Real (2) — doctrine and practice

I’ve been aware of so-called seeker-sensitive churches¹ for perhaps 20 years.  I’ve always thought that was a worthy goal, but have come to accept that being seeker-sensitive is elusive and even over-rated.  Every church I’ve ever visited has been “churchy” — inherently not “real” and not seeker-sensitive, and therefore not attractive to most outsiders.  To some extent, being “attractive” equates to being “real.”  (No one really likes fake.  No one is deeply drawn to facades and veneers.)

I remember my very good friend Greg, when “pastoring” (or perhaps attempting to pastor, in my non-pastor-driven-paradigm church), trying to probe some of the congregation’s practices.  I took it that he wanted us to examine some of our particular veneers.  Impersonating a non-existent visitor, he challenged, “Why do they sing like that?!” (perhaps especially targeting those who had never been in another denomination’s²  gatherings).  We needed to realize how odd we were in the singing arena — not necessarily to change things there, but at least to realize who we were and what outsiders’ impressions could be.

There are many aspects of a congregation’s identity and praxis that deserve some introspection, too, and maybe some scrutiny.  Not every specific should be tenaciously guarded.

Believing the above, although I have been lonely at many points, I have continued to probe my religious heritage.  I believe the inheritance of the Stone-Campbell movement — and actually, it can no longer be classed a “movement” — is worthy of love and respect, although it has veered off some of the better courses it originally set for itself.  (If you didn’t at least scan footnote #2 when its number came up above, would you please do so now?)

journey

It strikes me now, in considering and writing about “real,” that an intersection of the doctrine and practice of 1) “The Journey” and that of 2) a run-of-the-mill Church of Christ congregation might be instructive, if not intriguing.  So, here, I’ll paste in The Journey’s web statements and offer commentary from a CofC perspective.  The CofC, as some of you know, doesn’t have a standard “faith statement” or creed — although “vision” and “mission” statements, plus some thinly veiled creeds, have been cropping up in bulletins and on websites for years.  Truth be told, there’s a tacit set of doctrines that could be seen as a baseline “creed.”  We just don’t generally hold them forth as such.³

Onward to The Journey’s “faith statement.”  I’m no theologian and not even much of a church historian, but I have enough experience in the CofC to formulate a few responses to some of this.  The original statements will be in bold; my comments will be in italics.

1.  The Journey believes that God is infinitely creative, so we express our faith in infinitely creative ways.  We’re Spirit-led without being weird and mission-minded without diluting the message of Jesus.  We’re not scared of culture or seduced by it. Our approach to church isn’t traditional, but our commitment to Jesus shapes everything we believe, say, and do.

The CofC would say most of that these days, but the nicely qualified “Spirit-led” wouldn’t have been a CofC phrase until the 70s or even 80s.  Many congregations today would still shy from such a statement, irrationally fearing that attributing leadership to deity would be tantamount to denying scripture’s instructional place.  “Hogwash,” you say?  Yep.

Not diluting the message of Jesus would resonate with most of “us” in the CofC, and congrats to The Journey for claiming, and doing (based on my limited experience), just that.  

The CofC is typically much more “scared of culture” than The Journey, and has tended not to be seduced by it.  In other words, The Journey aims to hold these two in appropriate tension, whereas the CofC has traveled the more counter-cultural path more often.  Now, to be counter-cultural can be evidence of either a scaredy-cat or a courageous man, and I’ve seen both.  Inasmuch as I’m on target here about the relationship of acknowledging and using culture (acculturating?) on the one hand, and seduction by culture on the other, The Journey is clearly more balanced.  I would also hazard that it is more relevant than most CofC groups, although perhaps not without a culture-related pitfall here & there.

Further on the “traditional” concept:  I find a sense in most CofC congregational leaders that “traditional” is not all that bad.  Some think they’re not very traditional (most of these are, anyway, no matter what they think), but whatever … most of them go through their church stuff sitting and standing comfortably within RM tradition — and in some ways within mainline Christian tradition, as well.  “Traditional” almost always, at some point, collides with “relevant.”

2.  We believe God has given us a book (the Bible) that is true and can be trusted. It was written by men but inspired by God – and every part of it points to Jesus.  Everything that’s described below may be helpful, but when the dust settles, the Bible is our statement of faith.

This statement would meet no disagreement in the CofC.  I myself would pick at minor points:  1) the Bible is better described as a library of various books/documents, not as a single book; and 2) I might have opted for “written by men who were specially inspired by God.

Pickiness aside, the idea that the Bible is the ultimate guide for faith and practice, seen here in updated, more understandable wording, certainly constitutes common ground for these two groups.  And oh, how I wish more churches would get serious about this principle.

In the eyes of cynical seekers, belief in the truth of the scriptures might smack of blindness, i.e., not being rational or real.  This is where “real” must take a back seat to relevance, though, and The Journey does a good job of not retracting.  To believe in the truth of the scriptures is to believe you have something authentic and relevant to offer people.

3.  We believe in God.  He created everything, including you and me.  He is all-powerful, all-knowing, everywhere-present and worthy to be loved with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind.

