I had Cheryl Ramurath contact me from Joburg recently, and after reading the book she asked to interview me with the view to seeing it published somewhere in the near future. In the meantime I thought I would post it here for those of you who are interested. It’s a bit long so I’m posting it in two halves, but I hope in here you find some answers to your own questions. If you want to read part 1 first, click here. This is part 2:
How have readers responded to your book? Have you come across many others who cannot go back to “church-as-usual” but are stumbling in the inbetweeness of “church unusual”?
There have been a few who are very angry that I would ‘out’ the church, or be negative towards the church in any way. In fact I even had a local church here in Cape Town preach a whole sermon about how I was a ‘False Prophet’ in need of a good shunning. But I think this comes down to a lack of understanding about what I’m doing. I see criticism as good when we’re off the mark. It means we care. The prophets did it. Jesus did it with the religious leaders of his day. In fact throughout church history there have been a constant stream of prophetic voices. From St Francis of Assissi, to Luther, to Bono; they call the Church back to its purpose, and we need these voices because apparently we’re easily distracted.
Richard Rohr (one of our contemporary prophetic voices) says that, “the Church has always needed a 2 party system to keep it honest”. This has been the tension between the priests and the prophets; between the ‘institutional leaders’ charged with maintaining the status quo, and the ‘loyal dissidents’ who challenge us to be better. It’s like the two reins in His hands which provide the necessary lateral tension to keep us on the right track.
I often feel this ‘knee-jerk’ reaction comes without seriously considering the content of what I’m saying, so I don’t take it overly seriously.
There have also been those who have never really had much to do with church who have responded to the simple language and easily accessible concepts which are presented in the book. Our church language can be so soaked in cliche that anyone not familiar with the rhetoric can’t access the ideas at all. The biggest compliment I’ve had was from someone who said, “I’ve always been anti-church, but I would actually attend a church if it were the way you described at the end of your book.” Some people have realized that their bad impression of the church doesn’t necessarily come from the fact that it’s rubbish, but more likely comes from the many bad examples of church out there on public display. Unfortunately in my experience those ‘bad examples’ shout the loudest.
I love that this book is giving people the impetus to rethink things; God, church and life at large.
There have also been church leaders who have pulled me aside and thanked me for the questions the book raises. One local leader said he took the book to his leadership and read through it together, writing down the questions which jumped out to them, and then made some big changes to the way they do church. That’s first prize for me. The point isn’t that people just run away, but rather that they make an attempt at challenging their church to change the things which need changing. Obviously there is a good and bad way to do this. I’m not encouraging that they become reactionary pain-in-the-asses, because that changes nothing. But I think it is time for people who see the holes to begin asking the questions of their own leaders. Being better has to be more important than being comfortable.
I also meet an ever-growing number of people who just can’t do cookie-cutter western church anymore. They are frustrated, and, even though they often can’t put it into words I believe it’s a God-given frustration. The most common response I get to this book is, “That is what I felt, but didn’t know how to put into words. I have felt like I was going crazy for so long, but now I know I’m not alone. Thank you.” The relief people feel is so palpable when they realize there really is great safety in numbers. I’m watching this group grow exponentially at the moment and wondering what will come next. What will these people do? What fresh expression of church will they bring, because I believe the next shift will begin with this bunch? I’m involved with more and more meetings where this is the subject. Mainline church is bleeding out the back doors, but I believe it is going to spring up in new and unexpected places as this dissatisfied group grows, and bands together, and experiments, and fails, and experiments, and fails, and moves us forward.
I’ve heard the ‘mod’ vs. ‘post mod’ talk for years (in fact I wrote a whole paper on it at Seminary), but what interests me is that this talk is never coming from those who we would place in the ‘post mod’ category. It is always coming from those on the ‘mod’ side of the fence and, to my ears, it has a defensive undertone to it.
I know there is a shift going on. I know that modernity has been shown up for a sham. Two world wars, the aftermath of colonialism, ever widening gaps between the rich and poor, and the recent financial crisis have opened our eyes to the fact that what we have built doesn’t work in many significant ways.
