Common People

So I was having this discussion (in a taxi headed downtown…) in a coffee shop with a friend, Mostly about Christianity. All the things that piss us off about ourselves and the church and the world we live in. We end up talking about the gap there appears to be between the type of Christianity we see in our church – Bible centred, mostly cerebral, a lot of consideration and understanding, by a mostly highly educated group of people. Contrasted with the normal everyday society of a working class housing estate – educated as little as possible, where books, never mind the Bible have any role, where reaction is more important than consideration, who dance and drink and screw, casue there’s nothing else to do.

This begs two questions.

1) is the Christianity I describe what should be called ‘compulsory’? Is a love of study and theology and a grasp of the finer aspects of the five points of Calvinism what we need to be looking for in a believer?

2) if not, what type of church do we end up with and how should we do it? Together or separate? And how does this affect how we reach all the people in the working class housing estates.

Now there is enough in the two paragraphs (in which I have made huge generalisations and ignored many important points) preceding to spark all types of debate and controversy. That even may be the point. But I will try to explain a few things.

I grew up in a pleasant, safe (though not leafy) housing estate on the outskirts of town. Born to two first generation professionals, one of whom even had some form of degree, well a teaching certificate at least, and Da had 3 O-levels and some gnarly side burns so all’s fair there….

I was loved and nurtured and educated, both at home and in school. I was amply provided for and raised in a stable, loving and caring environment. Churched from a young age and taught the value of hard work, honesty, integrity and what would have been called moral values. Though perhaps I was just indoctrinated by a bunch of fundamentalists and projected some horrible Oedipus complex. I’m not sure. You choose.

I have been educated to a tertiary level and am a qualified professional in a very well paid and respected job with career possibilities coming out of every orifice. I am, by any stretch of the imagination, a golden child, one of the luckiest people on the planet.

There are now over 6 billion people on this planet. Most of whom without a toilet or running water, many of whom who die before the age of 5 from (what would be in our society) entirely preventable diseases. Many go hungry. Many can’t read. Few drive a car. Few have electricity to their home. Even fewer have used the internet or listened to a CD or read a book. Even fewer have been on an airplane to another country.

In terms of standards (education, finance, health, opportunities, safety) I’m somewhere in the top oh… 0.001% of the population of this planet. The white, middle class, Protestant male is the top of the food chain. Mostly by clambering on top of everyone else to get there, but I have no time for history.

If you are reading this then you are a) probably lost, b) full of perseverance to make it this far down and c) probably in the top few percentage points along with me.

On the other hand if I was born in a sink estate in Belfast, or in any city of any industrialised nation, I could well be an unwanted child of a teenage parent, with no father present. With an unstable family upbringing, few opportunities, an early entrance to anti-social and criminal behaviour, becoming heavily involved in alcohol and recreational drug abuse as a way to escape the awful pain of being alive and falling just short of the higher percentage points of human existence.

I draw generalisations to make a point. We are exceptional. Not in the BUPA advert type of a way, but that life is, in general, for the majority of the population on this planet and in this country, in this town, a conveyor belt of fear, pain, misery and death. I got lucky, though I in no way I believe I ended up with who I am by luck but you know what I mean.

I am a thinking Christian. I read books, I have vague notions of artistic appreciation and creativity. I need to understand my faith. To understand something of what expiation, imputation and sanctification mean. I need to question what my faith means, not even always finding satisfactory answers. I need to understand why I am what I am, why I do what I do.

Does this make me a better a follower of JESUS CHRIST?

The question I think should be this: does this make me a better follower of JESUS CHRIST?

It is subjective. Surely it must be. It would be anathema that GOD would create a faith accessible only to the top 0.001% of the population. Aren’t we to become like children in our faith? Heaven will be largely full of people who never learnt to read (assuming this whole shambles of a universe is called to a close sooner rather than later).

The gospel message is simple enough for a child to grasp and believe. Yet complex and deep and meaty enough to dedicate many of the finest minds of humanity into dedicating their lives into its understanding and unpacking.

So it seems clear that I’m not right about everything. A shock to us all I know…

I mean that how I relate to GOD will be different from how you will relate to GOD. That somehow GOD is glorified even in the variety of our personalities and our intellects. That the faith of a peasant believer in India (note how he is not simply a believer but a ‘peasant believer’, because I believe a delusion that my circumstances are normal, and his are in someway exceptional and deserve the preceding adjective) brings equal, if not greater glory to GOD. The first shall be last and the last shall be first.

So perhaps that’s question 1) dealt with, in the smallest and most superficial form of course.

As for what our churches should look like then I have only begun to scratch the surface in my own mind. For now I’m more concerned with how that affects our evangelism.

Most of us are strategic about our evangelism. Trying to get the best understanding of the culture to which we are preaching the gospel. As a simple example, when I was in Malawi a few years back, we had to do some ‘preaching’ in church on a Sunday morning. Often it consisted of little thoughts from the psalms. In a burst of enthusiasm I got our translator to translate my psalm to English from his Chichewa (the language not the Wookie from Star Wars) Bible. I soon realised that there are no deer in Malawi and therefore my psalm had been modified to ‘As the giraffe pants for the water’. There are cultural barriers to be crossed. Most much more complex than this.

This town is divided by all kinds of barriers. Most obviously by that which cost the lives of 3000 people in the past 30 years. I rarely call myself a Protestant (though I indeed sign up to the doctrinal statements) but a Christian. But I can’t ignore the fact that I am a Protestant and the person I am speaking to is a Catholic. I cannot close my eyes and pretend the issue is not there. It is. I need to busy myself with dealing with it.

I have a secure and well-paid job. You are on income support, with no qualification and indeed no motivation to work. The simple and inevitable conclusion is that if you sign up to what I preach then you will become like me. Though the even scarier conclusion is that you need to be like me to sign up to what I preach. I cannot ignore this.

It is vital that we understand the significance of the barriers (and sometimes opportunities) that stand between human cultures. CHRIST was undeniably Jewish and preached to an almost exclusively Jewish audience. Paul spent his time with gentiles on his journeys, indeed in Athens he grasped and understood the culture of debate and pantheism that surrounded him. The consequences of the tower of Babel did much more than simply separate us in terms of language.

A ‘one size fits all’ Christianity does not work. The world is not full of Christians like us. I in no way want to come across as a lefty universalist, let’s just all hold hands and praise the Lord – that type of thing. It matters who you think the Lord is. It matters how you get to know him. It matters how you relate to him. Doctrine matters. Do not doubt me on that.

But what we are so often trying to do is make more people like us (by which I mean more people who are like us, not simply make people think we’re fun to be around). One of my biggest fears about church is that we are simply dividing along the secondary issues. That all we will be left with are groups of people united not by their love for JESUS CHRIST, but their taste in music, their age, their personality or the style of the sermon. But don’t get me started.

GOD wants disciples, wants people who love and treasure him for who and what he is. He does not want us to be making Presbyterians (though this may end up being the case) out of people. He does not want us to make Protestants (most Protestants know nothing about the reformation or have read any of Luther or what he fought against, most Protestants in this country are Protestants because it simply means they are not Catholics) out of people. He does not want us to make white, middle-class males, lovers of CS Lewis and a good self-deprecating lyric. He does not want me to make people just like me. He wants to make people, to remake people, to make them what they were meant to be. He is into making them like himself.


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