The Church is generally thought of as an organisation that exists to help the world. But in the last few years it has become clear that is certainly not always the case. While there has been much good that has come out of the Church, many of the ways in which the Church has sought to serve people over the centuries has been not really been helpful at all. There is often a narcissistic streak in the Church’s message and mission and the Gospel, as many of us have been taught it, is not really good news!
So what does it mean to be a community that truly serves others, without the narcissism, judgment, and self-righteousness? And how can we each make a contribution to the world without taking on the baggage that can come with being part of a church?
This podcast explores the Church and its role of serving the world. And it invites us to participate in making the world more compassionate, connected and whole, regardless of whether we are part of a church or not.
A few weeks ago I was doing some work around colonialism and the missionary movement that accompanied it. I was exploring the impact of the work of missionaries on countries that had been colonised. It’s not hard to find evidence of negative outcomes that resulted from colonialism. Many previously colonised countries are struggling to break free of the poverty and social disruption and political insecurity that colonialism brought even decades or even centuries after independence was won. But what about the missionaries?
Well, certainly there were cases where missionaries were corrupt, self-righteous and egotistical and facilitated abuses of colonial systems. But many were devout and sincere believers who truly sought to bring a better life to the people in the ‘new world’ as it was called back then. The problem is that when we really examine the benefits of mission work in colonised countries, we often find that the missionaries provided solutions for problems that wouldn’t have existed were it not for colonialism. The truth is that many of these colonised peoples were doing perfectly well before the colonists arrived. In many cases, there were well-developed and thriving civilisations that just weren’t recognised as such by the European powers that claimed the land of these peoples for themselves.
Why do I raise the question of whether missionaries were a positive or negative influence on colonised peoples? Quite simply because the very mixed blessing of the missionaries demonstrates that the Gospel is not always good news to those to whom it is preached.
As Archbishop Desmond Tutu once described the impact of colonialism and missionary work: “When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.”
I was raised in a Church where the Gospel was viewed unquestionably as good news for everyone. I was taught that one of our primary roles as Christians is to win other people for Christ, to tell people about Jesus and persuade them to accept Jesus as their Lord and Saviour. There was no thought that doing this might not actually be good news for everyone.
I’m reminded of the old story of a missionary who told the story of Jesus to a man he was trying to convert. When he’d finished the man said, “So now that you’ve told me this story, what will happen to me if I don’t accept this Jesus of yours?” The missionary replied, “Well, then you will have rejected Christ and so you will spend eternity in hell.” The man then asked, “And if I had never heard of Christ when I died, what would happen to me then?” The missionary responded, “If you hadn’t heard about Jesus, you wouldn’t have been able to reject him. I believe that God would then accept you into heaven.” To which the man then replied, “Why then do you tell me your Gospel? It would have been better for me if you hadn’t!”
I will never forget the first time I realised that the so-called Gospel that I was taught was actually rather narcissistic. I was told that the Gospel was summed up in four ‘laws”: Firstly, I am a sinner and I need a saviour. Secondly, Jesus is God in human flesh who died in my place to pay the price for my sin and win my forgiveness. Thirdly, Jesus rose from the dead to prove he was God and that he has the power to give us life. Fourthly, If I believe in Jesus and accept him as my personal Lord and Saviour I will be saved and go to heaven for eternity when I die, but if I don’t I will not be saved and will go to hell to suffer for all eternity.
The point of the Gospel, then, is to ensure that I do whatever is needed to make sure that I have a blissful eternity rather than an extremely hot and painful one. It’s purely and simply about me—what I need and what is good for me. This is a deeply narcissistic Gospel!
Oh yes, there is that thing about preaching to others so they can be saved and go to heaven too. But in all honesty, I was taught to preach the Gospel for selfish reasons. It would show that I was growing in maturity and winning people for Jesus. It would win me glory and rewards in heaven. And it would ensure that I was being obedient to God—which is important, of course, because if we’re not obedient then we’re bad and we risk being sent to hell. So even here, there remains a strong element of self-interest in this so-called Gospel.
Honestly? I believe the world has had enough of this Gospel. It may be packaged as good news, but for the vast majority of the world it isn’t. It isn’t good news for people of other religions, or for women, or for LGBTQIA+ people, or for a whole list of other God-beloved people.
