The Naked Church – Chapter Nineteen
The Naked Church – Chapter 19 – Stained Glass and White Linen
If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself
Their cobwebs are useless for clothing;
they cannot cover themselves with what they make.
The Naked Church – Chapter Nineteen – I sat just behind three of them, but the room was full of many others. They were in their early twenties and had come in anguish to a funeral of one of their friends who had been killed in a tragic accident. He and his family were dedicated believers, but it was obvious by the conversation in front of me that these were not.
The ever-present organ music masked the grieving silence. Though unspoken, one question reverberated in that room: “Why?” It was most detectable among the non-Christians. Their icy stares challenged the church for answers to the question “If there is a God, why this?”
The service began with the congregation singing “God Is So Good.” The only reference to the death came in a brief welcome from the pastor to what he called a coronation, not a funeral. Then we got a three-point sermon on why someone should give his heart to God. The words of that service never rose to meet the agony of the people, the seeming incongruity between God’s love and sudden tragedy.
I watched with interest these three in front of me. Often during the service they glanced at each other, always conveying the same thing. Either by a roll of the eyes, a smirked grimace, or a shaking of the head in disgust they were appalled that the so-called church in the midst of such pain would stick its head in the sand and pretend that this was a great blessing. It didn’t even attempt to deal with the pain in the room, and probably not because it didn’t want to, but because it didn’t know how to address the questions.
I have no doubt that those young people left the room more hardened to God’s love. Their short-term concern was with his relevance to this tragedy, but they didn’t find him relevant, and they were sure that even the believers there hadn’t either. Death was portrayed as God’s friend, working for some higher purpose, when the Scripture is clear that death is his enemy as well as ours. Neither his wisdom nor his love was brought to bear on the anguish in that room.
The larger question, however, is whether Jesus is relevant to anything in our lives. Os Guiness reiterates that indictment: “Thedamning comment has been made of Christianity that it is privately engaging but socially irrelevant.”
Until the church can answer the difficult questions that emerge from the application of our theology into real human experience, the world will only sit back and laugh. To them our gospel is irrelevant, a placebo designed to set the ignorant at ease and not a real answer for desperate needs.
In the fictional novel Codename: Sebastian, a young pastor faces this problem in graphic fashion. With a small band of survivors Sebastian is wandering, thirsty and near death, in the unbearable heat of the Negev. His pain overwhelms the depth of his Christian experience, and he asks God if he is even in such places. “If you’re not I don’t blame you. You belong in cathedrals with high altars and communion tables wrapped in white linen… not here, not in this valley of death.”
The story may be fictional, but the cry is not. How quickly the serenity we feel in our sanctuaries evaporates in the confusion and pain of this world! It is not meant to be so. Jesus has real answers for real people in real situations. He does not only want to exist in Sunday services, but also in unemployment lines, cancer wards, and those lonely moments of doubt and despair. Here is yet another sign of our nakedness, and another opportunity to find the joy of intimacy.
The Naked Church – Chapter Nineteen – One would have to be blind not to see the great disparity between what the church teaches on Sunday morning and what Christians live out during the week. It is seen so clearly in the way people conduct business, treat their children, choose their entertainment, or relate to people around them. Of such people the charge of hypocrite is raised, and everyone knows the church is full of them.
Such a term fits those who only pretend to serve God. The mockery they make of God should not be tolerated, regardless of how much money they give. They only milk the church to their own advantage. But there is another problem here: People who genuinely want to follow God but find themselves unable to do so.
There are a lot of people in this category. Year after year they come weeping to the altar, confessing that the life they are living is not the one they desire. They promise to be different, only to find themselves a few months later entangled again in the distractions of Western living, unequipped to make the work of Jesus real in their lives. They may be bound by sin or broken by the enemy’s hand, but somehow the message escapes them. What seems so powerful on Sunday morning fizzles in their home and on the job.
This irrelevance in Christian experience does not result so much from hardened hearts as from our packaging of Christianity that has separated it from real human experience.
Look at our settings for worship. How real are they? For one hour on Sundays we meet in color-coordinated serenity, designed at great expense to invoke worship and peacefulness through the use of vaulted ceilings, warm carpeting, and homey wall coverings. Our children are conveniently hidden in the bowels of the building. Placid organ music, melodious anthems, and eloquent oratory create a controlled atmosphere for ministry.
