Josh Brage


Excerpt from Dynamics of Spiritual Life
September 17, 2005, 1:32 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Excerpt from Dynamics of Spiritual Life
Chapter The Renewal of the Local Congregation


…. And yet the continuing health of the young people, as well as the revitalization of the Middle-American church, is dependent on the establishment of a liaison between older and younger Christians. The young converts are new blood intended to quicken the body of older Christians, and the latter, despite their partial enculturation, have much to offer in stability and tradition which can prevent the youth culture from going cultic and insular. If new waves of converts do not receive sound instruction in the theology of the Christian life, in ten years they will be just as dormant and derailed as their elders. It is therefore vital that the revival spread across the cultural firebreak into the heartland on the American church, the local congregation.

In order to see how this goal can be reached, we should first review the condition of enculturation prevailing in many congregations. Assuming pastors themselves have become aware of the degree of their own unconscious enculturation, what do they face in their own parishes?

In most cases what they confront is a style of living very unlike the spiritually vibrant mission statement described at the end of Acts 2. The “ultimate concern” of most church members is not the worship and service of Christ, but rather survival and success in their secular vocation. The church is a spoke on the wheel of life connected to the secular hub. It is a departmental subconcern, not the organizing center of all other concerns. Churchmemebers who have been conditioned all their lives to devote themselves to building their own kingdom and whose flesh naturally gravitates in that direction anyway find it hard to invest much energy in the kingdom of God. They go to church once or twice a week and punch the clock, so to speak, fulfilling their “church obligation” by sitting passively and listening critically or approvingly to the pastor’s teaching.

Sometimes with great effort they can be maneuvered into some active role in the church’s program, like a trained seal in a circus act, but their hearts are not fully in it. They may repeat the catchwords of the theology of grace, but many have little deep awareness that they and other Christians are “accepted in the Beloved.” Since their understanding of justification is marginal or unreal – anchored not to Christ, but to some conversional experience in the past or to an imagined present state of goodness in their lives – they know little of the dynamic of justification. Their understanding of sin focuses upon behavioral externals which they can eliminate from their lives by a little will power and ignores the great submerged continents of pride, covetousness and hostility beneath the surface. Thus their pharasaism defends them both against full involvement in the church’s mission and against full subjection of their inner lives to the authority of Christ.

Their religious lives, however, do not satisfy their consciences at the deepest level, and so there is a powerful underlying insecurity in their lives. Consciously they defend themselves as dedicated Christians who are ass good as anybody else, but underneath their conscious level there is deep despair and self-rejection. Above the surface this often manifests itself in a compulsive floating hostility which focuses upon others in critical judgment. Thus a congregation of Christians who are insecure in their relationship to Christ can be a thorn bush of criticism, rejection, estrangement, and party spirit. Unsure in the depth of their hearts what God thinks of them, churchmembers will fanatically affirm their own gifts and take fierce offense when anyone slights them, or else they will fuss endlessly with a self-centered inventory of their own inferiority in an inverted pride.

They will also become entrenched in their own enculturation and set up mortars with which to shell those in other cultural molds. Alienation from other races, political persuasions and the kids with their long hair will be badges of honor for them. They will take good principles and sound doctrine and affirm them in a way which attacks and hurts other unnecessarily. Confronted with a change in the church’s program, their response will be a frantic clinging to past precedents: “But we always did it this way.” Their church life is a desperate effort to maintain allegiance to a Leviticus written forty years ago. Their ability to follow Christ in to constructive change is severely limited by their bondage to cultural supports for their insecurity. I suspect that this portrait applies equally to Evangelical and non-Evangelical churchmembers. In the case of the former, it is no wonder that their word for the Evangelical faith is “conservatism.”

Pastors will often find that those who have risen into leadership (or thrust themselves into it) within the congregation are persons in this state of insecurity and bondage. Lay leadership is frequently so bound by cultural defense mechanisms and prerational conditioning that it is unable to “contend earnestly for the faith” in the liberty of the Holy Spirit. Hence even those who aim at good goals and try to follow the Spirit in their behavior end up handling situations in the flesh because of their domination by unconscious compulsions. A typical example of this in current church life is the lay leader in a church judiciary who, confronted by ministers promoting the ordination of homosexuals, publicly explodes like a tin drill bit hitting steel, throwing fragments in all directions.

Confronted with this kind of violent reaction when they seek to mold their congregations into instruments of evangelism and social healing, pastors gradually settle down and lose interest in being change agents in the church. An unconscious conspiracy arises between their flesh and that of their congregations. It becomes tacitly understood that the laity will give pastors places of special honor in the exercise of their gifts, if the pastors will agree to leave their congregation’s pre-Christian lifestyles undisturbed and do not call for the mobilization of lay gifts for the work of the kingdom. Pastors are permitted to become ministerial superstars. Their pride is fed and their insecurity is pacified even if they are run ragged, and their congregations are permitted to remain herds of sheep in which each has cheerfully turned to his own way.

The dissatisfaction of the rising leadership among youth with the traditional from of the institutional church may well be simply a refusal to enter situations which will inevitably stamp them into this kind of mold. Many of them would much rather enter communes of younger Christians who are uniformly oriented toward mission instead of pursuing it haphazardly as a sideline while devoting most of their energies to the rat race  for success. Since the finest leaders among our children are determined not to play in this kind of game, the churches are going to have to change if they want to retain this leadership.
     

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