Sunday, 14 May 2017

What's so good about a church?

When Ahok was sent to jail this week for two years, it kept me thinking about what does having, professing and demonstrating faith mean in our modern times?

More relevantly, I asked myself, what is the function of a church in the context of the thousands of believers out there being persecuted for their faith, some even suffering and persevering for their belief in complete anonymity?

I guess answering the second question also answers the first, right? 

Here, let me borrow a metaphor that likens the Christian churches to a maternal womb giving birth to twins. But one of the twins was taken away at birth, while the other remained behind. The one who remained behind was brought up differently from the one who was taken away.

Their environments were worlds apart. The child who remained behind was given everything he'd ever wanted. He had all the creature comforts, the security, the fine meals, the air-conditioned nursery, the cushy sofa, the beautiful music to lull him to slumber, and nice clothes to wear.

The other child was deprived. He has to make do with what little he had. Most times, he would be beaten up for talking, and for sharing his belief that he is of a noble parentage.

Whenever he spoke about his parents, he would be put down, scolded, and even locked up. For years, he suffered, standing firm on what he believed in, and never giving up hope that one day his parents will return.

I wonder, does this metaphor describe the two different kinds of churches in our modern world? One with walls where faith is securely institutionalized and the congregation is tight-knit and worshipping comfortably in air-conditioned conventional halls constructed aesthetically for maximum spiritualized experiences.

And the other church is one without walls. It has no fixed location or address. There is no roof over their heads. The congregation is not sequestered away to a haven of worship, and they do not have the regular colourful programs that the other church has. Most times, they practised their faith with a handful of believers without the accompanied music and the charismatic church leaders. A cappella and simple messages were the mode of service. 

More importantly, the church with walls had the clout, the fame and the money. And out of gratitude for feeding and inspiring their belief, the congregation readily gives even more into the church's coffers.  On  other occasions, they write cheques in aid of the other church in need. This concentrated wealth under the absolute control of one or a few gives the church a bloated sense of authority, integrity and success.

The other church without walls however experiences no such material blessings. They depended completely on their belief to make ends meet. They ministered to people on the ground, on a personal level, one life at a time. They trust that their faith will make all things good in the end notwithstanding the trials they have to go through. 

This is the separate and different fate of the two churches, or the metaphorical twin brothers. Churches with walls and Churches without walls.

Well, at this point of my writing, it is obvious where my indictment lies and where my admiration goes. It is therefore obvious where I am going with this.

But let me be clear, if there is any indictment to be made, it starts first with me. I have more guilty pleasures as a believer than guilty repentance that leads to the empowering Romans 12 kind of transformation.

You see, I came from a church with walls, where faith is securely institutionalized and where the environment is well embellished to extract the maximum religious satisfaction in one memorable weekly service. My god, I stand indicted already.

But my point is that in our modern times, churches with walls are quite unavoidable, and to some extent, even biblical for we are the body of Christ, and that sacred body has to congregate somewhere right? The call is also to mass public worship under one roof, and not just private thanksgiving in one's room, right?

However, my concern on this Sunday morning where many like sheep are going to their various houses of God is this, is there a risk of an inverse relationship between comfort and faith, between material blessings and authenticity, and between hope built upon this world and the hope beyond?

Will more comfort bring about less faith, that is, the kind of faith that sees suffering for God as a joy unto the Lord? Put it in another way, as a result of being too accustomed to creature comforts, will we become more suffering-adverse for the glory of God?

On a same note, will more craving for prosperity cause the believer to struggle with issues of authenticity as a believer (or, in other words, to feel less authentic)? This struggle for authenticity comes from the higher risk of accessible entrapment that fame and fortune bring.

And how about hope in this world as compared to the next? Will we mistake the prosperity of this world for the richness that awaits in the world beyond? Will more hope built upon this world through the endless accumulation of wealth and power distract us from the hope for the world to come?

At this juncture, I recall that Bonhoeffer once insisted that the church wasn't a historical institution. To him, in his dissertation entitled "the Communion of Saints", he wrote that the church "was a living community that could transcend national, ethnic, class, and even religious boundaries."

More relevantly, he wrote that the church was not a building or an organization. It "should not be a remote, authoritative institution," but one which is "deeply and directly involved in the problems facing ordinary people."

Herein lies the nub of my concern. Recall my metaphor about the twins that translates into churches with walls and churches without? In line with Bonhoeffer's definition of a church, I feel that the issue is not so much about the different church environments, that is, one prosperous and the other persecuted. Neither is the issue so much about walls or no walls - metaphorical or otherwise.

The issue however has something to do with the answer to the second question I asked earlier: "What is the function of a church in the context of the thousands of believers out there being persecuted for their faith, some even suffering and persevering for their belief in complete anonymity?"

Well, the answer to that is obvious.

We are called to go out and reach out, rather than to just stay in and veg out - to put it succinctly. The President of World Vision US, Richard Stearns said, "The gospel means much more than the personal salvation of individuals. It means a social revolution."

It is therefore known as the Great Commission for all to preach the gospel to all, and not just the great convention for all to queue up to hear the gospel from one. In other words, it's still sola scriptura (infallibility of scripture) and not ex cathedra (infallibility of office holder).

But in the context of some fast-growing churches that are converging all revelation and scriptural authority, and centralizing all resources-control on the popularity of human leadership, the trend sadly leans towards the great convention rather than the Great Commission.

And if, in the secular world, there is the concern of the monopoly of prices that calls for anti-trust laws, then in the world of church growth, shouldn't there similarly be the concern of the monopoly of  spiritual revelations that calls for more discretion to be exercised by the believers?

No, it is not the size of a church per se that bothers me. It is how the size of the church gradually conditions the masses that bothers me. If there is strength in unity, there is also delusion in unity too.

Similarly, if there is encouragement in numbers, there are also ossification in numbers, complacency in numbers, and blind allegiance in numbers.

AW Tozer once said: "The church is not simply a religion institution. It is not a religious theatre where performers are paid to amuse those who attend. It is an assembly of redeemed sinners - men and women called unto Christ and commissioned to spread His gospel to the ends of the world."

At the end of the day, all growth has to be managed. This is no different from a secular company. A church cannot grow for the sake of growth - that's in fact the ideology of a cancer cell (Edward Abbey).

I believe, up to a point, coveted growth risks becoming an end in itself, and the founder or co-founders (or their successors) risks becoming self-referential.

Mindless growth adds layers to the ideals, which first sets it on her way. At some point, the church's humble past becomes just that, a distant past.

The layers come in many forms as the church grows. There is the administrative layer, the organization layer, the rules and formality layer, the privilege-section-in-the-congregation layer, the expectation layer, the wow-factor layer, the financial layer, the power-struggles layer, the pressure-to-impress layer, and the leadership-indispensability layer.

And what is ultimately buried under all that layers is the forgotten call of the Great Commission, or as what Richard Stearns earlier described with a tweak of mine, the inconvenient social revolution.

Alas, this is also where the church with walls progressively grows inward, quietly seeking the creature comforts within her own sacred space, and indulging in the beatific faith set in the safe and sterilized environment of personal success, individual prosperity and self-gratuitous charity, all boldly preached from the velvety pulpit.

Let me end with the apt words of the late Christian philosopher Dallas Willard:

"Faith today is treated as something that only should make us different, not that it actually does, or can make us different. In reality, we vainly struggle against the evils of the world, waiting to die and go to heaven. Somehow, we've gotten the idea that the essence of faith is entirely a mental and inward thing." Cheerz.

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