This is one of those topics that I have thought about a lot, but yet without finding the proper words. I’m ready to try now.
What I actually mean here is “sermon” in the broadest sense. Not only the Sunday morning lecture by the pastor, but including all Christian settings where you sit and listen and someone lectures you about Christian things.
I figured, if you include all the morning sermons, Bible studies with a lecture format, Christian conferences and even Sunday schools that are delivered by lecture and Christian lectures on tape, which I’ve sat through, it would add up to between 5200 and 5400 hours. I would expect that this is typical for Evangelicals of my age. This doesn’t even take into count the as many hours I’ve spent reading Christian books. But is Christianity really that complicated? I seriously doubt if any of the first century Christians, save the top Church leaders, spent this much time in study and as a "knot on a log" listener.
What brought this to a head is the Bible study, which I instigated, this past summer. My goal was to just be a complainer at my church, but to do something about the problem, the lack of close community.
Maybe the mistake was building the group around a study of the book of Hebrews. However, if I had advertised it as simply a time of drinking coffee or beer and talking about what was going on in our lives . . . then no one would have come. Plus they would have considered this as further evidence that I’m a nut case. I really believe it is because of the Dualistic view of Evangelicals. In their view, if the meeting is not about the Bible, as they would think, then it has no value at all.
The worst example of this Dualistic thinking happened when I taught Sunday school in a large church in Stewartville, Minnesota. To help with this issue of community, I would begin my class with an informal ice breaker time. This was where I would have people break up into small groups of 5 or 6. I would have each person tell something about themselves, like where they where they were born, where they were married etc. The whole time would take 5 minutes and I thought it would help to create some connections between strangers who churched together. Then we would immediately dive into the Bible study.
One Sunday, a new member attended my class. When I had them break up into groups for this “getting-to-know-one-another” exercise he literally went nuts. He stood up, the veins stood out in the side of his neck and he stomped out of the room. My wife followed him into the hallway. There he let loose his rage saying that I had defiled the house of God with a humanistic behavior.
What happened with my present Bible study was another disappointment. I was to co-lead it. When I led it, I set aside about 1/3 of the time for sharing prayer requests. The act of “sharing prayer requests” is the fastest shortcut to intimate sharing within the church setting. Not that I don’t take prayer seriously. I do. But you can’t say, “Pray for my son . . . he’s in trouble with the law” without someone asking more about it. So it really is the best ice-breaker among evangelicals.
At our Bible study, after sharing these requests we studied Hebrews. But my co-leader preferred to do things the normal, traditional way, where you spend almost the entire time in the Bible study with virtually no time left at the end for talking about our lives. That was okay, as I still controlled have the meetings.
But then I was out of town. I had a trip to Philly and then Nepal. I missed several sessions of the Bible study and others took my place in leadership. They too followed the format of almost all Bible study and no personal talking. So the theme has become, like traditional church functions, a time devoted to stiff discussion of the Bible with no down-to-earth discussion of our lives. I know of private things in several of the peoples’ lives that are not going well and I just wish they didn’t have to suffer in silence. You hear rumors about these things, usually outside of the context of our church. So, I’m discouraged again.
The second factor has to do with Sunday mornings. I picked our present church six years ago because I thought (and still think) that our pastor is a good teacher. He is as good as any pastor I’ve ever heard. But he goes long—almost an hour talk almost each Sunday. Then, following the service, he does Sunday school, which is another lecture. It’s good . . . but that’s not the point.
The point is that I find myself loathing the option of staying for the second Sunday morning hour and even now loathing my own Bible study. Why? Because I find that we are all still isolated . . . sitting in lecture form . . . listening . . . sometimes talking . . . but never communicating. I do not want the Bible study to turn into therapy sessions. But I find it odd that if people get together and one of them has a son hook on drugs, one has kids who have left the church completely and it is breaking their hears, then the next pair or struggling with serious marital issues and so on, but no one dare mention any of these things. It is ironic that the title of our Hebrews study book is “Life Changer Series.”
The pastor made the comment about the Sunday school hour that he does not understand why more people don’t “support” this important church function. But this is where the circular reason starts to come in.
It works like this. With good intentions, the church decides that we need to do a better job at training our people. So we create a program, like Sunday school or Bible study. No one wants to come because it doesn’t meet any need that they have in their real, private lives (which I think is a deep desire for personal, healing, encouraging relationships). So, naturally they don’t want to come. So, to make them come, we use guilt manipulation. We suggest that the reason they don’t come is because they are “lazy” or that they don’t have “spiritual interests” or they have “worldly distractions.” So those who do come, do it out of penitence. God will love me more if I show up. My actions will be more “God pleasing.”
Finally church people become so programmed in this way of thinking that they can’t think in any other terms. Then you reach this point, as mentioned in the last posting, of where the church is no place to “air your dirty laundry.” But it becomes a place where community becomes suspended.
Before Christianity became a religion, I think that things could have been very different. The Church was not a program, a franchise or an enterprise, but a community of people. Their relationships were the glue that held the groups together. Now, the glue is made up of programs, obligations, denominational affiliation and guilt.
So where does Bible study come in? Don’t take me wrong. Knowing good theology and what the Bible does teach is very important. But my point is, not being arrogant, but if I have not learned it by now, I will never learn it by a thousand more sermons.
When I first became a Navigator years ago we were taught a magic formula . . . as if it came from Alice in Wonderland. The X number of hours that you spend in the Bible (reading, sermons, memorizing etc.) = how spiritual your are, thus the less you sinned, the more mature your were, which meant the more resistant you were to sin.
This formula fell apart when I started seeing spiritual giants caught in terrible sins, child porn, adultery, stealing etc. My own personal fall, if you haven’t read my story form a few months ago, happened when I realized that I hated my missionary boss. I even wanted him to die. I was confused because I had considered myself as having jumped through all the Bible study hoops for 15 years prior to that.
However, it is my prediction that if you had put those same people in groups where there was great candor, where people felt safe to talk about their personal struggles, then I bet the bad choices would have been far less.
In closing this post, I wanted to bring up one more facet to this struggle. The old Mike would be very worried about where I’m at now. While then I attended every Christian meeting and lecture that I could, they still bored me the death most of the time. But still I went. If I am now considering backing off of Christian lectures, the old Mike would be certain that I was heading for disaster. But is that what it means to have spiritual interest? I want to blog more about my thoughts of true spirituality soon. This posting is getting far too long.
But I’m starting to wonder if some of the old traditional churches may have had this part right. I’m speaking of the Lutherans, Catholics and Episcopalian. What I mean is that I think we would be better off if we had a way to come together for a short time, a ritual (such as a Mass or confession) where we are beat over the head, over and over that in Christ, we are completely clean. That’s the real message that we need to hear over and over. Then, add to that, a place where we could connect and related with full candor in an atmosphere of total safety. A place where we knew that we say could anything . . . absolutely anything . . . and know that we would be fully accepted and loved. A place were we could say “my husbands (a fellow church member) is abusing me,” or, “I don’t know if I’m a Christian anymore,” and rather creating the view that we are wackos or horrible people, that we, as a community, try to find healing and resolution of these problems. That is my dream.