Wednesday, March 4, 2009


Tonight, we began a series of Lenten services at our church. We are reading and discussing Dietrich Bonhoeffer's classic, Life Together. Written out of his experiences of living in intentional community in an underground seminary in Germany during WWII, Bonhoeffer teaches believers what it means to relate to one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. However, the book opens with an important reminder that is all too often forgotten by believers today...
It is not simply to be taken for granted that the Christian has the privilege of living among other Christians. Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. At the end all his disciples deserted him. On the Cross he was utterly alone, surrounded by evildoers and mockers. For this cause he had come, to bring peace to the enemies of God. So the Christian, too, belongs not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the thick of foes. There is his commission, his work. "The Kingdom is to be in the midst of your enemies. And he who will not suffer this does not want to be of the Kingdom of Christ; he wants to be among friends, to sit among roses and lilies, not with the bad people but the devout people. O you blasphemers and betrayers of Christ! If Christ had done what you are doing who would ever have been spared?" (Luther) (p. 1f)
The problem with much contemporary American evangelicalism is that it has created an alternate "kingdom," one which is OF the world but not IN the world. The freedom and prosperity we enjoy in this country has allowed us to withdraw from meaningful interaction with our neighbors in the context of real life situations so that we might spend time in "Christian" pursuits.

Churches are organized to satisfy this centripetal impulse. Life for many American Christians revolves around the "temple" and its program of activities for all ages and interests. It seems that the purpose of the church is to provide what Luther called a "roses and lilies" experience for people that protects them from the harsh realities of the world and the challenges of learning to relate authentically with those who don't share our faith.

This pattern is "of the world" because it grows directly out of the American suburban ethos. Suburban living is all about comfort, security, and prosperity. The modern evangelical movement has capitalized on these desires by providing superbly outfitted temples that continually cater to the consumerist cravings of their congregations. It provides "safe places" where parents can be assured that they and their children will never have to rub shoulders with pagans, never be disturbed by ideas or concepts that challenge their Sunday School faith, and never have to deal with the uncomfortable realities that live next door.

Nor have I even begun to speak about the Christian publishing industry, the Christian music business, the host of Christian enterprises that provide unlimited "edification" opportunities for believers so that they need never be in a situation where they are not surrounded by an atmosphere of godliness.

A church newsletter from one of our local megachurches contained an article about their sports program, written by the elder responsible for it. When asked why he had signed up to lead this "ministry," he related a story about how one of his children had a bad experience with a soccer coach in a community youth league. Apparently this coach was always yelling at the kids. The elder decided he would head up the church soccer league so that no child in his program would ever have to have suffer such indignity.

So...the answer in this situation, as we find so often in the evangelical approach, is to withdraw from the world and start something of our own that will be "safe" and promote a more godly way. Sure, we say we will invite the community and "win people for Christ," but in reality the root desire is for protection, safety, and non-involvement with a messy world of sinful people. We want "to be among friends, to sit among roses and lilies, not with the bad people, but the devout people."

As we'll see in the next post, this approach denies one whole aspect of the church's identity. The church lives out its life in Christ in two contexts in this world—as the church gathered and as the church scattered. Unfortunately, we seem mostly to have retreated into fortresses of our own making, satisfied that we are fulfilling the Great Commission by lobbing gospel tracts and culture war diatribes over the walls, and occasionally inviting someone on the outside to come in and take a tour of the castle.

We are thus losing the ability to relate to our neighbors on the basis of a shared humanity in the context of real-life situations. This is the missional issue in a nutshell.


chris said...

Well written.

Here in downtown Indy, there is a man that has stood on the same corner, for a year or two now, reciting scripture. Sometimes he expounds on it but for the most part, he speaks at normal talking level and never gets in anyone's way. As much as I want to knock what he does, I figure he might be planting words in people's ears that make them think. The more I think about this guy, he's doing something very right - he's getting out of the church and into the public.

I've seen families that live in the Christian ghetto of which you speak. But wait! I'm trying to stay off my soapbox. :)

AZ said...

>> Here in downtown Indy, there is a man that has stood on the same corner, for a year or two now, reciting scripture. <<

Delaware and Market streets, right?

My family and I lived with the Kyrgyz of Central Asia for several years, and the Christians there were always very caring toward other believers. Their tradition dictates that you owe everything to your family and clan, and they believe it would be profligate and wicked to give to a stranger what you owe to your kin. When someone there becomes a Christian, he exchanges his old clan ties for new ones based on faith. But few of them become really magnanimous toward everyone.

Contemporary Americans aren't much different. They are ready to love anyone who gets in step with their programs and contributes to their success.

The close-knit community feeling you find in Christian congregations is a good thing. But it is not the best thing. Our best just really isn't ever good enough, is it?

chris said...

>>Delaware and Market streets, right?