Arguably the majority of churches around the western world face the challenge of church decline. Many respond by adopting business-oriented practices for church growth. But what are the fundamentals of church?
Here's one provocative comment on this issue: "Stopping Church Decline", and picking up the idea of worship leading into mission.
From vacation discussions about LGBT relationships, legal marijuana, drunkenness, saying "crap", and much more. Where does the Christian draw the line?
Some issues are black as night, some white as light, and the edges are easy to see. But some Christians just want to make everything black and white.
A generation ago it was about dancing and drinking and dating (at least overtly). Now the Christian community seems to have bifurcated. On the one hand there is the debate on topics like same-sex relationships and marijuana which seek to stretch the boundaries of legitimacy. On the other hand there's a resurgence of interest in quasi-legalism and strict behavior patterns as seen in some new-Calvinism and reformed churches.
Unfortunately our innate action is to base much of our moral decisions on a morality from our parents, church, school and culture of upbringing. These mores run deep ... and are mostly left unexamined!
Try this: when marijuana is legal to buy, is it ok for a Christian to smoke it?
If you've automatically said yes, then how do you defend it? If your immediate reaction was a resounding NO, then was that your cultural mores speaking or your thought-through and bible-based theology?
For we have an age-old problem: between the bright-shining edge of clarity and depths of darkness, where do we draw the line? Consider the spectrum that includes coffee, beer, wine, liquor, anti-depressants, pain killers, filter cigarettes, marijuana, cocaine, and stronger drugs. All these alter behavior, our biology, and our thinking to one degree or another. Where do you draw the line when there is no biblical prohibition? And broadening the scope, what about social norms around, for example, dress code or even nudity.
God gave us his creation for our pleasure. He gave us each other for the pleasure of relationship. So grapes naturally ferment to makes intoxicating wine, nicotine is both a stimulant and relaxant, and conversation and sex are invigorating - Christians throughout the ages have deeply enjoyed all these, and been affected by these. Even different foods have different effects ... chocolate comforts the lonely!
The question is not about those obvious situations where a decision would clearly be offensive to God (like free sex and debauchery), but about all those grey areas that are ambiguous in scripture, and which Christian culture would seek to regulate. Jesus drank wine, and presumably enjoyed it (I wonder if he ever puffed a smoke?). I presume Jesus danced and appreciated the sight of a beautiful woman.
We need some thoughtfulness about how to approach this, both questioning our pre-conditioning for its biblical basis and examining our theology of, for example, marijuana (do you have a theology of marijuana?).
Of course the quick and all-inclusive answer is "What does the Spirit tell me". But if we have free will and seek to exercise our partnership in God's work (not simply being a robot), then some decisions are clearly up to us. Making the problem doubly difficult is that a weakness for one person may not be a weakness for another - so generalizing rules usually fail.
I suggest there are two broad criteria for grey decisions, which requires a deep honesty that can be hard to face, for we all excel at self-deception (and there's a prowling lion trying to deceive).
1) When one is in public the leading issue is whether I will cause my brother/sister to stumble. There is lots of direct and indirect guidance on this in scripture, for example 1 Corinthians 8:13 and 1 Corinthians 10:23-33. But even here all is not clear cut; sometimes my brother/sister needs to be challenged to think about their theology; to (re-)consider right living. As a generality, the question is not about offending someone (although that is a consideration), but am I causing someone to stumble? For example, the use of coarse language may provoke another to anger, or encouraging social drinking may push someone with limited tolerance into excess. If so, then as a Christian I need to exercise self-control and be more restrained.
2) In private the decision becomes more difficult. Can I get drunk alone? And when am I drunk? Is it that comfortable floating feeling after three glasses of wine? For even a single glass will affect me and its a matter of degree. So we need to think about some nuances.
2a) Our will power is not as strong as we like to tell ourselves. The slippery slope principle applies. If you think "I can handle this", well maybe you can. But remember that you've probably over-estimated your manageable limits (pride fights honesty), and its easy to go from being in control to out of control, and not even realize it.
2b) Choices that skate the boundaries of being acceptable to God risk opening the door to things that bite. For example, a propensity to addiction, or a biological reaction to alcohol. Living outside the boundaries of one's created self raises different dangers for different people.
2c) Am I enjoying God's gift of created pleasures, or seeking to avoid God's nature? Am I simply looking for ways to justify a choice I want? Much of time we cultivate a line of thinking to legitimize something on our terms. The servant-king who calls us to serve him means for us to serve within his boundaries - and putting pleasures before purpose is a path to problems.
Now perhaps you expected me to say smoking marijuana is (not) ok? Or to provide a biblical sanction for some other activity, such as living together without legal marriage (I like that society recognizes common law marriage ... I wish the church did)?
My first answer is that I think many of these grey "issues" are automatically branded as sin without thinking through the theology, and many could actually be gifts of God's creation. So in this way I would not be judgmental over drinking, smoking, and a host of other "trivialities" that fall foul of Christian culture.
My second answer for grey decisions would be, is engaging in the activity encouraging you to be beholden to something other than God first and foremost? If so, then stop, turn around and run.
My third answer is that rules should reflect God's nature, rules do not define God's nature. Thus the definitive solution to choice in the grey is to cultivate one's relationship with God on his terms. Not a god of our making (like one of those all too common gods floating around which make us comfortable), but the God who made us.
My fourth and last answer is this: consider Jesus' approach. About the only people he was quick to judge were those who rationalized as Godly a behavior that was counter to God. Foremost were the Pharisees who led people away from a relationship with God and into a slavery of legalism. But for all the "normal" sinners, he first listened to them, engaged with them, blessed them in word and deed, and instructed about the way forward. Always with the sinner his answer was grace first. Bless, belong, believe. Lead into light. For example, consider his response to Matthew the tax collector (hey, let's have dinner together), the woman at the well (so tell me about yourself), or the adulterer about to be stoned (I don't condemn you, go and sin no more).
But for those who presumed God's authority, Jesus was not slow to judge.
Finally, would I get drunk and smoke marijuana? No, because I value my brain to keep control of my emotions lest my unconstrained feelings lead me into offense. I will enjoy some alcohol, I would even smoke if I weren't so afraid of lung cancer (I'd love to smoke a pipe). But will I judge one who smokes marijuana? No, but I would have a conversation about their relationship with Jesus. For unlike many churches, Jesus is in the grey.
In my catch up reading after the vacation, I came on this three part series. If you're up to starting your year with some brain stimulation, then I'd encourage you to read and think about what this series might catalyse in your thoughts about our activities in Cape Town.
Calling for Contextualization (Part 1)
Calling for Contextualization: The Need to Contend and Contextualize (Part 2)
Calling for Contextualization: Knowing and Making Known the Gospel (Part 3)
Calling for Contextualization: Untangling Cultural Engagement (Part 4)
Calling for Contextualization: Indigenization (Part 5)
Calling for Contextualization: Loving and Hating the World (Part 6)
Calling for Contextualization: The Contextualization Spectrum (Part 7)
Calling for Contextualization: Ruining and Recovering Relevance (Part 8)