Monday, January 18, 2010

Information Versus Transformation

A good friend was relating to me recently his frustration with some people in his circle who claimed to be Christians on the one hand but had an incongruous lifestyle on the other. They would rave to my friend about the latest teaching they listened to at the building and how much they were learning, and in the same breath talk about how much fun they had “hooking up” with their boyfriend or girlfriend the night before. The frustration my friend was feeling is identical to the frustration felt by most building leaders these days, a frustration born out of a disconnect between what congregants supposedly know in their head versus their day-to-day actions to the contrary.

One of the biggest failures the modern church has created for itself over the last century or so, is an over-dependence on information delivery as the key to success in the Christian life. This reliance on the dispensing of information as the primary mechanism for Christian growth is manifested in the preeminent focus on the typical Sunday sermon, basically a half-hour- to hour-long lecture given to an assembly of passive congregants. Next in the pecking order of information delivery are the countless opportunities for what passes for Bible study these days, and the seemingly never-ending litany of classroom sessions on such wide-ranging topics as marriage, finances, rearing children, etc. While many of these activities are not necessarily bad in and of themselves, they seem to have devolved into a place of unjustified prominence based upon the erroneous idea that every problem is one of a lack of information. The result is that solving this perceived problem somehow has become the responsibility of the building to fix. If a sizable percentage of the congregation is struggling in the area of relationships, then the senior pastor does a series on relationships. If managing money is the preeminent problem, then the church typically offers a multi-week course on finances. If the church budget is not being met, then a message on tithing will certainly be on the horizon. The prevailing idea is that the giving of the proper information will result in sweeping behavioral changes amongst the hearers.. However, the sad reality is that the simple delivery of information only rarely results in significant, long-lasting change. Realistically, how could it be otherwise?

Two truths seem evident: Jesus is interested in transformation, not information, and the life God has designed for us is one to be lived, not merely talked about. When we compartmentalize a relationship with God into simply a passive, intellectual pursuit of information, why should we be surprised at the lack of any substantial evidence of a transformed life in congregants away from the building. When Christianity is limited to gathering information for an hour or so on Sunday (or, for the super spiritual, even with an extra hour of midweek study thrown in), the lack of passion for following Jesus on a day-to-day basis among congregants should be expected. Instead, as leaders, we shake our heads in futility and redouble our efforts to provide better venues for even more information distribution. For leaders, the real question is why we continue to pursue a course of action that bears such little fruit in the lives of those we are supposedly leading. We rationalize and justify that something is wrong with the congregants, and then try to create new and exciting sermon topics and programs that will capture their fancy. Obviously, there must be something much more transformational that the church at large should be offering to followers of Jesus rather than of a bunch of good information. Besides the fact that this is the way it’s been done for so long, giving sermons and teaching classes requires a lot less time and effort than the more effective alternative of actual discipleship.

Jesus came to set us free, to give us living water and abundant life. Currently, what the typical building gives us is simply information (or perhaps a social connection to like-minded souls). The time has come in this information age for us to begin rethinking the way we have constructed church in our own image. Fortunately, there is a grassroots movement afoot where people are asking some of the same sorts of questions about the way things have always been and, more importantly, what should the church look like on the road ahead. The gospels give us a good idea of how Jesus invested himself in the lives of his disciples, basically sharing all aspects of life with them over the course of a three-year period. How utterly different the gospel vignettes would be if Jesus was limited to lecturing Peter, James, John, and the others for only one or two hours a week. What this all means for us modern-day followers remains something some of us are attempting to ferret out, but I hope you’ll be willing to share in this journey of discovery.

Reno, Nevada

As a caveat, I am not advocating abandonment of all Biblical instruction. In fact, I am a firm believer in diligent, investigative study of God’s word, especially in contrast to reading the junk that chokes the shelves of Christian bookstores, or participating in the fill-in-the-blank “Bible-Lite” studies popular with busy Christians these days. The problem arises when Biblical instruction becomes merely an intellectual exercise of obtaining facts about God and not an opportunity to deepen a living relationship with him. To paraphrase J.I. Packer from Knowing God, “I’ve met a lot of people who know about God, but few who really know Him.”

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