Contrast that with life during the rest of the week, surrounded by four walls that continually grow closer together. Children bicker, always needing something—a toy fixed, a problem solved. The only background music to be heard are the choruses of anxiety and the strains of a busy schedule. No wonder people lament, “I try to touch God at home, but he’s not there like he is at church.” Rather than pat ourselves on the back, we ought to repent that we’re not teaching people how to find God’s presence away from our plastic (or Plexiglas) settings.
The Naked Church – Chapter Nineteen – Look at church people. They aren’t real either. They dress in their Sunday finest, both in clothes and in attitude—plastic people in pewed rows. No one shares their failures or needs. Those paraded in front are successful in the eyes of the world: musicians, beauty queens, athletes, business people. Oddly, no one seems to be having fun, and when it’s all over they file back out to the jaws of a waiting world.
Contrast that with a world where people scrape to find a meal, where frustrated parents yell at their children, where sin tears at their life to destroy them. Such problems aren’t brought to church because people have found the church unable to help them. People’s weaknesses are too often only a source of gossip and stereotyping. Real questions go unasked because the risk of being considered a doubter is too great. Too often it is true that the world treats its own with more compassion than the church does.
Look at our leaders. Are they real people? They speak in deeper-than average tones and deliver sermons with high-pitched fever and four-bit words for which they would get laughed off the street in the real world. Greek exegesis, intricate outlines, and well-turned phrases are used more to impress people than to teach them something they can apply to life.
Even something as seemingly unimportant as dress enhances this separation. Liturgical robes, academic gowns, and even three-piece suits can be used to garner a false sense of authority. Even earthly rulers gave up wearing robes and miters hundreds of years ago. Jesus didn’t seek authority through his clothing. He was trying to show people that a real life with God was available to them, and was not reserved for someone professionally trained and ornately attired.
This was brought graphically home to me one summer Sunday morning. The temperature was in the high 90’s and climbing. I was already soaking with sweat in my three-piece navy suit as I greeted those gathering for service. I hadn’t noticed that they were all in short-sleeved sport shirts until a friend leaned over to me and with as much gentleness as possible said, “You really don’t know how ridiculous you look in that suit, do you?”
Our current emphasis on celebrity leadership only compounds the problem. They drop names of the famous they’ve been with and flaunt their jet setting lifestyles. An entourage meets their every need, and the only people they see are staring at them in awe of their greatness. When was the last time someone talked to them honestly or when they tried to help someone pregnant, unmarried, angry at God, and rejected by everyone around them? It’s a shock that so many people listen to such leaders and no wonder to me that the world doesn’t.
What connection does our program have with the real world? Anything significant is done by a professional, in a closed forum after days of preparation. How does that prepare people to meet the world head-on, where people interrupt with real and difficult questions, where merely saying “because the Bible says so” isn’t enough?
We don’t offer real answers to the questions, doubts, and fears that people face. Pat answers and formulas substitute for God’s presence and intervention. “Something good is going to happen to you” does little for the couple blaming God for the death of their baby. “The family that prays together stays together” does nothing for the wife who has just found out that her husband, the deacon, has just been caught in someone else’s bed. “You just need to trust God more” may be true, but unless we help people actually do this, such a statement only causes greater guilt and pain.
Don’t think that I’m exaggerating the impact of Sunday services. It is always a church’s largest gathering, and rare is the church that touches any more than half of those people again at other weekly functions. I know that many people in the Sunday-morning crowd are only looking for a religious token, but there are also many who have been shut out by the church’s irrelevance.
They’ve been convinced of their incompetence in living a fulfilling walk with Jesus outside the church’s walls. They are isolated. Their perception of God failing them is only exceeded by the guilt they feel for failing him. One pastor told me he estimated that 90 percent of church people live with an underlying disappointment and anger directed at God.
This may be a source for the many hypocrites we decry. God fits on Sunday mornings but nowhere else. On the way out of the service they are already gossiping about each other, and perhaps by Monday they are once again trapped in sin. Many, like the Israelites, still take manna breaks even as they forge their golden calf.
The Greater Grief
The Naked Church – Chapter Nineteen – The effects of irrelevance, however, aren’t felt only in the church. Like the unknown trio sitting ahead of me at the funeral, such irrelevance alienates the world from God. To the world we have become what one writer termed “islands of irrelevance in a sea of despair.”
Not seeing us as any different for the relationship we claim to have with God, the world concludes that we have only fabricated him in our minds. Christianity is a crutch, they say; and who can blame them? We’ve already cited evidence that any statistic true of the general populace is largely true of the church as well.
