Any thoughtful, observant Christian should be aware by now that the Western church is in crisis. Don’t be deceived by the growth of the so-called “mega-churches” and the various and sundry “evangelistic explosions” that we see taking place. The fact is, people are leaving the faith in droves and fewer new faces are coming through the doors. Moreover, these dwindling numbers, along with our culture’s increasing negative view of Christianity, have relegated the church to a position of peripheral social influence.
Once the bedrock upon which our culture’s value system was built, the church is now little more than marginal voice in the constantly shifting tides of post-modern America. Identified by most Americans as joined at the hip with Right-Wing Conservatism, the church is viewed with increasing disdain and animosity. Traditional attempts at evangelism and apologetics only seem to make the situation worse. Evangelism is seen as an attempt by elitist Christians to ram their faith down people’s throats and apologetics is viewed as an archaic attempt to make the unreasonable make sense.
If the church is to survive, drastic changes must take place. It should be obvious by now that the old ways of “doing church,” especially evangelism, is doomed to failure.
Personally, I have come to believe that the most effective form of Christianity involves being faithful to our calling to incarnate Christ to a hurting world. This is the essence of what is often called “Kingdom living.” It is a lifestyle which, if carried out with compassion and commitment, will in and of itself draw people to the faith. It involves a simple paradigm: find a pressing social need and address it.
Put simply, it means giving flesh to grace. This is what Christ did and we are called to no less.
When people of faith express the love of God through acts of service and kindness, people take notice. These simple acts of grace accomplish far more than reasoned arguments, stadium rallies, popular seminars, and best-selling books. These simple acts of grace, especially given the church’s increasingly negative image in our culture, are the most effective forms of evangelistic activity we can engage in. It was not so different in the early church, which can serve as a model for what we should be doing.
In the middle of the Third Century a terrible plague devastated the Mediterranean world, dealing death to large swaths of the population. Many of those stricken with the disease were sent out of the cities, destined to die agonizing deaths alone and terrified. The Christian faithful, however, responded in a much different fashion. Dionysius, the bishop of Alexandria, describes the acts of grace this way:
Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting t heir pains. Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead.
Many people were drawn to the fledgling church by the acts of service and sacrifice that so typified the early Christians. I am of the belief that it is here that the modern church can find its methodology of renewal. Crafting theological arguments is not the answer in today’s post-modern culture; nor is allying the church with a political party or ideology. Withdrawing into our own “Christian culture” is equally misguided. Instead, we need to immerse ourselves into the hurts of this world and find creative ways to bring God’s healing light to those hurts. Anything else misses the point.
Paul stressed that in order to be effective witnesses for the gospel, we must become “living epistles.” We must become open letters that anyone can read and by reading, come to a deeper understanding of just who this radical Galilean was and is. It is a high calling, indeed and not one to be taken lightly. If we take Jesus’ words about the final judgment as recorded in the 26th Chapter of Matthew as true, then it should be obvious to even the most dense among us that the litmus test for defining a Christian is not belief in Christ, but in embodying Christ.
Michael Frost, in his excellent book Exiles, points out that this incarnational living is incumbent upon all who would claim Jesus as Master and Teacher:
Practicing the presence of Christ means being a living example of the life of Jesus. This raises the stakes enormously. It means that our lives need to become increasingly aligned with the example of Jesus. It doesn’t require sinless obedience – as if that’s possible anyway. It means, though, increasingly becoming people of justice, kindness, mercy, strength, hope, grace, generosity, and hospitality.
Yes, this divine calling is an invitation to a life of fulfillment and reward beyond our imagining, if we will only yield ourselves to it with complete abandon. Yet for many of us, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. Still, it is necessary to move forward as best we can, relying on the promises of God and the empowerment of the indwelling Holy Spirit. For many of us, we get better in spite of ourselves. I know that is often true in my case.
This call to emulate Christ is a call to give flesh to grace. The whole story-line of God’s Great Saga is one of proactive grace. God saw that we needed grace and gave us Christ and Christ saw that the world needed grace and gave the world us. Just pause and chew on that one for a minute. What a great honor and what a great responsibility.
As “living epistles” we have the opportunity to meet God in the divine moment, what Erwin Raphael McManus calls the “epicenter of God’s activity.” When we consistently engage in these acts of Christian kindness, we in essence become what Gary Thomas accurately calls “God Oases.” Thomas explains:
A holy man or woman is a spiritual force, a “God oasis,” in a world that needs spiritually strong people. When the winds of turmoil hit, such people become shelters; their faith provides a covering for all. By their words and actions, by the ways they listen and use their eyes to love instead of lust, to honor instead of hate, to build up instead of tear down, holy men and women are like streams of water in the desert, affirming what God values most. When the heat of temptation threatens to tear this world apart, godly men and women become like the shadow of a great rock. These God oases carry Christ to the hurting, to the ignorant, to those in need. They will be sought out, and they will have something to say.
I find this description of godly men and women highly inspirational, not to mention vivifying. Thomas’ words encourage us to sensitize ourselves more and more to God’s activity in this world and further, to take compassionate action in emulating Christ’s acts of grace and healing. In ways both great and small, we can locate that epicenter of God’s activity and get to work.
It is nothing less than our calling, our responsibility, and our honor. And in so doing, it is my earnest prayer that more and more of us can become living epistles – God oases – and give incarnation to the godly image described in Isaiah 32:2:
Each man will be like a shelter from the wind
and a shelter from the storm,
like streams of water in the desert
and the shadow of a great rock in a thirsty land.
© L.D. Turner 2010/2013/All Rights Reserved