Wednesday, March 19, 2008

We're gonna change the world in one day, and it feels good

If one extreme that threatens the church in being underwhelmed with the gospel, merely understanding without engaging the heart there is another problem. As Mo frames it: "what about the people who spend all summer jumping up and down and getting very emotional about their faith and then don't do any evangelism? In other words, there's also a big problem with fluffy emotionalism and no doctrine. Maybe, I would say, a bigger problem than the one you highlight."

If one extreme is called Sandemanianism, I'm not sure what to call this. Usually minus the visions of angels it's something like Colossians 2v18: such a person goes into great detail about what he has seen. Where the focus is mostly on what we have experienced more than the substantial reality of the gospel. As said earlier, experience is essential but like faith the issue is what's the object of it. We all have experience - life is experience.

Two issues in the question - one is emotion without doctrine, and the second is talk that doesn't translate into action. The two are very much connected. If it holds that high truth should be matched by high affections then it's also true that high affections should only happen when there is high truth. If truth without affections is outlawed then so are affections without truth.

My first steps into thinking theologically came in 1998 when I was leading worship in the Bath University Christian Union. I played keys and loved those synthy strings. I realised that music could effect people massively - the right notes and eyes would shut, arms rise and faces turn mushy. And so easily it has more to do with the music than with the words. It's this sort of symptomy that led Matt Redman to write 'when the music fades' though the song actually is prey to the same problem it seeks to critique. The music fades when we stop singing and start living in the cold light of day in the normal situations of life.

As a newcomer to evangelicalism at the age of 18 it occured to me that this feelings-driven approach that despises doctrine only works where there is a good backdrop of Bible. I met feelings-driven brothers and sisters who could just about carry it off because of their sunday school and summer camp christianity. I on the other hand hadn't read the Bible til I was 18 and so was somewhat lacking in the language and concepts. Doctrine to me came as precious treasure and tasty food. The feelings-driven approach was Tesco Value to the M&S food that the Bible offers me. Emotions that don't arise from sound doctrine are mere hype. Because contrary to the rumours of the feelings-brigade doctrine isn't dry and dull - doctrine is what God has revealed about himself, without which we would not know him. The feelings-driven guys may occasionally have affections that correspond to truth but generally they wont. They'll just be the ever fading ripples of past encounter with what God has revealed.

Such great emotions are a sign of nothing. Great movement of heart that doesn't necessarily prove the reality of life. Moreover they tend to just be vapour. Which is the second problem - they don't last any longer than the breath coming out of your mouth on a cold winters day. And affections that don't last don't change lives. The more conferences I've been too the more suspicious I've become of radical claims to change, by myself or others. It's easy in the buzz of a conference, festival or meeting to feel deeply moved. Even with the very best of intentions. But, it's only if this desire if rooted in the gospel of Jesus Christ, and consequently the transforming one-degree at a time work of the Holy Spirit that the change is going to last. God, it seems, works more in gradual change, in bearing fruit more than impressive claims.

Recently I was in a Christian Union meeting where sang Tim Hughes' lyric: Live to feed the hungry, stand beside the broken. keep us from just singing, move us into action. I'm not critiquing Hughes or Redman or their ministry, rather this about the evangelical world we inhabit together. Sadly good songs, like so many things lose their content and context as they're replayed elsewhere.

Anyways, the song got me thinking... are there any hungry or broken people at this University? If so, do we know them? Are we befriending them? Or are we just asking God to fix things out there while we party in here? While we make big inspiring claims that wont translate into action. And if the answers are really no's, then what will 'keep us from just singing, move us into action' - a move to action is a good intention but why would I want to do those things? With whom? When? The logic of the song is based on gratitude (freely received... freely give) which is fine - but sung without context that draws us to see and savour the glory of the gospel blessings we've received, not to mention the one who blesses. My heart needs much convincing and reminidng about what I've received. Songs need content. Or at least they need outstanding context so that it's God-breathed truth that can translate into Holy-Spirit-driven-transformation.

Head and heart have to go together. We each have different tendancies to err in this. Some tend more towards being deeply affected without good cause, others to being unaffected when there is deep cause to be. The more chance there of hype slipping in the more it needs to be diffused. Mike Pilavachi is a great example of hype-diffusion in my experience. Being part of a big crowd whilst being deprived of sleep can cause people to say all sort of things, and really mean them. But claims to great change must get translated into specific action. It is possible to change the world but it usually happens through a very long series of small right decisions rather than one big one. Which isn't to say an altar call is always going to be wrong, but I'm almost more inclined to say - come back tomorrow to pray about this with someone if you're really changing.

I'm not sure whether cold-intellectualism or fluffy-emotionalism is the big issue of our day. Probably depends where you're sitting and who you're mixing with. Genuine deep-rooted gospel-driven affections would seem to be a way to avoid either extreme. The New Testament seems to talk a lot about the gospel and a lot about us having joy. Perhaps those things are connected...