The World in the Church 2: Ordinary World, Ordinary Church?
October 22, 2015
My first article began with the observation that Satan ambitiously aims to attack the church at the very points that are intended by God for its defence. He seeks to bring the world into the church through its elders, and at the heart of its public worship. Having considered the growing problem of distractedness, in this article I turn to reflect on the desire that Christians can feel to demonstrate to the world that they are normal, and the resultant risk of churches becoming like the world at just the points where they should be different.
Apart from a few eccentrics who like to stand out from the crowd, most people feel a powerful desire to appear to be normal and not too conspicuous. Think back to your days at high school. When I was a teenager in the 1980s there were some who listened to the fringe music that was passed around on bootleg tapes, but most were into mainstream groups like Madonna or U2. There were a few Goths who looked obviously different from the rest, but most of the boys didn't dress all in black or wear purple make-up. Some burnt joysticks and wore patchouli oil, but most smelt of Denim or Lynx. And of course even the more far-out boys were conforming to the norms of their own group precisely by not conforming to the rest. It is a safe generalization to say that few like to be thought odd, and those who do usually want to be odd in a cool way, rather than simply weird.
In thinking through their witness to the world, Christians rightly ask if they are appearing to be different from their non-Christian friends and neighbours only in the ways that they need to be different. Conscious that we are bound to be different in certain respects, we seek to minimize our difference where it is not essential. We do not want to be different for different's sake, but for Jesus's sake. This is a proper concern, because there is a danger that we put people off the gospel by associating it with a weirdness with which it ought not in fact to be associated, and with which it has not been associated by God himself. Where we can, we aspire to some kind of normality. Normality is of course only ever defined by a subgroup of society, but it is a kind of normality nonetheless. Perhaps the world has many definitions of normality, but have them it does.
What does this concern for normality look like when it is applied to public worship? In services it manifests itself in attempts to make visitors, especially non-Christian visitors, feel as comfortable as possible. It is worth pausing to note that it will only ever be a subgroup for whom a service can be made to feel relatively normal, no matter how polished the attempt. Just as there are many normalities, so the church seeking to be normal will only be able to align itself with one such definition. Typically the favoured subgroup is the young: services are far more commonly spoken with the accent of youth than of maturity, a choice reflecting the worldly phenomenon of prioritizing youth culture.
Some churches self-professedly seek desperately hard not to put people off in any way, making the principle of welcoming the outsider the dominant in designing their corporate activities. This is not quite the place that the apostle Paul gives it in his comments in 1 Corinthians 14:23-25: 'If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter...'. Let me put that more plainly: 'not quite' from the pen of an Englishman means 'not at all'!
Everyone who grasps the gospel grasps that there comes a point where it offends the unbeliever. The problem is that we are easily inclined by the culturally hostile context in which we live to seek to minimize the areas in which that offence occurs. I suggest that the worldly desire not to stand out from the crowd may have led us wrongly to reduce the offensiveness of the corporate worship of the church. This tendency is at its most obvious if we have guest services designed to welcome the outsider. At that point, our desire to appear normal is at its height.
At what point are we to offend? The obvious answer is that the offence must come only with the verbal message of the cross. This is what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:18: it is 'the word of the cross' that he identifies as 'folly to those who are perishing'. This seems plain enough. In Paul's teaching the message of the cross itself that is the offence because it speaks of a man under the curse of God (Deut. 21:22-23; Gal. 3:13) and holds him forth as the Messiah.
On this basis, we may conclude, we should identify the moment of offence in our corporate worship as the moment in which the preacher testifies to the cross. Other parts of the service we can safely make less offensive to the outsider, and even other parts of the preaching too. It is specifically the moment when the cross is preached that the offence comes.
Thus we may seek to explain to visitors what we are doing as we go through the service by emphasising that most of it is really very normal indeed. Perhaps we might sing that 'prayer is like a telephone' and tell them that it really is just that, a normal kind of conversation. Or we might point out that people meet in book clubs to study novels much as we study the Bible. Or that folk at football matches praise their teams as we praise God.