Again, no disagreement here.  (Well, OK, grammatically speaking, I take exception to the notion that we all have one collective heart, soul, mind, and strength; I would have put that in the singular or left out the “our” altogether.)

4.  We believe God is revealed fully in Jesus, who was born of a virgin, lived a sinless life, died on a cross for our sins, and was supernaturally raised from the dead.  This planet hasn’t seen the last of him.

Standard stuff, adhered to by most evangelical (not necessarily mainliners; some of those are out of the closet with their theological liberalness these days) Christians.  “Supernaturally” is a good word that gets at the heart of the matter, neither clouding it with the word “miraculous” nor skirting it by not mentioning the resurrection at all.  I particularly like the second sentence and think Paul and Jesus would smile at it, too.  This is at once an engaging, “hip” expression and a biblically true one.  Way to go, Journey.

5.  We believe the Holy Spirit is God in his power and presence, drawing people to him, saving us, and empowering us with gifts to work for him and fruit in our attitudes and relationships that testify to him.

I’m very impressed by this statement.  I infer, first, a wise, spiritual openness to the miraculous working of God.  Second, I perceive a stopping short of requiring that one must accept that God works now just as he did when initially confirming the deity of Jesus (in, say, the years 33-63 or so).

I find nothing in this statement that most thinking CofCers would disagree with.  To argue that the Holy Spirit is a definable “third” of the “Godhead” — which The Journey does not do here — is always scripturally a bit tenuous, but to affirm that the Holy Spirit is God at work is requisite to biblically based faith and practice.  

6.  We believe all human beings are spiritually lost, wandering around trying to make sense of this life and consistently messing it up.  Only through Jesus can we be found, and this is very much what God wants.  If we submit to Jesus’ leadership as Lord, we will be saved; if we continue on our own path, we will end up separated from God forever.  This is something God does not want.  That’s why Jesus came, and it’s also why…

First sentence:  check.  Second:  check.  Third (“If we submit …”):  big check.  Hold that thought, and skip the rest of this paragraph if you’re not interested in the Stone-Campbell Movement or the Church of Christ.  The phrase “if we continue on our own path” could be found in many conservative, dyed-in-the-wool CofC sermons, as the preachers attempt to paint a simplistic picture.  In other words, they want pew-sitters to believe that it’s all very easy:  1) if they continue on their own paths, left to their own devices (read:  the devices of other religious groups or their own misunderstandings of religion or the Bible), they are hell-bound.  And 2) on the other hand, if seekers will simply accept the RIGHT path (read:  the one that lines up with my opinions and interpretations), everything will be fine.  Let alone that the bulk of the given CofC preacher’s interpretations might be biblically sound; this sometimes amounts to little more than arrogant posturing.

Much better to do as The Journey has done, calling attention to Jesus’ leadership.  Leadership is a word I haven’t often seen in connection with “lordship,” and I find it both helpful and relevant, although it would be a trifle light if not accompanied by the theological underpinnings of what it means to have a Lord.

Style points there, by the way, with the ellipsis that leads the reader to #7!

7.  We believe in the church. It’s a community where people can find Jesus and follow him fully. The church isn’t perfect, but Jesus its leader is. God doesn’t want us doing this spiritual life in isolation; that’s why he created the whole church thing in the first place – and he’s still totally committed to it. The church is incredibly important because we have a much better chance of succeeding in our spiritual journey when we’re surrounded by other people who are moving forward in theirs.

The CofC would go with this, mostly.  Although on paper it would agree, it might not have thought to emphasize the imperfection of the human church.  Often, the CofC has been found (and can still be found) calling attention to its rightness, its supposed doctrinal purity.  Again letting alone that there are many right things in the CofC, and, I happen to think, more than in most other religious groups, it is downright repulsive to brag.  The CofC should get over its insistence that it is “right” and merely keep trying to restore, to reform, to draw ever closer to God’s revealed will.

The Journey gets an A for #7 (and really, for the entire series of statements).  It’s attractive to acknowledge that the church is imperfect and to call folks to community.  It’s also compelling to portray God as “committed” to church in this age.

In my next post, I’ll share some thoughts about the reality of music in The Journey church and in other, would-be seeker-friendly churches….

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¹ I’m leaving the ill-begotten “seeker-targeted” and “seeker-oriented” labels alone.  “Seeker-sensitive,” however, is either neutral or good.

² Still … STILL, there are many in the Church of Christ (or Churches of Christ, or churches of  Christ — take your pick — they are used interchangeably) who stubbornly refuse to believe it is, in point of fact, a denomination.  I don’t expect ever to sacrifice the scripture-based ideal in my heart — that there be no sectarian denominations.  The Lord’s church transcends this humanly conceived, and humanly perpetuated, group.  I happen to believe that many — perhaps most — who call themselves members of the Church of Christ are also part of the Lord’s universal church.  But, c’mon, guys, reality is that the Church of Christ, even without an earthly HQ, is a Yellow-Pages-identifiable sub-group.  It has many other hallmarks of a denomination.  Its denominational language and the obvious loyalties of some of its adherents betray its status.

³ It is not my purpose here to advocate for creeds.  Far from it.  I think creeds run the risk of superimposing man’s mob-mentality word on top of God’s.

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