“The church is a whore but she is my mother” Unknown
I have been reflecting on our journey in relation to our participation in our local church. As you may know, we relocated almost 2 years ago from a 6 bedroom home in a gated middle class suburb to live in a converted 2-bed apartment in the notorious inner-city suburb of Hillbrow, Johannesburg, South Africa with our then 5 children. R MacAfee Brown once said “Who we listen to determines what we hear. Where we stand determines what we see. What we do determines who we become.” The new location we were living in gave us a new perspective on our lives and faith and this renewed perspective changed everything for us. Where in the past we had been part of a church that we loved everything about, suddenly we found ourselves facing a reality which we could not handle and began to see huge flaws in the church.Why was the church not involved in the biggest humanitarian crisis of the day? Why were so many in the church just caught up in selfishness and own-kingdom-building? In the first months we encountered death of friends and I faced much violence (being held up several times). I witnessed horrific actions by the police and municipality against those on the margins. I kept asking “where is the church in all this?” We continued to attend our church in the suburbs who were carrying on as if life was still fine and dandy. This did not help and so in addition to all we were seeing, we sadly began to become judgemental and to develop a sense of pride, feeling we were on the right track. I knew this was not right but did not know how to get free.
I spoke to mentors and friends trying to work out how to cope, how to remove this horrific disease that had begun to manifest in my heart and prayed to God to help me. It was while reading the Sermon on the Mount that I found these profound words of Jesus which began my own journey of liberation “First take the log out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” (Mat 7:5). I realised we are most judgemental about the things we ourselves are repenting of. I therefore made a list of the things I was repenting of and found suddenly a new grace to help friends who are stuck themselves in these areas. In this process I also discovered that I needed to “become the change I want to see in the world” (Ghandi) and live an “Irresistible Revolution” (Shane Claiborne) that would draw people into a new way of living rather than just being critical of the church.
So here is some of the list I made at the time…
1. I was addicted to stuff. So, instead, I committed myself to, as Mother Teresa said “Live simply so others can simply live”. We have taken some radical decisions which have led to us now living on less that a quarter of what we were living on 5 years ago. While this has been hard, it has been liberating and enriching. It is so true that we find our lives when we lose them.
2. My Christianity was meeting focussed rather than mission focussed. We need to instead prioritise bringing healing to the brokenness around us while “not neglecting the gathering of the saints” (not the other way around). So much of the church thinks the main thing is the meeting – we spend most of our money on our buildings and on sustaining our meetings rather than on what is most important – caring for and demonstrating God’s shalom Kingdom and salvation to the world.
3. I had focussed on making converts to a new way of thinking rather than disciples to a new way of living. I have since discovered that the Great Commission is actually about teaching people to “obey” what Jesus taught and so the words of Jesus have become central to my faith and life. I now believe the most important words in the Bible are the red letters (words of Christ) and we are doing everything we can (through grace) to get our lives to look more like Jesus.
4. I had believed the pinnacle of church involvement was church leadership rather than servanthood, laying your life down and following Jesus. I decided (and this was big for my selfish and ambitious heart) to no longer seek position, title or power, but rather to side with those on the margins and practice solidarity. I have since discovered that when we voluntarily choose powerlessness we develop true authority and it is in the humble place of suffering that our voice is most amplified.
5. I had ignored issues of justice in my Christianity and was ignorant of how my lifestyle affected the poor, the oppressed and even the planet. I realised I was exploiting those working for me and purchasing products that were produced using human suffering. (Here is an article I wrote on part of my journey with this http://transforming.org.za/2013/06/11/how-we-came-to-pay-a-living-wage/
6. I had isolated myself from the world’s problems rather than incarnating myself into the biggest challenges facing the world including poverty and inequality. Becoming intentionally downwardly mobile and using the services the poor use, rather than using my wealth to avoid the inconveniences and indignity of long queues and poor service has subsequently become a norm and I am finding so many of my prejudices and beliefs challenged as a result. Now when I “fight for justice” I fight with the poor, rather than “on behalf of the poor” – actually more often now, I stand alongside my urban poor friends and encourage them to use their voice for justice.
7. I had a heart for the poor and gave to the poor, but never had any equal relationships with the poor. This has been the biggest game changer for me. Becoming friends with those on the margins continues to teach me in new ways about faith, courage, community, love, perseverance and true discipleship. One of our friends has lost 3 babies to negligent government health care and yet she continues to talk deeply of the goodness of God. She is someone I can respect and learn from.
Augustine is often quoted as saying “the church is a whore, but she is my mother”. Regardless of whether it was actually him who said it, it still holds true. I believe that the church is the vehicle that God wants to use to bring his wisdom, healing and shalom into the broken world. “His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 3:10) – this is still one of my favorite texts. The truth is the whole church is broken and needs healing and yet she is still God’s vehicle. I believe that while recognising this, we need to remain committed to her and the way to change her is not to leave her, but rather to live in a way that demonstrates what the world and church could look like if God was truly King in our lives. We need to be signs of hope and a foretaste of what Christianity could look like. After all, the most broken part of the church is us.