Shame about Christianity, isn’t it. Promises so much, offers a huge amount, but it just doesn’t work. Mind you, it can look very convincing at times. I know of denominations and individual churches, in this country and abroad, where plans and programmes and projects and all sorts of other things beginning with ‘P’ have a sheepdog-like effect on church members. Our brothers and sisters look so much tidier and more likely to produce pleasant but harmless results when they are neatly penned, and ready to be fleeced in the nicest possible way.
People do get puzzled, though. They’ve told me about it.
For instance, one very nice lady I know said, ‘The thing is, I’ve just finished this long Discipleship course. It was mostly on-line, but it involved getting together with other people from time to time. You know the sort of thing. It took ages, and I’ve really enjoyed lots of it, but now that it’s finished - I dunno - there’s lots of stuff in my head, but nothing’s changed in my heart. I don’t know if it should have done.’
‘Well,’ I replied, ‘your experience does remind me of the joke we used to tell when I was at school a hundred years ago. A bloke called Charles Atlas won the Mr Universe competition back in the fifties. There were adverts in all the magazines and papers for something he called ‘Dynamic Tension’. According to this Atlas character, by the time you finished his course you’d be covered in muscles and ready to get your own back on the nasty man who’d kicked sand in your face when you were a weedy little twerp. Our schoolboy joke was about a man who paid all his money and did the whole thing properly, but then had to write a letter saying, ‘Dear Charles Atlas, have completed course, please send muscles. Maybe you should write to the person who designed this course and say, “Have finished Discipleship Course, please send Holy Spirit.”’
Here is an interesting and possibly significant aspect of my friend’s problem. In my view the vast majority of those who pursue these projects and courses would find it very difficult to know what she is talking about. There is a phrase that has become common conversational currency in Christian circles, particularly in the world of middle-class group ministry, a world in which I have been extensively involved myself.
‘I found that very helpful.’
So seductive for speakers like me, as you can easily imagine. Someone seems to have been helped by something I said. Fantastic! Why on earth would I want to criticise my own apparent success? Well, because sometimes these words actually indicate that the speaker has found a way to slot or sink or become embedded (choose your own metaphor) back into a comfortable version of Christianity that is more about worldly safety and security than spiritual authenticity and the essential abandonment of a personal agenda.
I heard a radio discussion recently about the effectiveness of various business models. One speaker mentioned a very simple acronym, likely to be popular with Anglicans like me as it utilises just three headings. ‘EEM’ stands for ‘Engage, Enthuse and Mobilise’. I am familiar with the first two of these terms. They describe the way in which my wife Bridget and I approach the work we do with groups. We try hard to warmly engage and interest the people who listen to us by thinking through the subject (Bridget mainly), and using illustrations and readings that capture and hold their attention.
We’re not too bad at the engaging and enthusing, but to what extent have we mobilised all those Christians we have spoken to over the years? A bit, I expect. More than a bit very occasionally, especially when we are offered the chance to focus on third-world needs. Yes, we do get a bit of mobilising done, but I wish we had done more. I wish I had realised earlier in my life that teaching and entertainment and step-by-step courses, valuable though these things are, will never make Christianity work, whatever that means. The things that do make a difference have not changed one iota in two thousand years. For most of us, me included, it seems to need two thousand years and a substantial chunk of our lives for that fact to sink in. Let’s state the obvious.
The world needs Jesus, not systems. A real person among real people doing real things. Informal, sometimes bewildering, often captivating and exciting, not very religious, frequently alienating.
The will of God for each one of us could feature gin and tonic or martyrdom, and / or just about everything in between. A genuine decision to follow Jesus is a decision to give up all worldly rights, including the right to choose our own paths of suffering or pleasure.
We are almost certainly not going to become wonderful Christians in preparation for serving God. Our major responsibility is to bottom-out in honest acceptance of what we are, and to offer whatever and whoever remains to the Holy Spirit to be used in any way that is useful.
In the final analysis there is no more satisfying place to be than the place where God can use us to be his hands and feet. This world is filled with desperate people. They need Christ, not Christianity.