Is the Church Canceling Christianity?, Part 3
The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit. John 3:8
Last week I noted that Jesus divided his waking hours between three related tasks: prayer, teaching, and service to others. I focused on prayer, particularly types of prayer that create space for God to work in and through us. As I noted, this type of prayer is rarely taught or practiced in churches today (with the implication that perhaps they should be). This week I consider another area of focus in Jesus’s waking life: teaching.
Most churches focus heavily on teaching, particularly with the sermons provided at worship services. Unfortunately, most sermons have become (in my opinion) too long, too academic, and too instructive to be of much help in one’s spiritual formation. They attempt to answer questions that are better left open-ended. In some churches, the sermon takes up half or more of the worship service. It is as if being immersed in the minister’s opinions and understandings is more important or instructive than connecting to God. Long sermons, while sometimes entertaining, are neither praise nor worship. Instead of learning howto connect with God we receive a lecture about God as seen through the eyes of another. Preaching the gospel has become more about describing a love story than about helping congregants enter into the Divine love story. Many purveyors of the gospel miss the mark completely. The important teaching point is not to learn about God but to experience God as a living presence in our lives, which cannot be accomplished with words.
We learn best not from words, but by the way our teachers live their lives, treat others, care for their neighbors, and whether they leave others in a better state than when they first encountered them. This is clearly modeled in the life and teachings of Jesus. Jesus taught with parables, not with factual accounts to be memorized and tested over at a later date. Jesus was not teaching mathematics. Rather, Jesus shared stories that could be entered into by his listeners, then and now. His stories had thought-provoking twists and unexpected results. Jesus did not teach what to think or know but encouraged his listeners into the process of thinking and knowing. He engaged them not by providing facts but by providing rhetorical fodder for lifelong reflection. When the Bible, the life of Jesus, or any spiritual teaching is presented as factual, the teaching has already lost much of its learning potential.
For example, when we teach the Christmas story as a factual, historical event – as if there were eye-witnesses present recording everything as it happened without bias or interpretation – we lessen the likelihood that listeners will be able to place themselves into the story and thus become a part of it. For me, the issue is not whether the events surrounding the birth of Jesus happened as described in Matthew and Luke, but the ways in which the imagery and emotion of the story shape our lives today. How can we live healthier, more service-oriented lives because of the Christmas story? Neither teachers nor preachers can answer that question for us. They can, however, create a learning environment in which we can formulate and grow into our own answers. This seems to be the way Jesus taught – not by providing facts or certainty but by stimulating a connection between the listener and the Spirit of God within.
Jesus used analogies in his teaching. He did not say “The kingdom of heaven is…” He said, “The kingdom of heaven is like…” He stretched and challenged the thinking of his followers not with facts but with concepts, deconstructing old beliefs in order to create space for new understandings and broader visions of what it means to be part of the family of God. In our intellectual, answer-focused society, and in our on-going quest for certainty and truth (as if we are capable of comprehending God’s truth), we forget that literal understandings are the lowest forms of learning because they leave no room for growth in knowledge, application, or wisdom. As we learn to connect with God, as opposed to learning about God, we enter a never-ending journey with no destination. If we find God at the end of our journey, what we have found is neither God nor the end of our journey. God, life, love, and everything worthwhile exist within the journey. That journey is eternal life and, as eternal implies, does not end. Certainties and truths, however, will change with the scenery. Our learning task is to embrace the amazing uncertainty and beautiful perplexity of the present moment, knowing we can never wander out of God’s reach.
This is the 63rd in the series of Life Notes titled Churchianity vs Christianity. I invite your thoughts, insights, and feedback via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or through my website, www.ContemplatingGrace.com. At the website, you can also sign up to have these reflections delivered to your Inbox every Thursday morning and browse the archives of my Life Notes, Podcasts, music, books, and other musings.