My church split the other day. About half stayed where they were and the others moved down the road where they now rent a school hall on Sundays. Being a peripheral sort of member, almost an observer, I’m not quite sure what the issues were. I don’t even know if there were any issues. The Pastor who pulled half the congregation away with him tells me there were none. He maintains God told him to move. Now its tempting to be cynical, but let’s not. All of this is possible.
For some reason, curiosity I guess, I ended up at the school hall. Thinking back I suppose my inquisitive nature could also have kept me with the original group who now have to rebuild. It would have been interesting being amongst them. Possibly they had to deal with being thought conservative because they weren’t willing to ‘move on’. Possibly they just felt relief that this other group was out of their hair, and that they could get on with life. Highly likely there was a lot of discussion and rationalising and soul searching, but I don’t know. I went down to the school.
Actually I was expecting less noise during the singing. Prior to the split the stage was littered with microphones, quadraphonic speakers and electric instrumentation. The boys turned up the dials every Sunday morning and it sure covered any shortcomings from the vocal chords of the church members. The young pastor at the school couldn’t take that gear from the old church and certainly couldn’t afford a whole stock of new equipment. At least I thought not. So imagine my surprise when I arrived at the inaugural meeting and heard them tuning up from the car park. He had sold a vehicle, or been given several thousand dollars or something, and here we were in yet another electric church. Casually I asked one of the leaders how the church must have had problems before electricity was invented. He laughed politely, but then I am over forty five.
Now here’s my confession: I play the guitar and enjoy a riff from George Benson or Dire Straits. In fact in my early days, I used to play at the front of the church too. Only thing then, it was frowned on and I probably did it mainly for that reason. Because as everybody, I mean everybody, knows, the churches were old fashioned then and not relevant to the needs or direction of society.
Rock and Roll came and shocked those churches at first, but thirty years later they are its greatest exponents. The Christian pop music industry turned into a money spinner. Mind you, it’s associated commercial interests have led into sheer farce at times. Who could have imagined the Christian Jazzercise recording entitled ‘Firm Believer – He must increase but I must decrease’? But of course in today’s market oriented economy that is OK. As a sign outside one church said ‘It’s no longer a sin to make money, its a miracle’.
The thing is a few very astute people crossed my path during my formative years and they pointed out some things besides the fact you could enjoy loud music and still be a Christian. Bottom line was I got the idea Christianity was irrelevant unless it got speaking to the very sinews of society. Unless it got rubbed right into the thick and maw of economics and political machinations. It appealed to be part of a movement with the potential to make powerful interests feel uncomfortable.
Avidly I read about the Old Testament prophet Elisha’s run ins with the nobility, of Gideon’s guerrilla tactics, of Paul’s defences before the crown. I dreamed of the day when many Christians would be of the same mind, when we would bring racial equality, start appropriate agricultural development in the Third World, expose the corrupt motives of the Multinationals, and see thousands won to a personal relationship with Christ. Playing guitars at church really showed them we were moving in that direction didn’t it?
But then some terribly banal things happened. I had to work for a living, and then got a wife, mortgage and children. In that order. Meanwhile (lacking my far sighted input I suppose) the churches became peopled with powerless middle class liberals, or havens for those who could only remember their lawn bowls scores, or electric. Now this is a terrible generalization because of course no church fits any of these criteria. Ask any Pastor. His church won’t. But broadly speaking there seem to be two options available. (I say this with authority because I read an article about them in the Morning Paper). One is the traditional church which is declining in numbers, predominantly older congregations, speaking about social issues, and boring.
At the other centre of gravity are the non denominationals with growing numbers, and a younger set associated with gyrating music and signs and wonders every Sunday. Intensely on the spiritual experience side, they emphasize personal renewal, and their services are not boring. At best they hope social renewal will follow the personal, at worst they form political parties.
Contradicting myself there you say? Didn’t I dream of upsetting political machinations? What was that crack about Elisha? Well, one of the many delightful facets about the Son of God’s teaching and life here on earth was his manner of talking about a perfect society which is coming soon, but acting as though he was in it already.
And while he decried the oppression and alienation of the poor, he refused to use the traditional means of freeing them i.e. armed revolt, mass uprising, or the formation of left or right wing pressure groups. In fact he preached the love of God right into the above situations, yet somehow got stuck so much in the craw of the powers that were, that they killed him.
Now plenty of grenade throwing freedom fighters have been shot, and plenty of platitudinous well wishers have been ignored, but I can’t think of many individuals whose message of love and forgiveness got them into so much embarrassment they had to be done away with.
Our attempts to emulate this in the 2000s ended up either hanging onto institutions that nobody values, or warm (sometimes hot) encounter group type sessions. I’m just as guilty, out there grappling with the economy so my family can eat. Its hard enough doing that without getting esoteric about about how Jesus’ words speak to the heart and motives of, say, both sides of a native people’s land treaty debate.
But if we claim to be Christians then honestly we need to realise ‘Dangerous Discipleship’ (a modern term, older readers), is a darned sight more than playing ‘Christian Rock’ and wearing a Bible message T Shirt on a Sunday afternoon beach stroll.
Having heaped myself around with contradictions aplenty let me conclude by getting back to rock music and one of the more relevant LPs of the 1970s by Larry Norman, another eccentric, God bless him. His final lyrics of The Great American Novel read;
And your money says in God we trust
But it’s against the law to pray in school
You say we beat the Russians to the moon
And I say you starved your children to do it
You say all men are equal, all men are brothers
Then why are the rich more equal than others
Don’t ask me for the answers, I’ve only got one
That a man leaves his darkness when he follows the Son.