They also see that we don’t handle disappointment and crisis much better than they. In fact, Christians often weather crises worse, because in addition to their trial they are usually blaming God or the church for not helping them out of it. Recently I sat with an elderly saint whose body is wasting away. This woman had given much to the body of Christ, so I was taken back by her bitterness and hostility at God for not healing her or taking her home. The world fairly asks, “If it doesn’t make any difference for you, why should I give it a try?”
I walked into a local auto repair shop recently that prominently displays the sign of a fish in all its advertisements.
Tracts cluttered the counter, but behind it the manager was on the phone. He was angry about some change in procedure regarding the church kitchen and was talking to another church member about it. In a loud voice that filled the entire room he lambasted with profanity the pastor and other members of the church. I cringed in embarrassment for that man and the church he was tearing apart. As I looked around the room others smirked, shaking their heads. What else do you expect from the church?
One episode like that speaks louder than 20 citywide crusades. It’s not that the world is looking for perfection, but (reasonably so) they at least expect to see some evidence that in fact the God of the universe has taken up residence in us.
Here is the cost of the benign gospel we preach. We are happy to fill our churches, even though we know that many people are coming for reasons other than to surrender their lives to God. Though we may know the difference, the world does not. The pseudo-Christians we protect are the greatest deterrent to more genuine people finding reality in Christ.
The Naked Church – Chapter Nineteen – We don’t even see the results of our best intentions. Not long ago I was invited to a public prayer meeting to intercede for someone dying with cancer. Friends and family were invited, including people who were noteven believers. The pastor of this woman rose to pray. With a strong and confident voice he claimed her healing: “We know that tomorrow morning she’ll walk out of that hospital healed.” Waves of amens filled the room.
Within a month she died. The same pastor conducted the funeral with the same people present. With the same confidence that he had told them she would walk out well, he told them that they could put their trust in God. Don’t we see how ridiculous we look? The world is less amazed with the fact that she wasn’t healed, than with the fact that it didn’t seem to make any difference to us that what we told them didn’t come to pass.
To them the church looks like an actor on the stage, that removes his make up and goes home when the illusion is finished. That’s what lies behind the charge of Christianity being a crutch. If by this charge the critics meant something to lean on that promotes healing, I would welcome that assessment of Christianity. But they mean that Christianity isn’t real; it’s only a figment of our imagination to help people ignore reality.
I can’t imagine such a charge being leveled at James, Peter, or Paul. Their Christianity was no crutch. Their association with the gospel cost them dearly. It was a source of persecution, not fame and fortune. Their joy came not in retending that the real world didn’t exist, but in finding joy in spite of pain ts effectiveness.
Unless we rediscover that kind of gospel, our irrelevance will continue to build an impenetrable wall between us and the world. That’s a problem the Pharisees faced as they hid in the safety of their own subculture. In the face of real needs they could only respond with rules of order and the condemnatory teaching that tragedy is the result of sin. We’re building that same wall now, alienating the very people who hunger for what we’re supposed to offer. But all we can find to offer is our creed: “Believe these things and life will go better.”
Chuck Colson in his book Loving God writes about this growing wall and its devastating effects.
When the church fails to break the barrier, both sides lose. Those who need the gospel of hope and the reality of love don’t get it; and the isolated church keeps evangelizing the same people over and over until its only mission finally is to entertain itself.
The Naked Church – Chapter Nineteen – Without the challenge to make the gospel real in the arena of human need, our gospel degenerates into a toy for our own amusement. We beg the world to come see us and condemn them when they don’t. Most evangelism is only offered in closedforum settings. Come to our church, our crusade, our rally— all places we control. Jesus never claimed his own turf. He didn’t bring crowds into orchestrated services. Whether with Pharisee or harlot, he sat in their homes and spoke in their synagogues— and suffered retribution for doing so.
Isn’t it interesting that Jesus didn’t set up an office in the temple and wait for people to come to Him for counseling. Instead he went to them—to the homes of the most notorious sinners, to the places where he would likely encounter the handicapped and sick, the needy, the outcasts of society.
We are afraid to move out of the serenity of our own sanctuary. When we do, it is only to shove a tract in someone’s face, put a Scripture on a T-shirt and jump in front of an ABC Sports camera, circulate ready-made questionnaires or buy TV time. Again, it’s our forum, our terminology, our rules. The result is the same. They watch us, but we don’t ever enter into their struggle with the personal touch of Jesus Christ to transform their life. Why? Because we’re afraid. If Jesus hasn’t been real for us, how can we make him real for them?
This is the greater grief. I’m saddened by people who haven’t found the gospel powerful enough to transform them, but sadder still for others who have never come looking because they see no evidence of its reality.
I hope you understand the story of the naked emperor better now than when you began this book, because we need to see that we are just like him. We don’t want to be irrelevant any more than he wanted to parade naked before his city. We get tricked, however, when we are more concerned about our own safety than simply being honest. Just a touch of honesty in any one of
the emperor’s entourage would have saved him from the most
When it finally came, it was too late. Too much would be risked
to change now. In the same way we are trapped when we love
safety more than we love Jesus. The church has become its own
safe subculture. Ritual and tradition mask our emptiness, and pat
answers our questions. Everyone knows his part and fulfills it
without rocking the boat. We are in control, and though the boat
may not be all that powerful, at least it is safe.
The Naked Church – Chapter Nineteen – We don’t have to face the difficult implications of the truths we espouse. Do we really believe that the people with whom we exchange such casual smiles throughout the day are really being deceived into destruction by Satan and his army? If we do, why can we pass them any more easily than we would an injured child on a playground? Instead, we immerse ourselves in our own entertainment so we don’t have to see the casualties.
Whenever anyone cuts through the facade by getting serious about being a disciple of Jesus, we try to discourage him. By calling such people fanatics, we can crawl back behind the compromises which their presence exposes.
Being relevant, however, calls us away from our safe havens. The gospel is not safe, neither for us who accept it nor for the world with whom we are to share it. It will challenge, stretch, and change us, all to his glory and our joy—but not without the violent resistance of our flesh.
The Naked Church – Chapter Nineteen – The world reacts in much the same way, and that is the sign of a relevant gospel. It may not be welcomed with joy, but at least it won’t be met with apathy. The reality of Jesus forces people to be exposed for what they are. It is a smell of death to those who are perishing and a scent of life to those who are being saved. Not everyone liked the early church’s message, but at least the church commanded the respect of that entire society. Contrast that with the general disrepute which the church suffers today, not for its message, but for its preoccupation with money and its condescending attitude.
The gospel will offend people, but the Bible challenges us to be sure that the offense comes only because of truth and not because we are personally offensive in our conduct or methods. One year my wife and I went to the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena. After the parade a group of people walked up the street with “Repent” signs as one of them lambasted the crowd through a megaphone: “What’s the matter, Mr. Businessman? Are you too good for Jesus? You will burn in hell for your sins.” Can you imagine Jesus doing that? I was embarrassed for every person there, especially the non-Christians.
If people are going to be offended, let it be with the lordship of Jesus, and not with our arrogance or extravagance. Jesus approached the world with compassion for all, even those rejecting him, but this doesn’t mean that he emphasized forgiveness to the exclusion of challenging people to follow him.
The Naked Church – Chapter Nineteen – In the third book of the science-fiction series Dune, the false religion of that society was blasted by a prophet from the wilderness. The same question could be put to us today: “You, priest. . . are a chaplain to the self-satisfied… I come to challenge you. Is your religion real when it costs you nothing and carries no risk?”
We cannot hide in the safety of our own irrelevant structures while a world dies around us. God has called us to go there, risking whatever danger we fear, to allow him to extend his reality through us.
I do know we can come out of our safe sanctuaries and move alongside those in need and begin to demonstrate some caring concern. Our presence in a place of need is more powerful than a thousand sermons. Being there is our witness. And until we are, our orthodoxy and doctrine are mere words, our liturgies and gospel choruses ring hollow.
The New Testament vibrates with a relevant God able to penetrate every situation. It was a gospel that fit where sickness and death hung heavy in the air, where people mingled at a wedding reception, where they pretended religion at a Pharisee’s banquet, where little children could find a place on Jesus’ lap, where a crazed man threatened people from the graveyard, and where God’s people endured suffering and death at the hands of a cruel world.
God is not the God of stained glass and white linen. He can be there, of course, but he is also in unemployment lines and cancer wards, family birthday parties and vacation trips, inexplicable accidents and dark nights of doubt.
Intimacy with God knows no limits. He wants to be as real to you in these moments as he is in times of worship. Restoring relevance is an essential part of knowing God—both for our own lives and for others we pass on the way.
Produced with permission from Wayne Jacobsen.