Philip Yancey in his new book Vanishing Grace looks at how the church has become to many, bad news, a bringer of judgment and a place of hypocrisy. He sets out ways in which we can bring about Grace once again, breathing the good news through our actions, particularly as pilgrims, activists and artists.
In your book you say:
“They [secular friends] view the church not as a change agent that can affect all of society but as a place where like minded people go to feel better about themselves.”
Unfortunately I think that for many churches that is an accurate description. Good work is done for the community as long as it does not affect the Sunday morning service in any way.
One of your own Archbishops, William Temple, described the church as a society that exists for the sake of its non-members. Naturally we honor the gathering together that may occur on a Sunday morning, for that is how the faith is passed down over generations. That is how we learn of the goodnewsness of the Gospel. In the book I list some of the “one another” phrases in the New Testament: Love one another, forgive one another, pray for one another, bear one another’s burdens, etc.
Yet Jesus told his followers he was sending them out like sheep among wolves—not hiding them in the safety of the barn. We nurture one another so that we can be equipped to go out and transform the world around us. A healthy church must have this outreach emphasis, for God knows (literally) we are surrounded by human need, both globally and locally.
I like the notion set out by the theologian Miroslav Volf. In a post-Christian society, the “head to head” proclamation doesn’t work so well. We best communicate faith by hand to heart to head. We reach out in service to others, which touches their hearts and awakens in them a thirst for the kind of grace and compassion they have not otherwise encountered in our competitive, harsh society.
People who do not fit the culture or class of “the church” are managed by people in leadership and a person has to be the right fit to do anything seen as significant.
I don’t relate well to this situation, and wonder if it’s specific to churches you know about. Most churches I know of welcome volunteers and find a place for them. It’s true that some leaders become control freaks and want to micro-manage, but in my experience they are the exception, and their churches gradually shrivel away. A grace-filled church finds room for less-than-stellar members. Indeed, who’s stellar anyway?
I love Karl Barth’s two-pronged description of the church. He holds up the church’s lofty mission: “to set up in the world a new sign which is radically dissimilar to [the world’s] own manner and which contradicts it in a way which is full of promise.” No idealist (he saw firsthand the German church’s tepid response to Hitler), Barth then added a qualifier to his description of the church: “That fellowship that goes through history in obedience and in disobedience, in understanding and in misunderstanding of the lofty good God has given us.” We bear the news of that lofty good as humble pilgrims, not as haughty power-brokers.
I have witnessed power struggles between leadership and others in more than one church, which has brought about things being said and done which were truly the opposite of grace.
So have I. And I have family members who are drug addicts, who have served time in jail, who gossip, who have sexual affairs—but I don’t separate myself from my family because of them. The church is composed of people just like me, a rather scary and humbling thought. And if you read the New Testament letters, or the descriptions of the church in the first few chapters of the Book of Revelation, it’s clear they had the same problems.
When I review the motley cast of characters that populate the Bible, characters which somehow God used, I come up with a basic principle: “God uses the talent pool available.” All we can do is ask God to work though our own flawed personalities to show a different way, the way of grace.
Right now I go to a church which is a relatively new plant. It has a good attempt at showing grace as we share our lives before and during the service and eat together afterwards. Thankfully it hasn’t had the chance to solidify yet, so…
*What acts of grace do you think are most important for ordinary church people to take hold of?
Honesty is necessary. Small groups especially foster the kind of honest interchange that allow us to safely discuss our temptations, our failings, our stutter-steps toward spiritual growth. The old John Wesley model of holding each other accountable is hard to beat.
Just as important, remember that we are growing in order to attract others to the faith and to have an impact on those around us. Think of the fruit of the Spirit detailed in Galatians: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. If we truly helped each other practice these qualities, others will take note. They’re good for us, and good for the world. We need to show the world a different way to live.
We eat fruit because it’s attractive and tastes good. From the fruit’s perspective, though, it has one primary goal: to reproduce. If I eat an apple and spit out the seed, twenty years from now an apple tree will be creating more fruit in that same place.
*What teaching would you like to see in a church striving to be a place of grace?
As I look at Jesus’ style, I’m amazed that he managed to attract the kind of people that he must have disapproved of morally, even as the “good people” of his day saw him as a threat. Jesus held up ideals that no one can reach. If you haven’t murdered, have you hated? If you haven’t committed adultery, have you lusted? Be perfect, he said, as God is perfect. That’s an unattainable standard.
At the same time, Jesus presented a safety net of grace that no one could fall beyond: not a traitor like Peter or a torturer like Paul. He appealed to prostitutes and tax collectors and the least responsible citizens of his day.
Churches tend to do the opposite. Instead of keeping those high ideals of holiness, they lower them: Well, this used to be considered sin, but now, not so much. Or, some churches raise the bar of grace: We don’t want that kind of person in our church. We need to get back to Jesus’ style: no one falls beyond the reach of God’s grace, and yet God’s grace never leaves you there. It picks you up, dusts you off, forgives you, and prompts you forward. That’s the two-pronged message the church needs.
With thanks to both Philip Yancey and Hodder Faith for the opportunity of this interview.
Vanishing Grace is a book full of realism and hope, one which has renewed my own excitement at being part of this grace journey. It’s a real joy to remember that “God uses what is available” and that means you and I.
There is an infinite well of grace available to us and for us to take up and bless others with.
You can buy your copy of the book on amazon: