Why I don’t like going to church: Confessions of a Theologian, Part I

I’m a theologian. The study of the Bible and the nature of the Church lie at the very heart of everything that I do and hold dear. Yet, honestly, I sometimes don’t like going to church. I’d rather just stay at home, and here’s why.

First, for a theologian, attending church can be mentally exhausting. It’s my nature (and indeed the way God has wired me) to critically analyze most things. I used to feel terribly guilty about this, until one day a fellow theologian counseled me saying, “you just have to realize that this is the way its going to be for you for the rest of your life. It’s not a bad thing. It’s simply part of your calling and you just have to discover how to manage it with grace.” Since then I’ve tried to live by those words and it has helped tremendously. But still, sometimes I just don’t feel like being gracious and would rather just stay at home.

And then there’s the people.

Churchy people can be especially difficult to handle sometimes. For example, every church seems to have that one lady who lives on Planet Jesus and who believes that every one of life’s challenges can be overcome with a simple cliché and a clack of the tambourine. “You just gotta keep praisin’ brother!” Clack-ity-clack.

But when I think about these things in light of the Gospel, I’m reminded of the real reason I sometimes don’t like going to church. All of these things, the parts of the sermon or parts of the worship service which I wish were different, the people whom I wish I could change and make them someone other than who they are, all point to one thing. They all point to the reality of my own sinfulness. They declare with a load voice that I, the theologian who has made a career out of studying the Bible, have yet to fully abide by its most central precept. Namely, “you shall love the lord your god with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27; Rom. 13:9; Gal. 5:14; Jas. 2:8).

In other words, everything I don’t like about church is in reality a reflection of my own self-centeredness. In fact, the word “like” itself suggests that I tend to see church as existing primarily to meet my needs. My lack of grace toward the tambourine lady flows from the fact that I’ve never really tried to get to know the tambourine lady and understand what makes her tick. To put it simply, I’ve never really loved her as I love myself. My dissatisfaction with the music or with the sermon, though sometimes might reflect real issues that need to be addressed, more often testify to the fact that I came to church not to serve, but to be served. Odd behavior, to say the least, for one who follows Him whose whole life was described in exactly opposite terms (Matt. 20:28).

In short, all the reasons that I sometimes don’t like going to church declare with a loud voice that I absolutely need to be there. They declare that I need to continue to grow in the grace of loving others and bearing with them in their struggles. I need to discover and rediscover and discover all over again that Christian community is not just about getting fed (thought it is about that). But there comes a time when we have to stop bellying up to the banquet table and instead find our way to the kitchen, and begin to labor for the nourishment and strengthening of others.

The more I do this, the more I find that church can be infinitely rewarding.

 

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Book Review: Global Evangelicalism

global evangelicalismLewis, Donald M. and Richard V. Pierard, Global Evangelicalism: Theology, History, and Culture in Regional Perspective. Downers Grove, IVP Academic, 2014. Reviewed by Jerry M. Ireland.

Its rare to read an edited volume and find very little to criticize. This, though, is precisely the case with Global Evangelicalism. This text quite simply is an excellent introduction to the varied and complex nature of modern evangelicalism. In fact, I’m somewhat hesitant to label it an introductory work, because most introductory works tend to oversimplify. This work does not. Instead, it underscores the complex issues involved in formulating an evangelical identity, historically, theologically, and culturally. In doing so, it highlights both the strengths and weaknesses of the movement, and offers ample fodder for scholarly and practical reflection on the future of evangelicalism.

Rather than summarize each of the chapters, I shall instead focus my review on what are the important strengths and weaknesses of the work. And I will do this in light of the author’s stated goals of helping both insiders and outsiders better understand the global and diverse nature of evangelicalism.

Perhaps the best part of this work is the broad sweep it offers of the global evangelical movement. The editors have rightly chosen to extend their gaze beyond the shores of the United States and Great Britain, and included essays by some of the leading scholars of evangelicalism from across the globe, including preeminent scholars such as René Padilla and Ogbu Kalu. One might think, though, that such a broad sweep would lack in depth and detail, but that is not the case. Yes, the authors tend to present the usual suspects on evangelical definitions, theology, and history (for example, Bebbington’s quadrilateral), but they also offer some insightful and less well-known critiques, such as Kalu’s observation regarding the way in which evangelical shortcomings in West Africa contributed to the spread of Islam in that area (chapter 5).

I also found Donald M. Lewis’s chapter on “Globalization, Religion, and Evangelicalism” (chapter 3) especially insightful. His discussion of “glocalization” and the closely associated concept of “globalization from below” help show Christianity’s adaptability, its cross-cultural power, and ability to influence society at every level, and to do so not by destroying the receptor culture, but building on them and adorning them, as Lewis points out regarding the Karen people of Burma who value Christianity’s culture preserving ability. Also, Lewis highlights that some of the very things that make evangelicalism difficult to define, such as the lack of a single holy language or precise holy place, make evangelicalism highly adaptable, allowing for constant growth and expansion. In addition, missions leaders will find this chapter enlightening as it underscores the need for both urban evangelistic strategies and social activism, in light of the reality of increasingly “global cities.”

If there is a weakness to this work, it would be that I found myself wanting more, especially in regards to part III, “Issues in Evangelical Encounters With Culture.” The issue of evangelicalism and culture is, in my view, the arena for which the future is most uncertain, and so it would have been nice to have more than the two excellent chapters in this section on ecumenism and gender. For example, given that marriage equality and LGBT issues are among the thorniest issues facing evangelicals not only in the west but also in Africa and other parts of the world as well, an article on this topic would have greatly added to the volume. Also, though several chapters reference evangelicalism’s response to the poor and the need of social concern, an in-depth discussion of the prioritism-holism debate would have helped the unaware reader better understand one of the more divisive issues among evangelicals.

But these are very minor critiques, and without a doubt, the authors could not have addressed everything. Overall, this text makes an excellent resource on the global nature, unity, diversity, history, and potential of evangelicalism. For the uninitiated, it provides insightful scholarly reflection from some of the most knowledgeable scholars on this topic. For those who have studied evangelicalism in some depth already, this text too will prove valuable as it implicitly hints at numerous avenues for further scholarly study. For example, when Padilla warns of the dangers inherent in rapid numerical expansion in Latin America, and of growth apart from a biblical understanding of the kingdom of God and the mission of God, I find myself compelled to consider this statement in the African context and in reference to the often lauded growth of Pentecostal-Charismatic Christianity there.

In sum, I highly recommend this text to academics, missionaries, and to non-Christians who desire a more accurate and robust understanding of evangelicalism around the world. And, I would hope that many of evangelicalism’s critics would also read this work, as it would surely temper some of the more unbalanced and ahistorical accusations leveled against it.

Disclosure: Thanks to Alisse Wissman at IVP Academic for providing a review copy of this text. However, the opinions expressed in this review are entirely my own.