Saturday, January 24, 2009

Ministry Maxim, 3

This is rather long to qualify as a maxim, but nevertheless, here it is.

There are two kind of unhealthy churches. The first has no sense whatsoever that God might be up to something in its midst. The second can tell you at any given moment exactly what God is up to.

My friend, Pat Keifert, often says that most congregations are functionally atheist. This does not mean that they do not believe in God. This means that they have a hard time using God as the subject in a sentence with an active verb. God is absent in the functional imagination of a congregation, trapped either in a distant heaven or a distant past.

The church here is a closed environment with little imagination beyond what it can produce in its own ability and power. These churches may grow, even be vibrant in many ways. (This is a maxim related to the word health, not size). But their lives are totally explainable by the sum of their parts. And most of the time this results in dreary.

Sometimes the lack of God talk is an absence of nerve, or even the result of humility, not wanting to claim for God things that do not belong to him. If, however, God raised Jesus from the dead, then the testimony to God's saving purposes must be contemporary. This is risky business, but in my estimation less of a risk than saying nothing at all. And if death and resurrection teaches us anything, it is that God abides risk.

Still, this business of God speech is tricky. Our awareness of God also makes us aware of our own limitations, our propensity to make a god out of the projection of our own desires. Here, God is so immanent that every detail of life is a "God-thing." This travels by two names in my book: triumphalism and idolatry. To talk of God so pervasively and confidently betrays an over-identification between God and church. These churches are often very big and dynamic. It is exciting, after all, to be a part of a movement where you know God is on your team. But it is unhealthy in many ways.

At the very least it is bad theology. It collapses the holiness of God. It refuses to acknowledge that the victory of God is hidden in a cross, the glory of God hidden in human suffering. These things are not always easy to see, especially by people whose perspectives are limited by circumstance and sin. I love Luke Johnson's little line in relation to discerning the will of God. We should always be "modest before the mystery."

So, we are left with the tricky deal of needing to talk about God without claiming too much, with being simultaneously bold and modest. And I think the deal here is punctuation. We speak in commas, not exclamation points. The process of discernment is never complete. It is ongoing, and we might have it wrong. We confess what we believe God is up to, subject to further review. I like the word confess here. It can be direct speech. God is love. But it is also our language about God. It is what we have come to believe. And as our language, it is provisional.

I am convinced that we can't know God apart from confessions like these. As Paul says in Romans, with our hearts we believe, with our mouths we confess unto salvation. Saying is a necessary part of testing the spirits, allowing the Word of God to continue to speak. But it must be done with modesty


Larry said...


Dwelling- this deep listening exercise that humbly begins with " What I heard you say _______" is a wonderful exercise into having community with God. This stretching by listening has been one of the highlights of my walk with Christ. Dwelling facilitates God talk..healthy God commentary, no debate. I have imagined many times God saying in reply…thanks for listening


Kwiyani Files said...

Speaking in commas, not in exclamation marks; may God give us the grace.

Anonymous said...

Good stuff! LTJ and you are right - we must remain "modest before the mystery." I must admit my frustration with much of Christian radio. In 5 minute commentaries between three minute songs it seems as if the DJ's have it all figured out. The ways of God in most every world event seem to be so easiy found. For once I want to hear them say, "This is bad - and it does not appear to be God's will. And while we have faith in God and in God's ability to work for good in this, it really stinks!"

Anonymous said...

I tend to think of speaking about what God is doing among us as "walking on thin ice". You can put some weight on it, but you should walk lightly for a while listening and looking for signs that the ice is strong enough to hold. Then, after time, you can put full weight on it -- even skate around on it in confidence and delight.

Mark Love said...

Thanks, friends for the comments. I like the image of the thin ice, Jerry. Thanks.