This Sunday was my third consecutive Sunday at Tioga Baptist. I have been there once before, so the total is four visits.
Tioga Baptist is starting a new series in its Sunday School, working from Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ. It’s certainly not the first time I have heard of Strobel’s book, but it is the first time someone put a free copy in my hands, so I read it. About as I expected, this veteran journalist inteviewed a bunch of Christian experts who all agreed that the gospels were factual. Strobel asked some confrontational questions, but, in classic journalistic fashion, since he has no personal knowledge in any of the academic fields his experts work in, all he can do is nod along when they give him their line of evidence. Yes, none of them was caught stammering and blushing and at a loss for words, but who is surprised?
The Case for Christ has some merit; it’s a quick, easy-reading antidote for people who have never heard anti-Christian academic expertise rebutted at all. But it is potentially dangerous, something like giving a boy a water pistol and telling him to join the war. Your scholar asserts that the gospels were written generations after Jesus walked the earth; my scholar says they were written within the same generation. So far we have a draw; what next? Well, if your adversary has some scholastic background, he will launch into studies of forms of Greek, styles of writing, contemporary events, and textual analysis, and then laugh at you for being mislead by a bunch of agenda-driven, whitewashing, featherweight pseudo-scholars. The Case for Christ is not conclusive, and anyone who builds on that foundation is setting themselves up for disaster.
Fact-based argument is only useful if both parties accept the same facts, and the dispute is over how they best align. Then you can talk about the details of the specific facts to build your case. Some, like Strobel himself, might come to believe in God through looking at evidences, but one who will not believe in God will not believe in the evidence. It is not possible to prove God, but God makes proof possible.
So Sunday School this week was not about God or the Bible, it was about Lee Strobel’s book; but it wasn’t even about the book, really, as that would imply some thought and discussion of the book. It was an exercise in non-critical thinking, in getting caught up in the imagery so as to swallow the point without hesistation. We were asked to recall court cases that had been overturned based on new evidence, and to imagine that we were a jury, and to remember that even Christian media is sometimes biased. If there was a lesson in there anywhere then it was about the criminal justice system, or our ignorance thereof; or the inadequacies of legal reporting (although nobody was making the very valid connection to the inadequacies of The Case for Christ itself; presumptively, this great work transcends all those flaws). But nothing was learned about God’s methods of revelation, or the limits of all man’s systems of proofs. Postmodernism was mentioned, but rather than talking about how postmodernism does a wonderful and valid job of demolishing all man’s systems of proof (only failing by coming to the conlcusion that there is then no proof, and choosing the hedonistic and self-deifying embrace of lawlessness), it was merely vilified as the reason people won’t fall down and convert when presented with evidence of Christianity’s truth.
Then in the main service there was the usual liturgy: some songs are sung by the whole church, some by just the choir with the pastor at the pulpit, some by the choir joined by the pastor, some by soloists; and sometimes you stand while other times you sit. When finally we got to the sermon, 1 Corinthians 5 was preached. We were assured that this was a tremendously difficult passage, buried with scintillating statistics on the thriving business in pornography, and assured that questions of sexual conduct were still relevant today. This was about half the sermon and I think only that Japanese guy who crawled out of a bunker on some Pacific island and surrendered from World War II a year or so ago needed to be convinced that the topic was relevant to modern culture.
The great difficulty contained in this passage seemed to be whether Paul was really requiring the Corinthians to disassociate from all professing Christians engaged in sexual immorrality, or just this one person whose behaviour was so henious it was an embarrassment even in the pagan world. Acknowledging that Paul was talking about disassociation from someone who claimed to be a Christian and not the general populace of sexually promiscious and perverse Greeks, the pastor still crafted his message to imply (not quite daring to conclude anything in plain terms) that only someone whose sin was repugnant even to the outside world should be disowned by the church; after all, in those times and places there were probably a lot of Christians with sexual sin in the church, just only the one who was that bad.
What a commentary on the present church! What an open invitation to continue in sexual immorality and be accepted in your claim to be a Christian in fellowship with that church! Oh, the pastor was very worried he might drive someone away; he invited us all who “were not quite there yet” to turn our “relationships” into real marriages, but he left no doubt that we would be welcomed either way.
This pastor is always trying to sell me his church, to remind me of his young-adult program in the evening and talk up how exciting and interesting the Sunday school series will be. I have not seen anything in this pastor that looks malign–covetousness, intention to pervert truth, heresy or seduction–but he seems to be ignorant of the ways of God: how God saves, how he preserves and protects the faith of his saints, and what he intends his church to do and to be. He seems earnest in his belief that God is good, but rather than understanding what God means by good, and by those stronger words “holy,” “just,” and “righteous,” the pastor seems to take anything that seems good and stretch it back to God and tack it there with some verses. He’s convinced that God is good so he is convinced that his efforts to attribute goodness to God are not in vain, and he just doesn’t understand that he has the whole meaning of goodness so inverted that he is actually preaching postmodernism–“Do what seems most right and let God sort out the details.” That’s not what he tells people to do, but it is what he shows them to do.
