly diametrically-opposed statements, I think that the preacher and I don't really disagree on the important points, but that we are looking at the situation from rather different points of view.  The preacher, I'm guessing, is responding to a vocal minority of Christians who seem to use that language of "hostility" a lot, themselves.  Usually in sentences like "our culture is hostile to Christian faith" or "Christianity is under attack."  And, obviously, there is at least a sense in which that's true.  But I think (and the preacher I was listening to seems to think) that it's not so much that "the atheists are trying to destroy the church" (as such Christians sometimes argue) as there is something about human nature and the world in which we live that, if we're not careful, slowly and subtly works against the values that Christianity advocates.  Even so, it seems to me that we live in a culture that is still, even to this day, predominately (if nominally) Christian.  For example, we still expect our political leaders to profess faith in God (if in a watered-down sense that doesn't alienate any particular denomination), and it is nearly inconceivable that a Muslim or atheist could be elected to national office (the ravings of certain extremists against our current President notwithstanding). 

But, what I think my preacher-friend may not recognize, but which I see and read about all the time, is the sense in which many people have been actively injured by those who profess Christian faith.  Women who have been told that they cannot hold certain jobs because "Christians" tell them that they can't.  People who, having pasts scarred by certain particular types of sins, are ostracized by "Christians" no matter what they may have done to repent.  And, of course, Christians of devout faith who have had their faith called into question because of some disagreement on a matter of doctrine (usually, not a matter of orthodoxy--that is to say, not a matter decided as heretical by one of the ancient ecumenical councils--but something that much more accurately describes the kinds of doctrinal differences that separate one Christian denomination from another).  I think that there are a great many people out there who have been brought up in a Christian faith, but who have turned their backs on that faith more out of the ways in which Christians have treated them than out of anything else.  Such people are, sadly, very "hostile" to the church, but only because the church has been hostile to them first.

And, of course, the very church that alienated these fellow image-bearers often continues to blame them for the alienation.  "They're just rebelling against God," such a church might be heard to say.  There may indeed be rebellion here, but I would posit that rebellion against a church that behaves in an ungodly way against people is not the same as rebellion against God.

Now, I'm not anti-church.  Just read the "reflections" link I referred to earlier, and that should be clear.  The church is the body of God, and is God's vehicle for spreading God's word, so it should be taken seriously.  Still, I think that we of the church have created a good deal of any "hostility" that exists towards us unnecessarily, and I think that God weeps over that fact.

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