Saturday, March 05, 2011

Foundness is the Difference-Maker, or The Church is a Galilean Hillside

It has long been my contention that the church in America has too often positioned itself as a kind of local pool of Bethesda (John 5:2-4) to which people are invited to come and receive healing (or at least therapy), rather than a kind of hill in Galilee where we are invited to sit and hear the master teach us about the Way (Matt 5:1).

There is not an absolute divergence between these two attitudes, of course. I'm certainly not dismissing healing ministry out of hand. I'm only suggesting that, as we look at the pool of Bethesda story in John 5, for example, we ought to be encouraged to read it not as folks who need healing like the people gathered at the pool, but as followers of Jesus, his disciples, watching and learning as Jesus demonstrates Kingdom realities.

I think that much preaching is in this mistaken mode: appeals to the broken and hurting in which (or, because) everyone is defined primarily as broken and hurting. Thus, Bible texts are chosen for their ability to comfort the broken and hurting. These turn out to be the most successful sermons (that is, they elicit the most emotional response) and so the preacher learns to return to the theme frequently.

In all this it is not disciples who are being addressed, but simply folks with problems.

But hey, isn't everyone broken and hurting? Even disciples? Yes, yes, but what I have noticed is that this sort of preaching winds up having the effect not so much of healing them than of encouraging people to continue to self-define as victims. Just what the wider culture does! It's as if this self-definition (hurting and broken victims) were inescapable, and church then becomes primarily a place of momentary solace or an interlude of hope rather than a place of equipping.

See, I think there is a whole lucrative industry out there (both in the Christian branch of capitalistic enterprise and the non-Christian) which rests on the recognition that if you can keep people self-defining as needy, you can sell them the latest solution (which is usually nothing more than snake oil). The thing is, I-once-was-lost-but-now-am-found must mean something! Foundness is a glorious difference-maker. It is a self-definition closer by far to the NT view of the believer than that of needy one. Though I remain seriously bent (for the Kingdom has not yet come) this is no longer my primary way of thinking about myself. My primary way of thinking about myself now is healed (for the Kingdom has come).

There is a great need for healing in the world. As Jesus walked the roads of Palestine, he healed many, but it should be noted that the disciples were not the ones clamoring for healing. They were the ones who, defining themselves primarily as Jesus-followers, desired to learn his ways and then go practice them. When Jesus gathered his disciples to himself, it was not to simply offer them solace and commiseration, perhaps even a miricle healing or two, but to teach them Kingdom truths. For example, take a look at the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew and the Upper Room Discourse in John.

I'm still searching for a church. I mentioned here that advice-dominated preaching is one thing I'll be trying to avoid. This is another: preaching that treats me as the helpless victim rather than Jesus-follower.


nance marie said...

you are not alone in your search/need/desire/questioning...

jeff weddle said...

The constant preaching to the "broken and hurting" is misguided primarily because most people are truly not broken and hurting. They may be physically, emotionally or mentally hurt and broken, but very few have ever been spiritually broken. The true broken and contrite heart.

The fact that pastors meet the brokenness with psychology proves my point. The problem is that more people need to be broken spiritually and this often comes through truly prophetic preaching of the Word. We need that.

Bob Spencer said...

You make a valid point, Jeff. I would say it's a matter of how we "primarily" identify. In other words, there are many things I can say about myself, but in a given interaction, how do I primarily self-identify. In the workplace, as worker, in the grocery store as shopper, and at church, perhaps, as hurting one.

But the alternative is not "healthy one," or "got-it-all-together-dude." Nor is it, primarily, "sinful one," since that is no longer how God identifies me. Maybe it's saint, or maybe it's disciple, or maybe it's "son," but the preacher's pre-set seems often to be needy one for whom he has just the right therapeutic response. This is not how Jesus talked to his disciples. That's my point.

This doesn't exclude your point about prophetic preaching that speaks to the need to be spiritually broken. Blessed are the poor in Spirit, Jesus said, but certainly no one could understand what that meant until Jesus lived it on a Roman cross, and it's still the hardest thing to "get." We keep begging our preachers to make us feel spiritually rich!