A local journalist, Richard Harman, recently ran a profile of me on his political news website. Much of it is about my economics blog and the ideas and issues that I’m addressing there.
But the journalist had also been to this blog, and professed himself fascinated by it, and by the possible connections between the two. From our interview he reports two of my lines. The first is
“he argues that churches have become therapeutic organisations, more concerned with the feel good aspect of life rather than engaging their adherents intellectually.”
I had in mind here two things. The first is the rash of “Jesus is my boyfriend” music that periodically is inflicted on us. We had a particular gruesome example last Sunday, with a song talking of how Jesus makes my go flitter-flutter – the sort of feeling a teenager might well feel briefly, but hardly the foundation of lifelong relationship and lifelong discipleship. Jesus spoke of a call to the disciples to take up their crosses – instrument of execution – and follow him. It is bracing and uncomfortable, it is in Scripture, but it isn’t often heard in churches today.
More generally , the point goes to Christian Smith’s description of too much of American modern church as “moral therapeutic deism” – that responds to felt needs, but is pretty remote from a sense of sinners penitent before a living and holy God. How often is sin mentioned in non-liturigical churches, and outside set liturgies in even liturgicial ones? Where is the call to holiness? I don’t think the New Zealand church is very much different than is the case in the US – despite Christianity being so much more marginal to public life and the wider community here than there. As I noted to Richard Harman, the Christian church for centuries attracted many of the very brightest and best to its ministry and teaching. I’m not suggesting intellect counts in God’s eyes above other qualities, but simply that part of how we make the scandalous Gospel credible in our secular world is through the quality of the teaching, preaching and writing. Through the years when I worked in public service offices, I would mostly have been hesitant about inviting a colleague along to church, for fear that what they heard from the pulpit would struggle to meet reasonable standards of critical analytical thought (no matter how genuine and well-intentioned it was). Not every minister will be an Augustine, an Iranaeus, or a Cardinal Newman, but part of what they should do is point us beyond ourselves, to the deep and profound mysteries of grace and redemption, and to the writing and thoughts of the greatest who have gone before us.
Harman also reports me saying “he believes New Zealand is the most secular country in the world but that the church should aim to contribute to public debate with ‘respectable, rigorous, grounded contributions that are smart and well thought out”. I don’t think there would be much quarrel with the suggestion of New Zealand as the most secular Western country. But he left out perhaps the most important point of what I was saying about the public square. Yes, I think the churches and Christian should still seek to engage in the public square, sometimes defensively (protecting our own freedoms) and sometimes offensively, but I am very pessimistic about the prospects of the church, as church, having much influence on policy in a country like New Zealand, unless and until there is a real revival of religion in our land. We pray for that, and work for it, but it will be something of grace when and if it happens. In the meantime, we need to form our own people, and our own communities in what it means to think, to worship, and to live as a Christian. Too much of what churches say about policy seems to simply mimic the prevailing soft-left sympathies of the secular world around them. That may win some debates, and some kudos, but it isn’t the proclamation of the Kingdom of God.
One of my key concerns is that my children grow up into a living and vibrant Christian faith. But in our day, perhaps more than in the past, that is only likely if they find in the church teaching and practice that is distinctly different, worship that opens them to the mysteries of faith and the wonder of the living God. And it needs to be grounded in the best thought and practice of past centuries and today (which doesn’t mean replacing sermons with theology lectures). If the church is just a pale imitation of the society around it, why would they – or outsiders – want to be involved in that?
The church in New Zealand – and throughout the West – has failed. God is gracious and doesn’t give up on us. But I suspect he calls us back to a renewal of mind and heart, to a proclamation of a gospel that more directly addresses the most fundamental issue – the barrier put by sin between human beings and their creator God.
The famous Richard Neibuhr line about US liberal Protestantism “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgement through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross” doesn’t quite accurately describe modern evangelicalism, but it is coming disconcertingly close.