Monday, June 23, 2014

One thing to change about church: Getting the big picture

I am increasing disconcerted by the level of 'theological' discussion of technology. Take this one on the Internet at the Many Horizons blog. I am sorry to say superficially it sounds okay but almost by simply doing a search and replace I could write a blog on why the car has made us ungodly or why modern housing or whatever you like is ungodly. But what really frustrates me is this:

The primary moral logic of the Internet and mobile technology is the confidence that human relationships can be technologically mediated for personal satisfaction without cost.

Really, that's it. The internet has many functions one of which is this one. But so often the criticism of social media, cell phones etc resorts to its destroying personal face to face relationships. As if in changing the nature of such relationships there is some presumption that this is the totality of Christian life. Curiously, with this blog mostly written, yesterday I cam across this comment quite by accident.

One illustration of technologically induced human isolation: when I go to work in the morning I often meet a neighbour and her ten year old daughter. Every day they walk side by side to the bus stop, each plugged into her own walkman, isolated from each other and the rest of the world. Such is the real world of technology. Ursula Franklin 'The Real World of Technology 1990 p51.
So pre-internet culture also promoted isolation. We are so quick to judge others on their appearance. We no nothing of the quality or intimacy of the relationship between this mother and daughter, yet because they wear their walkmans to the bus stop we are told they are isolated. We don't even know what they are listening to.

So that blog on ungodliness got me thinking, how have we impoverished the Christian life to this miniscule vision. How did we get there and how do we improve the situation?

I have been a member of a number of different churches, attending since I was a kid - spanning 3 denominations, 4 cities  and two countries. Church has many purposes, it is community, it is a time to worship our creator and redeemer and it is also a little time each week to try and wrap our heads around the Message of the Messenger.

But there is one thing that has struck me wherever I have been, there is a fragmentation of the perspective. Because we hear church in small doses and because the plot is so vast - all time and space, it is difficult to develop a road map to Christian life. I have counted a number of church Pastors as personal friends and this is not a criticism of them, in many ways I understand the pressures on them - the pressure to speak every week. So read this with empathy and a critical look at ourselves, how do we as the body re-envision things.

So much of what we do at church is like Australian Aboriginal art. By no means all Aboriginal art, is dot art but it represents a substantial tradition. So think of each Sunday's sermon as a dot.

(c) Noel Doyle. (I own an original painting).

But at this range its not possible to tell what this segment of the painting is all about is it? Well I think it is the same with church - each Sunday another dot. But unless occasionally we stand back and ensure that it is organised then it might as well be painting with a straw.

It might be pretty but its not that helpful. We might accumulate so coherent ideas and then again the framework we build out of the dots might be wrong. Is the picture above a spear?

We tend to focus on either the gifts of the Spirit:
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited,provoking and envying each other. (Galatians 5)
or on vague applications for each sermon but then each sermon has a different application, so that is not terribly helpful.

What are the big picture issues at stake for Christians. Well of course it is Schaeffer's question How Then Shall We Live. We can create some different layers which have different questions and topics. 

What are the most important big picture directions and priorities for Christians 

at the top layer perhaps the following:

  1. witnessing and 'mission'
  2. justice
  3. caring for the poor
  4. creation care
  5. peace making
  6. living well (making a living, feeding yourself and your family, donating money, volunteering etc).
  7. relationships
  8. ...

  • Which do we prioritise, which deserves our time?
  • We can't do them all, do we make one of them our 'thing'?
  • What are the consequences for those around us when we push one thing?
  • On the other hand, we often need a focus a thing to give us purpose, indeed God, I believe, still calls people for particular jobs, tasks activities.
So then, where from there? Robert Banks in a very nice little book has some interesting discussions.

Banks focuses his discussion below the layer pointed to above. His book is really just aimed at what I called living well bove. He makes the point Christian could fruitfully discuss:

Social pressures

  • busyness
  • mobility
  • debt
  • social conformity

Routine life

  • commuting
  • shopping
  • sleeping
  • eating and drinking
  • dress
  • hospitality
  • hobbies
  • gardening
Work & leisure
  • getting having or not having paid work
  • re-creation

Central features of modern life

  • society everyday beliefs and values - which obviously affect Christians
  • communicating and relating (technology mediated and otherwise)
  • social rituals
  • secular religions (the car, the home, the ....
  • materialism and consumerism.

Over time we grope our ways towards workable answers to all these questions that work for us - ones that meet our standards of Christian living and help us live day to day. But it is difficult to travel without some sort of map.

So lets use politics as an example - we tend to steer clear from overt discussions of politics in Church for fear of creating divisions. In the absence of discussion people build their own perspectives based on everything but sound theology sometimes. But we are making two mistakes. The first is not discussing it and the second is we confuse goals and means.

Politics is based on the idea that there can be different goals but even when there is the same goal there are different routes to those goals. So if we can agree that caring for the poor is a critical Christian issue then we can discuss how we do that - different people may support different means but we can at least discuss that it should be a high priority and leaving it aside is a bad idea. So one example for western governments might be the choice between accepting refugees or having a serious aid program - it is a not option to choose neither.

So onto a technological example.

If you decide that creation care is really important to you then that is just the first choice, there will be political (protests) and ethical choices (who to buy from) but that choice alone does not choose your level of technology.

In a pluralistic view of what is a valid expression of Christian faith, there is not a perspective we can promote as the 'Christian society'. Each of us needs to make our own choices while respecting others. But we can only do this if we can start talking about the big picture of what Christian life looks like in the 21st century.

Juggling all of the priorities

So lets return to the imagery. We can now see a little more of the painting. Its not the whole picture we could never expect that, but we can see its a plant now.

So with church, is there a way of moving beyond the weekly dots?

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