We live in a world where believing we are serving, helping and saving people by forcing them to accept our religious beliefs and practices is just not acceptable any more. Yes, we have conversations about faith—that’s great. Yes, share what you believe and why you believe it. But to claim that people who don’t believe what you do are condemned by God is not serving the world and it reveals a very small picture of God.
In the light of all this, it may sound like I’m saying that the Church should just shut up and mind its own business. But what then do we do with what I believe to be the wise and true words of William Temple, the Archbishop of Canterbury from 1942 to 1944? This is what he said: “The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members”?
I do believe that Church is called to serve the world. I do believe that faith should lead us to be involved in the world, especially where people are hurting. And I do believe that we have a calling to help our world become more compassionate, connected and whole. But I believe that we have often missed the point of the Gospel in our attempts to serve others. We’ve taken the great commission and made it “Go into all the world and make Christians, adherents of the Christian religion, of all nations.” not “Go and make disciples…”
And what is a disciple? For Jesus it was someone who lived by the values and priorities of the reign of God. And what is the reign of God? A way of being in which we seek to fill our world with love and justice in whatever way we can, helping others when they need it regardless of who they are or what they believe.
So, what does it mean to be a community that exists to serve the world around us? How do we do this free of the narcissism, arrogance, self-righteousness, and judgement that has so often characterised so-called Christian service?
And how do we deal with the burden of service—the idea that unless we’re giving up everything and brining ourselves out in service of others we’re not actually following Jesus? With all the huge issues and problems in our world it can be exhausting just trying to survive, let alone trying to make some kind of positive difference.
So is there a way for us live humbly and benevolently in our world without feeling that we have to convert everyone else to our religion? And is there a way to make some kind of positive contribution to the world without burning ourselves out or imposing our values and beliefs in others? How can we make a real positive difference with joy and love and without burning ourselves out? It’s not easy. But here are some suggestions that I have worked for me and others, and may be helpful for you. And of course, if you have any ideas, please add them in the comments and let’s help each other.
Firstly, pick your passion. One of the problems with the Church is that every church community tries to serve everyone. It’s noble and wonderful, but it seldom works, especially when you have dozens of churches in the same town all trying to do everything.
It’s actually far more effective for us all—as individuals and groups—to serve where we feel passionate and where we are able to make a real difference. Most of us have certain causes or issues that resonate with us. And if we were each to pick just one thing that we’re passionate about changing in our corner of the world, and if we were just to focus on that, the small contributions of all of us would immediately make a big impact.
Then secondly, don’t get caught up in competitive service. Don’t worry about what anyone else is doing, or if their contribution seems bigger than yours, or if they seem to be doing more. Ultimately the person you help won’t care what another person is doing, or who they’re helping. They’ll just be grateful that you helped them. So focus on doing only what you can and not what you can’t. We all want to make the world more whole, and we all do it imperfectly. And that’s ok. Doing something imperfectly is far better than doing nothing perfectly. So if you can’t recycle everything, maybe just recycle plastic. Or if you can’t get down to zero waste in your home, try to reduce your waste by 10%. Or if you can’t give huge amounts of money to some cause, just give a Dollar or a Rand or a Pound. Just do what you can.
And then finally, whenever possible, join with others. This is where the Church as a community can be magical and wonderful. When churches are working well, they do become a place where groups of people can join together to do some real good in the world. But don’t get hung up on Church. Find the people who are also passionate about and working to make a contribution in the area where you are passionate. And then join them and add your small effort to theirs—regardless of whether they’re in your church or any church. Online platforms can be phenomenal at this. One of my favourites is Avaaz, but there are so many others. So find yours.
It’s time for the Gospel to be good news again, and not the bad news of cultural dominance, control of people’s lives (especially their sex lives), and Christian narcissism. It’s time for us to seek to live as Jesus did—bringing fairness and justice to those around us however we can and treating others with love—which means doing for them what they would most want us to do (not necessarily what we think is best for them).
In the next episode, we start our journey through the Advent season. Advent is a wonderful time of reflection, reorientation, and spiritual stock-taking. And we’re going to explore some of the primary themes of Advent and how they can help us to master our inner world a little more. Join me next week for that!
But for now, that’s all I have. Thank you for your time and attention. Stay connected to the sacred. And I’ll catch you next time.
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