It’s not overstating the case to say that many ordinary people in Britain feel that Christianity is just not for them; why? Well, I hope to answer that as we go along. First, I will take myself as an example. I am a Christian, a dyed-in-the-wool Christian, who has been a Christian since I was thirteen, but if I am being honest has really tried to live the faith since I was about thirty. Being in some ways a very private and even shy person, with occasional moments of overtness, I tend not to like the look of churches that get all emotional, or in accepting group ideology when at heart much of what I believe is very deeply held and not up for grabs in any way. Organised religion seems to me at best a watered-down version of what we hold in private. But for me, this corporate version of what starts out a very personal and private faith, has many problems attached to it. Firstly, it can get hierarchical when I feel most of us want an egalitarian faith; does God see high class status or white skin as more important than any other? Secondly, organised religion is a business, and in the business of raising money and holding stocks and shares and the like; is this really what God wants from us, running religion as a business? Thirdly, the individual, especially if they are deemed not important, plays a poor second to so-called group-ideology, where somehow the ideas of those who are deemed important trickle down to the rest of us; is Christianity just another branch of the class system? Fourthly, and similarly, it seems that Christianity in Britain has become just a reflection of the often unfair social system we all live under; if people fervently promote such unfairness in ‘organised Christianity’, are we so certain that God also promotes such unfairness? Isn’t this something humans can do all by themselves?!
A calling in Christianity, a calling from God, isn’t just to be a priest or vicar or even archbishop, it is to be a Christian and to serve God with a whole heart. For many people like myself, believing and having faith in God but not particularly believing in a hierarchical structure that seems more about class and socially important people, there is a void opening. In Britain, there are many Christians who just do not get organised religion or big denominations but who still have a deep and genuine hunger and thirst for God. This void has widened over the last fifty years or so. Let’s be honest here, much religion, much organised Christianity in Britain was about social control, was about getting people into pews and then telling them that the way things were, the deeply unfair social system, was somehow inexplicably ordained by God; the church was preaching falsehood so that the ruling class could control, manipulate and own millions of ordinary people. This put many ordinary people off religion and so they stopped going to church. In the last fifty years or so, when ordinary people’s options began to proliferate and people could live any way they wanted to, the church became far less relevant. But has God become far less relevant? I believe the answer is no. But what do Christians like myself really want? I don’t want hierarchy. I don’t want the church run like a business, collecting vast sums of money; and for what exactly? I don’t want top-down ideology, ideas from the elite trickling down to everyone else, using religion as a convenient way of controlling people. So what do we want then?
If we really want to have a faith worth living for, first of all we need to open up a debate, a debate that encompasses all Christians, not just vicars and priests and bishops and archbishops and those deemed socially important, I mean all Christians that want to get involved should get involved. I also think we need to think about ‘church’ as being the body of believers, not some vast impersonal organisation or a particular denomination or a building in need of repairs; why can’t we get together in each other’s houses or hotels or even pubs and bars? Who says it has to be a dusty suburban church anyway? ‘Thus says Yahweh: With heaven my throne and earth my footstool, what house could you build me, what place for me to rest, when all these things were made by me and all belong to me? - declares Yahweh. But my eyes are drawn to the person of humbled and contrite spirit, who trembles at my word.’ (Isaiah 66:1-2 NJB)
What we all need is a dose of reality, and perhaps we also need to know just what God wants from us, and for us, as well. I believe God is life-affirming, life-enhancing and life-transforming but little of this wonder, this magnificent nature of God seems to be disseminated through traditional worship and Sunday service churches; is it any wonder people find Christianity irrelevant and even boring?
