I’ve been a follower of Jesus for some twenty-nine years now and for most of that time I’ve been struggling with a form of cognitive dissonance. The condition arises when what one believes to be true and what one knows to be true are not in alignment. My particular dissonance arises from two undeniable realities that have played out in front of me since my coming to faith as an unchurched teenager.
The first is that there is something simply incredible about this message Jesus has brought to our world. Ever since my first encounter with the good news of God’s Kingdom I have found it to be the most powerful, wonderful and liberating news ever declared in human history. It simply captivates, invigorates and all sorts of other ‘..ates’ me! It has been a life-transforming joy for me to have discovered that our creator has revealed himself and has done so to invite us into new relationship with Him, each other and our world.
The second is that there is something clearly wrong with the so-called ‘communities of faith’ in which this gloriously good news is being embodied. T.S. Mooney, my dear old friend and mentor in the faith, used to joke that whilst the early believers outlived, out-laughed and out-loved all those around them, Christians today tend to be dull, daft and devout! I can remember myself laughing the first time I heard him say this and I’ve shared his humorous insight with many since. But as I have observed in my own ministry, as I have travelled to churches in all parts of our Island and as I listen as friends and colleagues describe the circumstances of their own church situations, I have come to the unwelcome conclusion that, in fact, our circumstances are far graver than even this.
When people in those early decades and centuries of the church were trying to find a way to summarise this new and rapidly spreading message that had come from a supposedly resurrected Rabbi from Nazareth, the phrase that they came up with was ‘the Good News!’ When they tried to describe the sort of people that were arising from this growing religious movement, what they settled on were labels such as ‘followers of the way’ and ‘Christians.’ (There were some funnier ones too, such as ‘cannibals’ because people heard Christians were into eating flesh and drinking blood!) But what do people in Ireland today say when they are trying to do the same thing? Over and over again, with young people and with adults, the summary I have heard people give to the message proclaimed by Jesus’ followers contains words/phrases such as ‘condemning’, ‘controlling’, ‘frightening’, ‘boring’ and ‘irrelevant’. The descriptions they make of those within this Jesus movement include tags such as ‘self-righteous’, ‘judgemental’, ‘sectarian’, ‘bigoted’ and ‘hateful.’
When we observe what happened in the first communities of those who followed Jesus, we see that they were filled with joy, grew in number and greatly impacted the world around them. When we observe what is happening through Christian communities today, what we often see are churches in decline, who have little joy, and who are becoming increasingly irrelevant in their local contexts.
How can this be if the gospel is truly a message from God?
For many years, I have assumed that this problem we see in the church simply arises from the fact that those of us who have been recipients of the Gospel of Christ have woefully failed to live it out in any adequate way before those who are watching on. I have simply assumed it is because we have been teaching one thing in our words and then doing something other in our actions – a kind of ‘the mind is willing but the body is weak’ sort of thing.
This is no longer what I believe.
I no longer believe that our problem lies merely in our failure to live out the unchanging Gospel of Christ. I think our problem is that, to various degrees, we have lost sight of what the unchanging Gospel of Jesus actually is. We have allowed the message of Jesus to be changed, and in doing so, we have lost our grasp of the very things that make it the most wonderful and liberating news this world has ever known.
In what follows, I would like to try and spell out some of the reasons I think this devastating loss has occurred and invite you to reflect on them for yourself. I don’t have all the answers. I’m not sure that I even have many of them. My hope is simply to start a conversation in which I, and maybe others, can explore again what this message of Jesus is all about. As I have been helped to do this myself, I have rediscovered a joy in the Gospel that I thought I had lost for ever and I have uncovered a way to live that can truly only be described as ‘good news.’ My hope is that through this discussion, those who suffer a similar dissonance to me will be helped and enabled to do the same.
Click here if you’d like to see the rest of the entries in the ‘Rediscovering the Gospel’ series.