Such normalization misses the uniqueness of Christian worship. Prayer has in common with a telephone that it involves speech and communication, but it is rendered rather different by being speech addressed to almighty God through his Son and Spirit! That renders it rather unlike a telephone. The Bible is a book, but it is a living book breathed out by almighty God by his Spirit and about his Son. It is thus different from every other book. And praising God may bear the broadest generic similarity to praise in general, but it is praise composed of truths about almighty God and addressed to him. What is more, it is only possible for us to pray to God and praise him because of the work of Christ in opening the way to the Father: the preconditions for prayer and praise are totally different from the preconditions for telephone calls and football stadiums.
This kind of reasoning about the differences between common human activities and corporate worship is actually not negated but entailed by Paul's argument in 1 Corinthians 1. While at first glance he seems to limit the offence of the gospel to the preached word of the cross, it does not take much thought to realize that the word of the cross is not solely present in corporate worship when the preacher explicitly speaks of the cross. It is very striking how Paul extends the offensiveness far beyond the message to include even the people themselves: 'Consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong' (vv. 26-27).
Paul's logic is striking: the nature of the people reflects the nature of the message. The foolish message produces a foolish church. The Corinthians themselves embody the offense of the gospel, because in their foolishness and weakness they are a cruciform people. The Corinthian church is a cruciform church.
How much of the church's life is cruciform? Is not the whole Christian life cruciform? For Paul, the cross stands at the very juncture where the believer meets the world: 'Far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world' (Gal. 6:14). Notice the double crucifixion: the world to Paul, and Paul to the world. If you look from the world to Paul, you see through the cross: if you look from Paul to the world, you see through the cross. Nothing gets past the cross in the believer's interaction with the world. His very life is cruciform.
And therefore, we may deduce, the life of the body is cruciform too, which means that its corporate activity is all cruciform. When the church is functioning properly, when it is fully cruciform, its whole life looks foolish and weak to the world, not just a part of it.
Now don't get me wrong. I don't mean that we should try to do odd things to make people feel uneasy or uncomfortable. For example, I think it is a mistake to ask a congregation to pray in twos or threes during public worship when there are visitors in their midst. That is the wrong kind of foolishness: it unnecessarily puts a visitor on the spot. There are wrong, superficial kinds of offensiveness.
The cruciform offensiveness of the church is deeper than that because it arises from the fact that the cross is present in all we do. When we pray, for example, what we do is extraordinary because we pray on the basis of the blood of Christ who has opened the way to the Father. We can pray because he died and rose and ascended and intercedes. When we sing, we are praising the lamb who is worthy because he was slain. When we celebrate the Lord's supper, we remember and share in his death. The whole experience of worship should - in the precise sense of being cross-pervaded - be foolishness to the unbeliever.
In short, we should seek to share not the normality of the world but the scorn of the cross. The ancient graffito of Alexamenos worshiping his crucified donkey God is not just saying that Christ is foolish: it is saying that Alexamenos himself is foolish. What kind of a fool worships a crucified God? The worshipper stands with the worshipped.
We may think that by removing the offense and making all of our corporate worship apart from a portion of the sermon as normal as possible we will be able to make the gospel more approachable, more appealing. But we can't. If we try to, we do not even achieve what we are seeking to achieve. We do not help the unbeliever, because we deny both who we are and who Jesus is. By narrowing the cruciform life of the church to a brief passage in the sermon we rob the whole of our corporate life of its power, because it is only as it embodies the word of the cross that it has any power, because it is that word which is 'the power of God' (1 Cor. 1:18).
Dr Garry Williams is Director of the John Owen Centre at London Theological Seminary, and Visiting Professor of Historical Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia). His new book is His Love Endures For Ever: Reflections on the Love of God (IVP in the UK, and forthcoming with Crossway in the USA), in which he tries to put into practice the idea of theological meditation. These four articles are developed from a talk originally given at a Proclamation Trust conference