I have asked myself many times, ‘just what sort of worship does God want from us?’ I find all that ‘happy-clappy’ stuff, when usually, and supposedly, reserved English people gush and emote at some church services, to be rather embarrassing, both to watch and probably to take part in as well. Unfortunately, I find the traditional variety of worship, going to church on Sunday at 9am, singing a few hymns and listening to a sermon, and saying hello to the priest or vicar, also not that appealing. If we could make the inner and private faith we all hold into a genuine public faith, we could all probably move mountains. How do we in fact square our very private and deeply held beliefs with a corporate and public faith? How do we worship a God who in fact really needs nothing from us? ‘But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob whom I have chosen, descendant of Abraham my friend, whom I have taken to myself, from the remotest parts of the earth and summoned from countries far away, to whom I have said, 'You are my servant, I have chosen you, I have not rejected you,' do not be afraid, for I am with you; do not be alarmed, for I am your God. I give you strength, truly I help you, truly I hold you firm with my saving right hand.’ (Isaiah 41:8-10 NJB) Perhaps worship can be many things; we worship God by being aware He has called us to be His own; we worship God by staying true to our calling even when we live in a deeply sinful and enticing world; we worship God by treating other people with the same respect we hope others will treat us with; we worship God by being in tune with Him and by being in tune with other people’s needs, and many more things besides.
I have learnt, usually the hard way, that God demands obedience from us; not partial or half-hearted obedience, but full and whole hearted obedience; we cannot live in any kind of sin and then proclaim that we are good Christians; in the end, we may fool other people, we may even fool ourselves, but we will not fool God. When Israel remained obedient, God blessed them and rewarded them and showered on them both material and spiritual blessings. However, when Israel only partially remained obedient, God warned them through prophet after prophet to amend their sinful ways and if they didn’t change their ways sooner or later God punished them. ‘…Is Yahweh pleased by burnt offerings and sacrifices or by obedience to Yahweh's voice? Truly, obedience is better than sacrifice, submissiveness than the fat of rams.’ (1 Samuel 15:22 NJB) The Old Testament and the story of Israel’s often extremely shaky relationship with God is a timely warning for us today, that God means what He says and that He is a God who demands our full attention and our full obedience too. If we get right with God first, before worrying about other things, we might find that our lives and our view of God are totally transformed. Who am I to challenge the way things are, who am I to suggest changes to age-old problems and age-old ways of doing things anyway? I’m just an ordinary sort of guy really, a Christian who wants to see my faith taken seriously but also honestly. ‘' Now, please forgive my sin and come back with me, so that I can worship Yahweh.'’ (1 Samuel 15:25 NJB)
Paul talks about the ‘inner reality’, the reality that though buried by a thousand and one other concerns, is the only reality we need. ‘Nothing is to be done out of jealousy or vanity; instead, out of humility of mind everyone should give preference to others, everyone pursuing not selfish interests but those of others.’ (Philippians 2:3-4 NJB) Paul, as Saul the Pharisee, was in some ways an accomplished man, a man who had things to be proud of, but he dismissed it all in order to be a Christian. ‘But what were once my assets I now through Christ Jesus count as losses. Yes, I will go further: because of the supreme advantage of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, I count everything else as loss. For him I have accepted the loss of all other things, and look on them all as filth if only I can gain Christ and be given a place in him, with the uprightness I have gained not from the Law, but through faith in Christ, an uprightness from God, based on faith, that I may come to know him and the power of his resurrection, and partake of his sufferings by being moulded to the pattern of his death, striving towards the goal of resurrection from the dead.’ (Philippians 3:7-11 NJB) Always, Paul gets to the nub of the argument, and though an educated and eloquent man, he writes with clarity and simplicity, putting across things that could be difficult in a simple and direct way. ‘For at the judgement seat of Christ we are all to be seen for what we are, so that each of us may receive what he has deserved in the body, matched to whatever he has done, good or bad. And so it is with the fear of the Lord always in mind that we try to win people over. But God sees us for what we are, and I hope your consciences do too. Again we are saying this not to commend ourselves to you, but simply to give you the opportunity to take pride in us, so that you may have an answer for those who take pride in appearances and not inner reality.’ (2 Corinthians 5:10-12 NJB) Perhaps we need to get back to this ‘inner reality’, or if we don’t know it to find out what this inner reality really means for Christians; certainly it is that we live in the truth of a situation rather than hiding behind cosy but ultimately empty falsehoods. We need to get back to the simple truth of the Gospel in everything we do and everything we believe.