There are churches around here more strict in their moral teaching who would not have soft-shoed around casting out all the sinners from their church, and there are those who would not have bothered read that part of Corinthians at all if it bothered them. All of the churches seem frantic that there aren’t more people coming, and they react in various ways. Some are noticeable bitter, and are ready to blame the world and all the sinners and especially those so-called Christians who don’t respect the Sabbath and are probably out there buying something on the Lord’s day instead of giving money to him. Some are strategizing on how to take the world by storm, how to subvert every conversation into a subtle ploy to make people curious about church; some want to make it such a fun place, or so exotic, that people will rush in for the thrill of it. None of them understand church as a retreat for weary soldiers, a reunion for dispersed family members.
I am not at all convinced that this is the least-wrong church of all the churches I have visited. I have returned to this church only because it feels like it is changing, evolving, wanting to get better even as it has know idea of what better is. This is only in comparison with other churches, which feel dead and closed, so dry and closed that you wonder people don’t perish after attending five times. And this Tioga Baptist feels much the same way; the difference is marginal.
But I am not returning because the church is doing something more right. I am returning to try to puzzle out how to do anything that is right with any of the churches that are so wrong. They seem to all be perfect storms of self-destruction. You cannot even speak in them because the speaking is all done by the leader; you could have some input if you joined but before you join you have to swear to abide by all the self-defeating practices and notions the church already has; and the only advice they are interested in hearing is on how to get more people in the church. Like a drug addict, all they want is more of their drug even as it kills them.
How do you help a drug addict? How do you help a church–or more correctly, church-going Christians?
Is there any way to reach them? In my wildest and most ego-driven dreams I’d like to convert whole churches into my right way, of course. But I know that many in the churches have no desire to be a part of the real church, of the family of God and accountable to him. Those who want their church are welcome to keep it. I can’t imagine any fruitful growth in Christian maturity within the confines of the least of the trappings of the modern church system, so mutually-supporting is the whole buisness of church, but I also do not believe I am the only one in the area with a genuine hunger to know God. There might be none in this particular church, but since Christianity began Christians have taken their doctrine into a city and somehow found in that city those who had the hunger to know God. My intention is to do no more and no less, but I am not sure how it is done. It seems that when you are looking for God-fearers in a Godless city, if you have no introduction than you must simply go to there place and meet them where they are; synagogue or acropolis, find where they worship their gods, look for some sign of a genuine attempt to worship God, and introduce the God you know and the gospel he has given you.
And do not expect them to be suddenly transformed into the perfect church. Paul wrote letters to churches he had established, and these churches had faults large and small. The apostle, the example to us all, did not so “succeed” that he could leave behind sound, self-regulating churches that needed only minor corrections. They went far astray, and embraced grevious error, and could not have all been in a better way then all the churches around me.
So if I have the same God and the same gospel, I have also the confidence that this gospel is not for me, it is for them. Whether I should find “them” at work or at church, or somewhere else; whether I should confront them directly and challenge them with a blunt declaration of their perdition, or suggest to them slowly a better way, I do not know. I pray that I do not become so focused on the church that I neglect what opportunity or responsiblity I have to also witness the gospel at work. I think there are different ways to preach Christ in different times and places, and seek to find not so much a particular way as some way in all times.
After a year of working in one office within my workplace, I have left for another office. In that year I don’t know that I ever gave so much as a hint to anyone that God–real, living, and personal–was everything to me. I know they all got the drift that I was religious, but religion is not Christ, and I don’t know that they saw anything of Christ in me. I know at some times they saw some commendable things in me, but they also see some commendable things in other people they work with; I don’t know that they ever saw Christ.
Perhaps they did, and I don’t know, and it is not my place to know. Perhaps they didn’t, but it was not through any fault per se of my witness; perhaps they didn’t, and it is very much because I did not show Christ in the way I should have. I know for a fact that they saw me accept, adopt, and particpate in some things that were not Christ-like. It is partly because of that that I have begun going to these churches; not that they can make me a better Christian, but that in going to places where I know Christ ought to be the focus, and there is no excuse of being “in the world” to use for being an invisible Christian, that I consciously challenge myself in what I ought to do to witness Christ, and try to take the same challenge and habit to the rest of my life.
I could propose my own Bible study. If I was willing to sign the paper and join the church I think I could have an officially sanctioned Bible study under my governance within a month. But joining the system to save the system does not seem right. I could argue incessantly with the pastor during the Bible study that he is not being Christ centered; and I might be right but I do not think I would be profitable. I could try to blend in for a while and then look for key people I might be able to convince to join me in my counter-church, doing things right. But setting out with the intention of poaching people, of taking people out and away, also does not seem profitable. It is up to the church and the synagogue and the city to throw out sincere followers of Christ, and not their place to voluntarily leave before they start acting like Christians.
So if I ought not batter down the front gate and assault the keep and start a revolution, and if I ought not stand in a dark corner and wait for people to fall out of the sky and ask me what I think about Jesus, how shall I live as Jesus lived, surrounded by people who didn’t and didn’t want to know, and yet calling, calling to those few who hungered?