The same is happening in the church. We are opening our eyes to the holes of our modern churches. We don’t believe the way we do church answers the real questions of life, the universe and everything; and rightly so, because it doesn’t. Much of its energy now is spent trying to defend its position and methodology (sometimes with church leaders sitting congregants down on the couch and reducing everything to belittling talk about this ‘postmodern fad’:).
The other side of the coin though is that this is nothing new. The world, and so church, is always changing. We are always transitioning. The reformation, the east/west split, the puritan movement, the charismatic revivals of the last century; all these things speak of flux.
I actually wrote a post a while ago speaking about the Rhythm of change which happens in church, which will give you more on this. Check it out if you’re interested.
It might be necessary to say (and I wish I had thought to say it in the book) that I’m not suggesting that church as we know it will fall apart either, or disappear altogether. The Eastern church is still going strong after the East/West split of the last Millennium. The Roman Catholic Church is still going strong after the 1500′s Reformation. I just think that the forms of church we have at present don’t connect with the present generation (or likely future ones) and that church will have to change and branch out again. The feeling that I get is that this ‘branch’ will be returning this time to something older, something simpler… almost as a reaction to the complex structures we built in the Enlightenment Era, which ultimately didn’t work.
I think the whole point is to make sure that you are seeing the bigger picture, the bigger moves God is making, and asking us to make. Too often though, those who are playing with dualisms like ‘modern’ and ‘postmodern’ are oversimplifying the real shift which is taking place in an attempt to protect their position. In my mind this is why ‘postmoderns’ don’t speak about ‘postmodernity’. For me it’s too simple a label.
(On a side note: it’s also not a great idea to try and identify something by what it’s not:)
So how does one who is going through this spiritual transition learn new ways of relating to God? My current struggle is that I feel stuck… I can’t to go a church anymore to ‘hear from or experience God’ but I don’t know how to connect to God in this new (strange) place that I’m in. Any pearls of wisdom to share?
Don’t get me wrong, I think there is immense value in learning from the traditions of those who go before you. But I think there is a real danger in always accepting what has come before. As I mentioned before, I think the vast majority of those who ‘attend church’ simply cut-and-paste their theology from whoever happens to do the most speaking, and he or she is often only doing a similar copy-and-paste job from the tradition in which they were raised.
At some point every mature follower of God has to think through, question, and assess how they relate to God. In this they selectively reject and affirm truths which they have always just assumed to be true; they make decisions about everything for themselves, perhaps for the first time. I am aware that most people never really reach this point, but I really wish everyone would.
I think it’s what God wants for us.
If you feel like your traditional church model doesn’t connect with you anymore, it’s probably because you’ve already started questioning and assessing things for yourself. Great. Now it’s time for you to explore, and this will take time and effort. That means reading wider than your tradition to see how people in different corners of the world, at different times, have connected with God.
Read from the mystics, the Catholics, the Greek Orthodox, the Celts, the Church in the East, and learn to assimilate Truth from all these spheres. You are now on a brave journey to build your own faith and connection with God; a path you will have to tread carefully and with great integrity. This isn’t a free-for-all opportunity to build your own new religion, but rather a broad and open posture of the heart which seeks to learn from all streams who have followed God through history, not just the one you grew up with.
Warning: it will be lonely, and most will warn you about the dangerous path you are on, and few will encourage you, but don’t despair. It’s likely they are just threatened by your freedom (something Jesus was quite in to by the way).
Those who the church called ‘heretics’, but history calls ‘saints’, are often a great place to start because they definitely went through this process. Read their stories.
But if you learn anything from these guys, you will probably learn that you’ll never ‘fit in’ to a church group again. Your theology is too broad, and doesn’t support the narrow agendas and hermeneutic of your local corner church. At some point you will have to come to terms with the fact that you will forever be a free agent. Your biggest challenge will be working out how to remain a positive influence in the global church, whilst being perceived as a threat to the local church.
It doesn’t mean you can’t slot in somewhere, it just means that you now know too much so it will be tricky, and will take a great deal of maturity on your part.
I can’t… no hang on… I won’t give you a list of new ways to connect with God, because I think the search is important. It’s a vital part of the journey, and I wouldn’t rob you of that happy struggle for the world.
All I can say is:
Keep pressing on.
And when you feel most alone, remember that while few around you will walk this narrow path, many have gone before you.
You are not alone.