The Naked Church – Chapter Twenty-one
The Naked Church – Chapter 21 – Naked No Longer
We, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory,
are being transformed into his likeness
with ever-increasing glory.
—2 Corinthians 3:18
The Naked Church – Chapter Twenty-one – In the middle of the Emperor’s parade, a little child whispered what had been obvious to everyone else: “But he hasn’t got anything on.”
The awkward moment that followed was brief. The townspeople knew he was right. The Emperor knew he was right. In a split second they had to chose between the illusion they had embraced and the reality that would set them free.
Rather than ask for a real coat, however, in which he could cover his nakedness, the Emperor only pulled his imaginary robes about him and continued the pretense. For the Emperor to accept his nakedness, he had to admit to having been swindled. He couldn’t do that.
I can imagine the townspeople quickly scanning the crowd to see if anyone else would own up to what they all saw so clearly. If anyone had been brave enough, they might all have jumped in. But the risk of being thought stupid by their neighbors was too overwhelming. The moment of revelation passed quickly and soon they were again applauding the illusion.
What will you do?
Over the course of these pages we’ve examined the failure of contemporary Christianity to bring believers into a vital relationship with the Living God. Our wealth and influence only pretend to mask emptiness that leaves many brutalized by our systems, and still others disillusioned by God. I have no doubt that we are as naked as the Laodicean church in Revelation. I am not alone in saying that, for many voices in recent decades have pointed out the deficiencies of our systems and the pain they inflict on many.
Though the terms I’ve used have been clearly distinguishable hues of black and white, I’ve done so only to make the grays more visible. The shades of compromise are the most deceptive. My purpose in exposing the church’s nakedness is not to breed cynics who jeer from the sidelines, but to show us how we have been willingly duped because of our own vested interest. We can all find ways to fit our own desires into religious forms, giving us the illusion of safety, but not its reality. For us to admit such nakedness risks all that we enjoy about it, and also the accusations of friends and family that we are critical or bitter. Certainly it would be easier to stay silent and make the best of the status quo.
But moments of revelation come rarely to our lives, and they don’t last long if they are not embraced. The song of the Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera expresses well the constant lure of darkness: “Close your eyes for your eyes will only tell the truth. And the truth isn’t what you want to see. In the dark it is easy to pretend…”
Don’t be afraid to open your eyes and ask the questions that will help you embrace life as God has prepared it for you. I know how difficult it is to look past the church programs we’ve come to rely on, the aesthetic and entertaining gatherings we enjoy, the friendships we’ve made and the battery of services that intend such good. But if these things don’t bring believers into a meaningful and life-changing friendship with the Living God and to a genuine love for both believers and unbelievers that reflects his glory, they are just part of the distractions that support the illusion. They will drown out the Father’s call for you to come to him and to know him better than your closest friend and to follow him above all others.
That call is the solution I’ve offered in this book, and the only one that will suffice. Many will no doubt read these words wishing I’d provided a systemic answer to the nakedness of the church. The reason I haven’t are two-fold:
First, we have 2,000 years of church history that demonstrate that the management structures that emerge around God’s people will almost always choose the safety of self-preservation over honesty and reform. Those in the past who have hungered for God’s life in various generations have often been forced out of the institution whenever they attempted to change it.
The Naked Church – Chapter Twenty-one – Even our interpretation of Scripture has a tendency to breed dependence on our systems rather than to free people to walk with the Living God. Braveheart, a film depiction of the life of Scottish liberator William Wallace, began with these words: “History is written by those who have hanged heroes.” There is a school of thought that church theology was written the same way—by those who force out hungry believers so they can fortify their own system of religious obligation.
The reason for that may be no different than the Emperor’s. Too much money has been invested in what we’re doing, and there’s too much to gain in keeping it that way. Ecclesiastes says that “money is the answer for everything,” (10:19) and it certainly holds true here. There is too much money, power and prestige tied up in preserving the institutions as we know them.
This doesn’t mean that I don’t think our structures should be changed, for they do harm many believers and alienate many nonbelievers. It’s just that few of us will have the power to do so. If you do, by all means lend your voice to those who hunger for more authentic Christianity.
The Naked Church – Chapter Twenty-one – The second reason I’ve not offered a systemic solution, is because none will suffice. Jesus didn’t leave his disciples with a system, but with his Spirit. Those who put their hope for change in systems misunderstand the problem—we manufacture systems to supplant God. We think wiser ones among us can control his working and offer greater safety to the rest. That is the most deceptive facet of the illusion. No system can effectively broker God’s work. That’s a place he reserved for his Son alone.
Like so many before us, we are tempted to spend our passion for God’s presence on trying to change others. What he offers you—intimacy with him—can apply to your life without changing one structure around you. And if enough people do that, we might just be contagious enough to convince the Emperor to put his clothes back on.
What will that look like for you? Who am I to say? God will call some of you to stay right where they are, serving the people he’s placed you near in the limitations of institutional church life. You will, however, discover the freedom not to serve the priorities of the institution above God’s affections. You will no longer need to be controlled by it nor use it to manipulate others. You may stay in the system called by God to love those there, but you will not be of it any more.
Others who read this may find their passion for God leading them away from institutional church life—or even excluded from it by those who find your freedom threatening. There are many people today discovering various means of relational church life. These are often informal gatherings of believers in homes centered around their passion for God. These can offer a wonderful environment to grow in God’s life as long as they don’t begin to find more security in constructing their system and thus forcing God’s gentle hand from their midst.
Wherever you find him leading you, don’t worry about the voices of those who seek to detract you. Don’t believe the lies and accusations that will be whispered about you, nor waste your time trying to dispel them. It will be enough for you to simply live differently, expending your passion in cultivating a real relationship with God and his family.
There is nothing left to say except to invite you to come. If your past experience with Christianity has left you disillusioned, perhaps G. K. Chesterton’s words will make sense to you, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult, and left untried.”1 While that may be true in a general sense, there have been pockets of believers throughout history who have enjoyed what it is to live in Christ the way he intended for us. Perhaps it’s time for you to discover that yourself.
Mining the depths of friendship with God is an invitation to a life-long adventure, full of wonder and intrigue. You may not be able to see far down the road, but now it is enough for you to take only the next step God asks of you. I trust that will be clear enough to you after reading this book.
The Naked Church – Chapter Twenty-one – I’ll not pretend that the road will always look the easiest or the most rewarding. But the seeming lack of reward is only a deception. Your flesh is certain to complain, and dangers abound. The real enemies aren’t visible; the casualties are not obvious; good ideas can be as destructive as wicked deeds. You’ll face the enemy of your own flesh, which prefers temporal comforts to the cost of intimacy. You’ll face the enemy himself, who seeks to devour and destroy you by hurling discouragement, temptation, and discomfort at your every attempt toward intimacy with God.
But no one has ever undertaken this journey who was disappointed with its fruits. “With ever-increasing glory,” is how Paul described it, for here is joy and beauty beyond our wildest imagination. We will never in this life (or in eternity) probe all the depths of God’s goodness and grace. He will use even our most painful circumstances to insert more of his glory into our lives. He will bring us alongside us fellow-travelers whose passion and insight will encourage and renew us.
It is an adventure for a lifetime, worthy of our most passionate pursuit.
Why don’t you come?
When you taste the reality of God’s presence and feel his robe of righteousness slip around your shoulders, you’ll wonder why you held on to your imaginary clothes for so long.
Produced with permission from Wayne Jacobsen.