My friend Kevin leads a church plant in North Central Regina; it’s called the Gentle Road Church of Christ. A video about this effort can be viewed HERE.
Recently, Kevin wrote up some reflections inspired by the work and writings of Lesslie Newbigin, a most interesting missionary, who lived from 1908-1998. With permission, I’m posting Kevin’s write-up here.
If you are involved in any form of church leadership in the Western hemisphere OR you feel the struggle of living out your Christian faith in Western society, these words will likely carry substantial weight.
WARNING: OBJECTIONAL CONTENT. This material will change your life.
Have you ever heard someone leading the closing prayer, pray that “we would apply what we learned today”? Or the preacher urge us to “apply this to our lives”?
This language indicates a disturbing flaw in our approach to our faith. In The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission, veteran missionary Lesslie Newbigin contrasts our Western world approach with other worldviews. In the Western world, we talk about ideas and walk around them as though they are objects in a museum. They are ideas that “free float”, concepts that we discuss, observe and analyze. The “application of them to our lives” is a secondary step, and from the language of the preacher and the closing pray-er, they are optional. We choose whether we will do them or not, and if we do them, how thoroughly and wholeheartedly we will do them.
In Henri Nouwen’s book Spiritual Direction, he describes how his students at a prestigious university in the US enrolled in his classes to hear about his time among the poor in South America. He had spent a couple of years living and serving among the disenfranchised in Latin America. But his US students were mostly spectators of his journey, curious to learn about the journey, not interested in making the same journey themselves.
We have the same thing in our churches. We have Bible classes about confessing our sins to one another, humbling ourselves before God, sharing our faith with the lost, giving sacrificially, and praying. But we don’t actually confess our sins to one another (for the most part). We talk about it, but we don’t actually do it. And far be it for the preacher/teacher to expect that everyone will do it. Imagine the Bible class where the teacher reads James 5, and then says, “OK, now we are going to practice this. We are supposed to confess our sins to one another. What is the best way for us to do this today?”
Contrast this approach, says Newbigin, with the assumptions of the liberation theologians in South America. In their worldview, there is no separation between faith and action, between ideas and justice. People who aren’t working for justice aren’t doing anything, they are just talking. You either actively join the cause against the totalitarian regime, or you are with it. Newbigin goes on to critique some aspects of liberation theology, but he commends this much: that in Latin America, faith is never a spectator sport. There is never a gap between knowledge and application. Faith means working for justice, period. You will never hear them pray that “we would apply what we learned today.”
So what does this look like in real life? My friend Oscar Contrares grew up in El Salvador, and actively participated in the resistance movement. He tells me that when they had Bible studies, they always ended the gatherings with a call to action. There was always something to do, some political, economic or practical way to participate. You never left the meeting without being shoulder-tapped to help in some way. The call to obedience was immediate, practical and communal.
I believe Jesus speaks to this exact point in Luke 17. Does the servant come in from working in the field all day and expect the master to invite him to sit down with him and feast? No. He prepares the meal for the master and then only after he has done all of his work, he gets to sit down and eat. Then, “Would he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.'” (See Luke 17:7-10) This is the kind of spirit that Jesus’ disciples are to have – an immediate, humble and submissive heart to the commands of the master. There is no gap between hearing and obeying. Whatever Jesus commands, we obey “right away, all the way, in a happy way” (stolen from a parenting mantra).
One of the problems in our churches is that we do things that reinforce this gap between hearing and obeying. Everytime we have a Bible study where we don’t call or expect people to obey immediately, we reinforce this gap. Everytime we intellectualize or walk around a Bible study topic like a rare museum artifact, we subtly reinforce that we are passive observes and that we in control of our response. Instead we need to abandon control of our response in advance and commit to do everything our master bids, in the spirit of Luke 17. We need to commit to obedience before we leave the building, and at the end of it all say, “We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.”
I believe that we need new DNA in our churches. We need to eliminate this gap between hearing and obeying, and we need leaders who are going to lead by example, who fully embrace the spirit of humility, obedience and submission to Jesus Christ as Master of all. And we need to raise the bar in our congregations, by providing immediate and practical ways for people to obey what they hear, and actually expect people to do it.
There is a saying that “what we convert people with, is what we convert them to.” If we convert people with an approach that faith is a spectator sport, we will have spectators in our pews. If we convert people with an approach like Luke 17, I think we might have a very different reality.
May the gospel come to us “not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction.” (1 Thessalonians 1:5)