I have been in a lot of churches, and many pastors raise the alarm that they work in communities that are turning away from God. Often this is accompanied by a call to evangelism: the members of the congregation must go out into the world to bring those outside in.
An element that distinguishes churches are the strategies they pursue as they turn outwards. Some do charitable works, some trumpet the knowledge of the Bible, some run Halloween and snow parties. The problem is that where the church was the only charitable institution in the ancient world, today the precepts of brotherly love are so firmly established that modern governments have institutionalized the provision of charity. During the Middle Ages, the Church ran all the educational institutions: today public schools provide a wealth of knowledge to our children, and knowledge that is more immediately useful in creating value in the material world. And for those who want to have fun, modern expectations for entertainment make Church-run events appear a little tame.
In this age, then, I would assert that the unique role of Church is to provide spiritual support to its members. This process is not entirely familiar to every minister. During a sermon on patience, one local pastor reported that God was “messing with him.” He had become trapped in traffic during a dragnet for a police shooter. The traffic seemed to just go around in circles with no escape, and his anxiety grew higher and higher. What I offered to him was that, under such circumstances, when people were all enmeshed in a common wavelength of fear, anger and/or frustration, I found that injecting the Christian experience of love, compassion and patience to be enormously effective.
In that practice, the concern for the lone individual is becoming trapped in the psychology of the immoral man, with their greed, lust and fear. Many churches have a “private club” of spiritually sophisticated individuals that work very hard to keep dirt out of their presence.
The problem throughout is that unless people are presented with the knowledge of Christian peace, they don’t know what they are missing. It’s really that peace that is important in the modern world, with the constant barrage of e-mails to read, decisions to make, people to see. It is only in that peace that the still, small voice of the Holy Spirit can be heard. Answers to many of life’s problems are easy to discover in that great gift to humanity: the Holy Spirit, repository of the knowledge of practical problem-solving through love.
I believe that it takes a community of caring to foster the experience of Christian peace. That’s not “peace” in the sense of “protection from trouble”, but the peace of Jesus on the cross: assailed by hatred from without, but above it all. In a Christian community, that strength and peace is shared among us in our time of greatest need. The connection to that peace becomes a reliable support for us as we navigate an unsympathetic world, and I have found it to be the thing that people find most remarkable about my Christianity.
So how do we share this experience with the world around us? By walking in it with our hearts open. Those that need peace most, when looking within us, cannot help but see Jesus there reaching out to them.