Thursday, January 4, 2007

It's about the individual

I think the first thing I need to establish in my Angst-ridden assembly quest is, the Christian life starts with the individual. Not that it exalts the Individual in a humanistic sense, but that it starts with an individual's need: justification with God. Then it moves onto God's provision for the individual: eternal life. The vast majority of Christian struggles are individual. Take Romans 7, the archtypical Christian struggle. Who has the struggle? Not "we", but "I".

There is a sense where the Christian life is incomplete without the corporate. We have been baptized into one Body by one Spirit (1 Cor. 12:13). This is easy to overlook, especially in our self-centered culture in the West. But in the end, to focus on the corporate to the exclusion of the individual is just as much a mistake.

I think one of the problems we've developed in so-called "assembly" circles is, we've adopted the idea that we can fix assembly problems without the time, effort, and pain of fixing individual problems too.

Let's be blunt: greed, slander, laziness, and lust are rampant in Christianity today. It appears from my personal experience and observation that we have some epidemics that are largely unnoticed. Pornography comes to mind: I can't tell you how many Christian men who have admitted to me that this is a major battle for them. Me too. I understand: I make a living on the Internet, and it's pervasive, available, and so very tempting. And don't think I don't battle it too. I speak as someone who knows both the allure and the damage it does.

Or what about TV? It's hard to find a day where I hear Christians not talking about something they saw on TV. That's got to have an effect on us! We can't be living that tied into the world without it getting in the way. If you want a modern illustration of idolatry, you need look no further than the Superbowl or the Stanley Cup. Where Christians once condemned sports as "worldly", it's hard to find a group who doesn't embrace and celebrate them. Is pornography going to be accepted in the same way someday?

As I read books and articles written by the Christians of 100 years ago, I notice a separation from the world that we just don't hear about today. Not a cult-like almagamation into a subculture (think the Watchtower Society or the Amish or the Taylor brethren), but a conscience-driven separation.

I don't think the problem is that we don't know we ought not to do these things: I think the problem is that we have an unrealistic idea that we can compensate other ways. We in "assembly circles" have this idea that if we get the corporate form right, the individual problems will somehow not affect us.

I don't think we honestly expect we don't need to fix them; I think we have an idea that the correct principles and practices in gathering will somehow preserve us corporately from the individual's sins. And I think we engage in a little magical thinking that someday the individual problems will "get better".

The bad news is, it won't.

Don't get me wrong, I firmly believe Phil. 1:6 is for us today: "And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ." (ESV). It is most certainly God's work in us to bring us to perfection. It's not through our efforts that these things are overcome. On the other hand, a casual sweeping of sin under the carpet doesn't deal with it.

And perhaps the problem is not necessarily outright sin. Perhaps it's just a lack of spiritual maturity. Why are assemblies weak? Because the individuals in them are weak. We're not going to have worthwhile, meaningful ministry in a Bible Reading (for example) when the individuals aren't spending time in their Bibles. It just doesn't work that way.

I'm not saying that the Lord can't give us a word in season, that He can't give us something to say when we're sitting there. But I am saying that the Holy Spirit works by bringing things to remembrance (consider John 14:26). We can hardly expect Him to give us another revelation when we haven't bothered to read the one He already had written down for us!

In 2005, there was a "Shepherd's Conference" at Greenwood Hills in Pennsylvania ( They've taken down their audio files of the event, but for a while, all the messages given in the conference were available via mp3. The conference was for "elders" and "overseers" in so-called "open assemblies" in North America.

I've listened to the audio of that conference many times, and am still amazed by what I hear. The speakers give some good advice, but on the whole, they seem to totally miss the point. It's obvious they see the problems---anyone who's honest sees them---but their answers are all superficial. With one exception, they fail to see that the problems stem from individual walk. It's not a reception policy, or a written statement of faith, or clear strong leadership that's lacking: those are all available in mainstream churches doing every bit as poorly as we are. It's the failure of the individual to walk with the Lord. It's the lack of personal conviction and growth.

Don't think "exclusive" assemblies are faring any better: we aren't. We have the same basic problem, but we hide it a little differently, and our proposed solution---while not the same as our brothers and sisters in the "open" assemblies---is equally futile. We try to solve our problems by re-iterating doctrine (usually on the level of minutia), and (more often that not) convincing one another that we are the "One Place", so it really doesn't matter how bad things are, "it is a day of small things".

What's really sad is, the younger people (i.e. people a few years older than myself and down: my peers) see the problems, eventually learn the futility of our attempts to fix them, and decide to chuck the whole thing. So we have all sorts of people leaving "assemblies" to go try out "seeker-friendly churches", "emergent churches", and whatever the church du jour happens to be.

One of the hardest lessons I have to learn (apparently over and over) is, there is no silver bullet. There is very rarely some magical cure to a problem. Problems are as hard to fix as they are. "It is what it is."

I think the same lesson applies here.

We can play all sorts of games to try and compensate for our spiritual state: we can formalize things (the "open" solution) or simply convince ourselves that our correctness will make the problems irrelevant (the "exclusive" approach). In the end, we'll have the same problem, and we'll probably have added new ones on top. And if we try to run away from them (the young liberal approach), we buy all sorts of different symptoms, but the same underlying problems. Willow Creek may seem like they've got it together, but they don't. Don't mistake popularity with spirituality.

I was severely disappointed with several Christians and assemblies over the past few years who seemed to think the problem in various assemblies were of the nature of format. Some "exclusive" assemblies went "open", many individuals left and went to one church or another. But all seemed to miss the point. I know the grass is greener over there---believe me, I know! But the problems we have are not how we meet: the problems we have are how we are content to not walk with the Lord 24X7.

One incident stand out in my mind: there was a Bible Reading where we decided to study Revelation. I was the youngest in the group, but I suggested we each read it through as many times as we could that week, before the next meeting; that way, we'd each have a working familiarity with the book before we opened it up together. One older brother balked "you mean read the whole thing in a week?" This same older brother would grouse about how the Readings weren't teaching him anything. Perhaps, I thought, if you were willing to put some sweat in, you'd get something of value out. No wonder the meetings weren't very good, if one of the older ones---who should have been a leader---was unwilling to read 22 chapters in a week!

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