We are not the New Testament church, and we aren’t supposed to be

I’ve been awol from the blog this past month, moving house, celebrating the holidays with a huge swath of family, and hunting deer (thank you, my sons, for killing four – the freezer is full!) Now I’m back. Let’s talk theology.

Our job is not to re-create the New Testament church. To do so would be to attempt to recreate the Hellentistic Jewish or Greco-Roman culture of first century Palestine/ Eurasia… which is precisely what the New Testament church chose NOT to do. James’ leadership to the Jerusalem church regarding the cultural practices of Jewish Christianity in Jerusalem was precisely not “recreate us” – it was to allow the Gentile churches to evolve within their cultures, not try to recreate the culture of the Jerusalem church.

So when folks often crank up conversations about whether or not a church practice is “biblical,” what you often find when you peel back the layers, is that they are actually talking about if the NT church actually practiced this or that. That’s utterly beside the point. Of course they didn’t drink coffee in foyers – they had neither coffee nor foyers, (but as soon as Christians discovered both, they latched on!) – they were busy eating communal meals in each others’ homes and selling their landed property to provide for the poor.

Their era was not our era, their context was not our context, their issues were not our issues. (Few people in North America are wondering if they should participate in ancestor worship or give homage sacrifice to the Emperor or figure out the relationship of Christian slaves to Christian masters who worship side by side as brothers in Christ). Their practices were a reflection of the era they lived in. Our task is not to recreate a theme park of first century Jewish or Galatian (et al) religious practices that Christians utilized. These were all drenched in their own culture’s practices so as to make sense of their worship of God.

So one church gets accused of not being Bible-believing for not using the term “born again” while another gets accused because they don’t speak in tongues meanwhile the other church is accused of because they do speak in tongues, while another is on the hook because they ordain women. This is all beside the point. I don’t know if I’ve heard of a church that was literally not Bible-believing. (It almost always translates that the other church doesn’t place as much directive value on, or interpret that particular VERSE, the way my church does!) It’s that we have different cultural practices in our worship, just like Ephesus differed from Antioch. It really doesn’t matter. In fact, the diversity is good – it allows people from diverse cultural backgrounds to choose a church that makes sense to them and nurtures their relationship with God. The Jerusalem elders’ letter to the Gentile churches in Acts is clear: we do not need to all practice church culturally the same.

What matters is that our practices –and God help us: our mission! – are theologically in tune with Jesus. You can do that a zillion different ways (and Christians do, all around the world) and the issue is not whether you light candles when you do it, for goodness sake. Whether it’s a “biblical” practice or not is NOT the question (the New Testament didn’t sacrifice bulls on altars anymore – a quintessential “biblical” practice!) The question is: is this practice utilized in such a way to bring glory to God, to advance His work in the world, to carry on the mission of Jesus in ways that God’s Spirit works through. To make it about whether a particular practice has historical or Scriptural precedent, is simply to fall into the argument going on within fundamentalist Islam today. And that’s not our schtick.

Ours… is (faith, hope, and) love.

The Rabbit Trails of Revival and Anointing

A friend of mine recently described to me the experience of attending a church which was obviously losing its grip on its members. Week after week, year after year, the congregation was exhorted to “keep coming or you will miss God’s anointing! It’s right around the corner, we can feel it! God’s going to do something big! If you leave and go somewhere else, you’ll miss it!” This was accompanied by long prayers begging for God’s anointing.

I could relate. I grew up in an atmosphere where ‘revival’ was described and looked for in the exact same way. It was always felt that it was ‘just around the corner.’ “God’s going to do something big soon – I can feel it! We’re about to have revival!” This too was accompanied by lots of prayers for revival, eventually books and prescriptions were written for how to get God to pour out revival.  Previous revivals in history were studied to find the common elements – the key to unleash the power. Translation: if we would just get a little more earnestness, more committed, repent more, or develop some other spiritual attribute, God would finally relent of his chintzy, cheapskate tight-fistedness with his revival coin.

Sorry, I’m not buying.

The assumptions behind all of this are full of holes. It reminds me of the phrase used by Nazarene theologian Mildred Bangs Wynkoop forty years ago: “Credibility Gap”. First, what’s wrong with what happens in the faithful gathering for worship, week after week, year after year? For thousands of years God’s people have been sustained, nurtured, strengthened and empowered through gathering together for the reading of the Word, the celebration of the sacraments, the worship of God in song, praying together, and – not least – the community of togetherness in Jesus’ name. What’s lacking in that? The frantic pleas for revival and anointing imply that that’s not enough;  there’s a lack, a deficiency. All that happens in weekly worship: the lives changed, the attitudes transformed, the newness of life poured out, the life trajectories re-directed, the joy imparted, the welcome of new people with authentic love, the strengthening, encouraging, purpose, mission, community – nope –  apparently not good enough. Second, all this begging for revival and anointing  acts like God is really hard to convince, doesn’t like to part with his revival stash, or is bound by a notebook full of addendums and legal restrictions regarding when and when not He can do His thing.

Seriously?

In the sophisticated modern church of the second millenium, here’s what this tends to look like: pastors running around always working things up for the next push, the next event, the next program, the next Big Thing that will finally be the magic button to get their church to be whatever it isn’t, and flood their doors with urgent seekers. As soon as they finish the current  Big Deal, they start running toward the next one, rounding up (tired) ‘volunteers’ and urging people to give their spare time to this next big event they imagine will be the equivalent of rubbing the Genie’s Lamp of Church Growth.

I get tired just describing it. And I’m not going to spend my life doing any of that.

I don’t think God is reluctant with His unction. I don’t think He’s bemused watching us scramble trying to find the hidden cheese of revival in His maze.  I don’t think there is ANYTHING wrong with what God does week after week in the regular Sunday morning gathering of His people. New peoples’ lives are being visibly transformed;  longtimers are sustained, helped, encouraged; people are called into ministry; new ministries begin; people hear a call to pastoral leadership, get educated and start churches or join the work here; there is nothing wrong with what goes on.

What I do think is happening is that both Nazarenes and Charismatics can look back within living memory to the beginnings of both of our movements. The enthusiasm, newness, Big Push for the common goal and comradery of a fresh vision that characterize almost any kind of new movement, religious or not, gets longed for again, not to mention idealized. But anyone familiar with the sociological lifespan of movements knows that they don’t stay in that phase. Looking back longingly to the early part of the organization’s developmental phase is to miss out on the benefits of the current part of the lifespan. It’s like a parent looking back so longingly at the toddler phase of their children’s lives that they fail to enjoy them in their 20s.   They miss out on what is in front of them. You may have noticed that the 20-30 somethings that left evangelicalism for the Mainline churches (or started their own), don’t wring their hands week to week for revival or anointing.  They enjoy what the community of faith is and does.

I don’t think we are going to manipulate God into when He does extraordinary acts of revival.  History shows that if we think there’s a formula for that, we’re mis-interpreting those Bible verses. If it were as simple as us pulling the right levers on the heavenly machine, we’d have had God dancing to our tune like a puppet long, long ago.  I’m not going to wring my hands about what God does in church, wishing for something else. What He does with us week after week, just as He has for thousands of years, is a profound good. There’s no deficiency.