Well I thought after my second last post I'd put the substitutional atonement thing behind me. So, you can imagine my sup rise when I rocked up to a church meeting to find out that we were going to be watching Bill Hybells speak on "the power of clarity". Seemed ok until he came to about one third of the way through the talk where he was about to summarise the entire Xn message in just two words. I was wondering what could that be... "Love God and Love others" perhaps? (the summary that Jesus used) You might be able to squeeze that into three words but not two. Then Bill did his big reveal to show the two words he had written on a big piece of paper "Substitutional Atonement". Needless to say I had some issues with what Bill had to say and whilst many people watching thought it was all great I voiced some concern and have written a quick out line of what my concerns are here for my own peace of mind.
The first difficulty was the issue of clarity and his idea that “Leaders owe people clarity”. I’m not sure that this is true. I’d like to ask clarity about what exactly? Having clarity about absolutely everything is fundamentalism at it’s worst, on the other hand having clarity about nothing is liberalism at it’s worst. Two extremes I’m sure we’re keen to avoid. If parishioners “cry out for clarity” (as Hybels suggests) is it the leaders roles to say “do this” or is it the leaders role to give the skills for the parishioners work it out for themselves?
Hybel’s seemed to be suggesting adopting a business model to church and there is certainly a lot that church can learn from the business model way of doing things. But, since business are not always the most ethical things in and of themselves there maybe things worth avoiding as well. So, my question is what parts of the business model do we adapt to church? Does the average business model give room for the spirit to speak through least qualified person and least likely person?
My quick thought is that we need to have a clarity of values and culture as a church but need to be fluid about our strategies and programs as they need to respond to the needs of the church and community.
The second brief difficulty I had was when Hybels described society as “pluralistic and confused”. I’m not sure if these two things necessarily go together. A divergent set of opinions about spirituality amongst a group of people may in fact indicate that people may have an increasing clarity about what they believe rather than a confusion.
The third difficulty is that “Substitutionary Atonement” (SA) is the key Xn message. Certainly SA is one key thread that runs through the biblical story but it isn’t all there is to Xy. SA is far more narrow than the new testament idea of grace or the Hebrew idea of hesed. By focusing on the SA thread I think we are in danger of missing out on the rich tapestry of the story of God interacting with humanity.
Furthermore, I wonder if in a similar way we reduce sin to just personal immorality. I fear that when we do this any evangelism needs to begin with convincing someone that they are sinner who deserves to die before moving onto the love of God bit.
That SA is only one thread in the overall Biblical story is illustrated in Hybel’s idea that the one question people will be asked when they die is “who will atone for your sin?” This does not sit at all well with the sheep and goats story that Jesus tells in Matthew 25.
I think an over emphasis on SA is one reason why as a church we are missing people under 30. Certainly Jesus disciples did not follow Jesus based on an understanding about SA. Since so many people seem to like Jesus but not church I wonder if we need to build on communicating Jesus rather than communicating the church doctrine of SA no matter how well it encapsulates much of what we believe.
Another problem with the “what will happen to you when you die?” approach to evangelism is that for some it can reduce Xy to an insurance policy against an angry God. All of us would still be Xns now even if we had a way of becoming a Xn 10 minutes before we die. What makes us choose to do this, I think, is far more appealing many to non-Xns than the “what will you say to God when you die?” approach.
Let me reiterate that I do not think we should get rid of SA and that I think it is an important thread in the Biblical story. However it is not the only thread in the Biblical tapestry.
My Fourth and final difficulty was that as a church “we are message centric”. We certainly have a message but are we message centric? If we are then why do we run a play group or give bread to people in need? Is it merely as a carrot to get people in to hear the message or does it have an intrinsic value of it’s own. Again to quote Matthew 25 the people who are in with God in this passage are not in because of the message but because of how they loved or served others. I’d say that as Xns we are love centric which means we serve out of love and it also means that we tell our message out of love.
Ok, that’s it. Maybe there's some deeper psychological reason why my brain seems to be obbsessed with this at the moment.