Saturday, July 2, 2011

Of the world, but not in it - and no, that's not a typo

One oft-repeated Christian phrase says we are to be in the world, not of it. It’s a good phrase. Christians are meant to live in this world while still having Christian values. But dare I suggest that sometimes we seem more like people who are ‘of the world, but not in it’.

I think western society in general tends to separate itself from the world. We drive to work in cars, never having to look in the eyes of or rub shoulders with our fellow commuters and where the only communication involves a horn or a finger. We separate ourselves from the weather and the seasons, with air-conditioned houses and then complain how cold (or how hot) it is. Our food comes to us pre-packaged on supermarket shelves, where we never have to see (much less worry about) the weather, the ground, the killing of animals and everything else that helped produce that food.

The impact of suffering is diluted through television screens and minimised into five-minute segments that fail to adequately convey the grief and suffering that people out there beyond TV land are feeling. Their tears don’t stop and their hunger doesn’t end when the anchorman switches to the sport.

Christians can separate themselves from the world in any of the ways listed above. But we can also separate ourselves from non-Christians. We go to church, attend bible studies and hang out with Christian friends, all (or most) of whom have roughly the same values and ideas as we do. We hear the same advice, speak the same language and hang out in Christian world together. Often, churches have a “come to us” mentality, where people who aren’t Christians are always welcome to hang out in Christian world too, but where we fail to go out to them.

Sometimes churches send people to other countries for missionary work - which is a great thing. But do those of us who don’t go end up looking at the photos, patting ourselves on the back for supporting such a worthwhile cause and meanwhile ignoring the suffering in our midst?

There's this song I love called Not Too Far From Here. It’s basically talking about how somewhere near here there is someone crying or someone who needs help. I don’t have any statistics, but I think it would be fair to say that most of us walk by at least 10 people in any given week who desperately need someone to reach out to them. And sure, we don’t help because we don’t know. And we don’t know because they haven’t told us. And we can’t exactly go around stopping every person we see and asking if they need help. But maybe if we were a bit more ‘in the world’, if we rubbed shoulders and met eyes and communicated on a real level, we would know. Maybe they do want to tell someone they need help, but they just haven’t had an opportunity.

One of the things I love about the internet is it lets me see what is going on in the world. I know when there’s been an earthquake or Christians are being persecuted or schoolkids are being bullied or whatever. And because I know, I can care. And because I care, I can pray. And because I pray, I can be one tiny part of seeing God’s will done in that situation.

But I do wonder whether, as our knowledge of hurts and injustices on a global scale increases, our ability to recognise it on a local scale decreases. Are we too busy staring at the horror on our TV screens that we do not hear the person knocking on our door?

So that’s the not in the world part. Here’s the of the world part.

We live in a consumer culture. We live in a society that places a high value on what can be bought or sold. We measure the importance of things by the dollar value attached. We also seek to solve our problems by buying things. Feel too cold? Buy a heater. Got grey hair? Buy a hair dye. Got acne? Buy this skin product. Not feeling sexy enough? Buy this body spray. Feeling depressed? Buy this vitamin.

Not getting the spiritual results you want? Buy this Christian DVD.

Now I’m not suggesting that Christian books or DVDs are bad. I love Christian books. But I do get annoyed when people say, if you just get this book or DVD, your life will be changed (or blessed). Because it’s the same message we hear from TV every day. Got a problem? Fix it with this product.

And from the church I want something different. I want to see people who place more value on spiritual riches and relationships than they do on material wealth. And I actually want to see a church that doesn’t want to solve every problem, but that seeks God and sees him working in the midst of our problems. And I also don’t think that churches should be about selling themselves (or God) to unbelievers, where God is made to sound that the best new product on the market and the quick-fix that will instantly give us everything we want.

Yes, God is good. But we must remember that suffering and persecution receive a lot of space in the bible. And we shouldn’t leave them out of our churches just because their brand value is low.

This isn’t a dig at any specific church. I don't know of any individual church that really does live completely of the world, but not in it. But I think with all churches the temptation is there, the temptation to isolate ourselves from nature, suffering and the wider world and to embrace a Christianity that involves just buying the right products and reflecting the market-mentality of wider society.

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