“People no longer want a life lived in respect of external roles, duties or obligations,” Paul Bickley wrote in an article for Theos earlier this year.
Consumer capitalism, which trains us to expect the world to be fine-tuned to our expectations, has intensified a change already under way in modernity. To use words attributed to St Paul, we are increasing philautos, lovers of ourselves.
Under these conditions, churches and other religious institutions are bound to suffer. Too much of their life is given, immutable and inflexible.
Thus far I agree. It’s hard not to.
But Bickley continues,
The good of the community comes before the good of the individual. … [T]he values of Christianity are those which subsume the good of the individual into the good of the community: endurance, patience, gentleness, service, humility and so on.
This is an idea that seems to have become something of a given in discourse about the place and functioning of ‘religion’ in public life. It’s an understandable perception: Christians do place a high value on community. We do seek to love one another, and when ‘religion’ is under fire we are quick to point out the hospitals, schools and other institutions set up in the past by Christians motivated by their faith to help others, alleviate suffering and seek social justice. As someone once said (I’ve seen it variously attributed to CS Lewis, Archbishop William Temple, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer), “the church is the only organization that exists for the benefit of its non-members.” While it is indeed a function of the church to benefit its non-members, and a call on Christians to love their neighbours and serve their communities, I submit that in fact this is an outworking of our core purpose, not a purpose in itself.
Isaiah gives the clearest indication of what our core purpose is, what it was we were designed for:
Bring my sons from afar
and my daughters from the ends of the earth—
everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made. (Isaiah 43: 6-7)
The Westminster Catechism states that “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever”, thus the ‘values of Christianity’ are those which subsume the desires of the individual not into the good of the community but into the glory of God.
Those values might include “endurance, patience, gentleness, service, humility and so on”, but if their aim is the flourishing of the community rather than the glory of God, we will both increase our risk of burnout and disillusionment, and fail to give God what he is due and what he asks of us.
In a recent article Matt said, “The whole [biblical] story is about God saving and preserving a people for himself.”
Yes, he sets those people a mission to bless their communities, but as Liam pointed out, the mission is not the end goal. We’re not bringing them into the church just so they can live a more blessed life (what, that’s not your experience of the church? Odd…!), but so they can worship (i.e. glorify) God:
[If our] mission is successful and we see many new people come to Christ and join our churches; and if our churches are not worshipping regularly and deeply – how will the new disciples ever become worshippers? And if they don’t, then what was the mission all about anyway?
It is not surprising that some expressions of the Church (most notably in the West) are struggling to attract recruits if their invitation is to a place of “endurance, patience, gentleness, service, humility and so on”. Yes, we are to do good works – it’s all part of loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and our neighbour as ourselves – but the end goal is not for our neighbour’s blessing, comfort and aid, it is “that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matt 5:16)
John Piper put it like this:
The supreme goal of God in history from beginning to end is the manifestation of his great glory. Accordingly our duty is to bring our thoughts, affections, and actions into line with this goal. It should become our own goal. To join God in this goal is called glorifying God. The way we glorify God is first to delight in his glory more than in anything else and be grateful for it. Then as a natural result of this joy in God we experience freedom from selfishness and are moved to seek the good of others. Thus love becomes the chief means by which we join God in the open display of his glory, and accomplish his goal in history.
That’s still a challenge for our consumer-capitalist culture, whose focus is so resolutely on the good of the self, but it’s far more compelling than a call to humble, patient service – and more biblical, too.
This post first appeared on ThinkTheology.
Picture Credit: Reach out for the skies by Madiator