I asked the friendly woman next to me what she liked about this Presbyterian Church (PCUSA). She forthrightly explained that this church was more friendly and inviting than her prior church. It felt more like family. Indeed, the first two precepts of “Mission Statement” affirmed the very thing that she was experiencing:
- Acting as a beacon of love and hope to others;
- Providing spiritual and emotional nurture in an environment of acceptance for all people.
Essentially, this was their “statement of faith” – nothing about the essence of God, sin, humankind, or salvation, just love, compassion and justice.
Claire (not her real name) had been going to a Bible-centered church, but she found it to big, impersonal, and unresponsive to her as a person:
“I wanted to volunteer for one of their ministries, but there were so many obstacles. I had to take a lengthy training course and…”
I grieved within, knowing that her experience was reflective of many Bible (God)-centered churches. They generally do not have the flexibility to be fully people-centered. Their “statements of faith” contain many Biblical specifications regarding what people must believe, in order to serve. Essentially, they have to reflect the doctrine of their church, and understandably so.
Many of us are so deeply pierced by this national tragedy - We have lost all of our older colleges to secularism – all of the Ivy League schools. Many, which remain, are deeply compromised. We have seen our mainline churches depart as quickly as the freshness of springtime, taking with them all of the stately properties, engineered by the Biblical faith. This ubiquitous usurpation has left many churches scrambling to rent storefronts or space at the public schools, from which they are now also being ejected.
Perhaps our concern to preserve Biblical orthodoxy leaves us less wiggle-room to be responsive to people’s feelings than Claire’s church, which was clearly reveling in inclusive hugs. They even seemed confident that they were embracing the light. In fact, almost the entire surrounding culture reassured them that they were walking in the light. Indeed, people-centered churches are able to go-with-the-flow of feelings, proclivities, and the prevailing culture. They are free to tap into the popular sentiments of the age.
Claire confided, “It just feels right being here. Inclusiveness seems to be the answer.” She seemed to be such a warm, caring and sincere person. It therefore hurt me to question her sense of “rightness.”
“Sometimes what feels right to us may just be the effect of our cultural conditioning. After all, in many cultures, even the mention of homosexuality conjures up negative feelings.” I tried to say this as sensitively as I could, but I knew that I was fighting against a cultural tsunami, and I wouldn’t score any points, at least, not enough.
“I think that people can be too judgmental,” she gently responded. I assured her that this was true, but that this church was also judgmental. Before the sermon, a woman announced the meeting of a group devoted to combating “homophobia.”
“This church would judge me as ‘homophobic’ and shun me. Everyone judges; everyone draws a line somewhere! No group can be inclusive of every lifestyle. In regards to the gay lifestyle, there are great, statistically-established costs involved. I therefore think that love would require us to warn and not indulge.” Perhaps I should have just called homosexuality “sin,” but I was afraid that such a judgment would readily put me out-of-step with cultural norms, and allow others to prematurely dismiss me.
I was fighting a loosing battle. I cast my prayer-bottle upon the waters, but the tsunami drove it back in my face. I recalled the lament of the Prophet Jeremiah:
- Concerning the [false] prophets: My heart is broken within me; all my bones tremble… The land is full of adulterers; because of the curse the land lies parched and the pastures in the desert are withered. The prophets follow an evil course and use their power unjustly. (Jeremiah 23:9-10)
This is followed by the Lord’s own lament:
- This is what the Lord Almighty says: "Do not listen to what the prophets are prophesying to you; they fill you with false hopes. They speak visions from their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord. They keep saying to those who despise me, 'The Lord says: You will have peace.' And to all who follow the stubbornness of their hearts they say, 'No harm will come to you.'” (Jeremiah 23:16-17)
The false prophet could always out-compete the genuine prophet. He was free from theological constraint to market his message solely according to the appetites of his consumers. They wanted to be assured that they would continue to enjoy peace and prosperity despite their lifestyles, and this was the very assurances that the false prophet would serve them. However, he had left the Lord out of his equation:
- But which of them has stood in the council of the Lord to see or to hear his word? Who has listened and heard his word? See, the storm of the Lord will burst out in wrath…I did not send these prophets, yet they have run with their message; I did not speak to them, yet they have prophesied. But if they had stood in my council, they would have proclaimed my words to my people and would have turned them from their evil ways and from their evil deeds. (Jer. 23:18-22
The false message is temporarily comforting, but it fails to bring the necessary healing. It doesn’t turn people from their evil. In contrast, love is far-sighted. It looks beyond the immediate comforts and desires to the coming tragedy and warns.
The true prophet almost always presented an uncomfortable message – one that wouldn’t feel right. The prophet would put his finger on sin - something which had to be confessed. It was confession and repentance that would bring about their reconciliation with the Source of Life.
Claire conceded that this probably wasn’t the church for me. “You have to find the church that feels right for you.” She said this in such a concerned way, that I didn’t want to dispute her assessment, but I knew that I had to.
“Claire, it’s not so much a matter of what feels right for me, but what is right before our God.” I felt her pain and cringed inside at my own words. I knew how she would receive these words – that I didn’t think that she was primarily concerned about God and truth. I had probably alienated her and failed at being people-centered, that is, Claire-centered. Perhaps, I was beginning to understand the lot of the Hebrew Prophets.