“Please understand,” Arthur said, as he returned the leather satchel to the windowsill behind him. “I don’t repudiate the idea of church. I simply need some time away from organized religion in order to clear my head and let some of my bruises heal. I’m also taking some time to review the New Testament teaching on the nature of the church from God’s perspective.”
“What needs to change before you can become an active churchgoer again?” I asked him. “Is it something in you, in the church, in the culture? What needs to happen in order to bring about a change in your status quo?”
“I know for sure that I need some time to rest and recuperate,” he answered. “I feel banged up and battered and a little disillusioned.”
“Are you angry?” I asked.
He started to respond, even made a little grunt, then looked away, as though he needed to think carefully about what he was going to say. He took another drink from his blue bottle of high-priced water.
“I guess I am, a bit,” he said, after a moment’s reflection.
“At what?” I asked. “Or at whom?”
“That’s just it. I think I am angry, but I have only the vaguest idea of who or what I am angry with. I’m not even sure what I am angry about. At the end of the day, I think it might be more accurate to say that I am disappointed, frustrated, a bit confused, and even a little sad.
“I’ve been a serious Christian all my life. I grew up in the sixties, the Vietnam War era.”
“You’re preaching to the choir, brother,” I told him.
“So you know it was a time of social upheaval. The Age of Aquarius, the era of Woodstock, ‘free love,’ and LSD. But while a lot of the kids we went to high school with were following Timothy Leary’s advice to ‘turn on, tune in, and drop out,’ I was a student in a conservative Bible college, preparing for Christian ministry.”
“Been there, done that,” I said.
“I’ve made a lot of changes over the years,” he said. “We’ve talked about that before. Every change I’ve made, every new direction I’ve pursued, has been for the purpose of increasing my knowledge of God and enhancing my effectiveness as a servant of the church.
“I never imagined that, at this point in my life, I’d feel so much like I don’t fit in anywhere. One of my former students once described me as somebody who fits in everywhere and nowhere at the same time.”
“So, would you say that your main problem with the church right now is that you don’t feel that you fit in anyplace?” I asked.
“I’m not willing to admit that the problem is altogether mine,” he answered. “It’s true that my judgment is a bit skewed by some bad experiences, but I’m not totally incapable of evaluating the state of contemporary American Christianity.”
Arthur had taken a book out of his shoulder bag a few minutes earlier, but so far he had not referred to it in any way. When he removed it from the bag, he laid it on the table face-down, so I had no clue as to its title or author. He now picked it up, then almost immediately laid it back down as another thought, heretofore dormant, suddenly emerged from the recesses of his fertile mind and planted itself in his consciousness.
“I once heard John Stott say that people don’t reject Christianity because they think it is untrue but because they find it trivial.
“That’s pretty much the thesis of this book,” he said, opening the volume to one of the many colored flags protruding from its pages.
At last, I thought. The book.
“In many ways this is not a very good book. It is endlessly repetitive at times, making the same point over and over, often using many of the same words. The author comes across as pedantic and preachy in places. He is excessively critical, insufficiently graceful, and his argument is frequently too sweeping and overbearing. He often seems to use a sledge hammer to kill a fly.
The book he was describing, from which it appeared he was about to read, is called Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church. The author is Michael Horton.
Although I had not read the book, I had read a number of reviews, and most of them were fairly positive. I did, however, read one very long review, by an author whom I respect, which was unsparingly scathing, so I was eager to hear more of what Arthur thought about it.
“Before I reject a book just because I don’t like the way it is written, I need to step back a bit and ask if the book’s main point is valid. When I do that with this book, I have to say that it is. Michael Horton has spoken prophetically to the American church.
“For example, here’s what he says in chapter one.”
The church in America today is so obsessed with being practical, relevant, helpful, successful, and perhaps even well-liked that it nearly mirrors the world itself. Aside from the packaging, there is nothing in most churches today that cannot be found in any number of secular programs and self-help groups.
Arthur licked his finger and turned a few leaves. “Then there’s this,” he said, and began reading aloud once again.
Increasingly, a younger generation that was raised on hype and hypocrisy is weary of the narcissistic (i.e. ‘me-centered’) orientation of their parents’ generation… They are also fed up with the consumeristic individualism of salvation-as-personal-improvement. Instead, they are desperately craving authenticity and genuine transformation that produces true community.
He turned a few more pages. “And this.”
My argument in this book is not that evangelicalism is becoming theologically liberal but that it is becoming theologically vacuous. … It is not heresy as much as silliness that is killing us softly. God is not denied but trivialized—used for our life programs rather than received, worshiped, and enjoyed.
Finally, he read a couple of paragraphs which Horton had taken from the writing of Will Willimon, a recently retired United Methodist Bishop and former Dean of the Chapel at Duke University. Willimon wrote…
Lacking confidence in the power of our story to effect that of which it speaks, to evoke a new people out of nothing, our communication loses its nerve. Nothing is said that could not be heard elsewhere. … In conservative contexts, gospel speech is traded for dogmatic assertion and moralism, for self-help psychologies and narcotic mantras. In more liberal speech, talk tiptoes around the outrage of Christian discourse and ends up as an innocuous, though urbane, affirmation of the ruling order. Unable to preach Christ and Him crucified, we preach humanity and it improved.
Arthur folded his napkin in half and tucked it into the pages of the book at that point, then closed the slim volume and laid it on the table.
“I have visited scores of churches over the past dozen years,” Arthur said, “from one side of the denominational spectrum to the other. Baptist churches, Presbyterian churches, Bible churches, community churches, charismatic churches.
“Too many of them gave the impression they were the religious equivalents of Sears or J.C. Penney, doing whatever they had to do just to stay in business. Scrambling to maintain their market share. Treating the scriptures as though they were the latest self-improvement manual. Going way too far to prove themselves relevant to a world system that the New Testament says is fading away.”
Arthur glanced at his watch and reached behind him for his bag. “I need to leave a few minutes early today, if that’s okay. I have to pick up my grandson from kindergarten and take him to his swimming lesson.”
“Sure,” I said. “Next Monday, same time, same place?”
“Let’s meet at my office next week, if you don’t mind, just to shake things up a bit. It’s just down the street. I’ll text you with the address.”
“That’s great,” I said. “I’ll be interested in hearing more of your assessment of the contemporary church. Especially what you think is mainly responsible for things being the way they are. If you’ve had a chance to think about that.”
Arthur grinned. “Oh, I have. In fact, I can give you my answer right here, right now, one word.”
“Let’s hear it,” I said.
“Leadership,” he said.
Then he put on his cap, shouldered his book bag, gave me a quick wave, and walked out into the gloomy afternoon. He had bought that cap in Dublin, on our trip there in 2006. One of his students told him it made him look like a character out of a Charles Dickens novel. It did, too.