Friday, June 6, 2014

Which Came First: The Reason or the Change?

One of the blogs I subscribe to is by Seth Godin. Godin writes daily on the emerging information and internet economy and I love to read his posts because he is concise and I can read most of them in under a minute (a skill I wish I had for my own writings). More importantly, he has a unique perspective on the modern world that often gets my own creative juices going for myself and my job. 

This morning's post was a prime example. The last line stopped my coffee mug half way to my mouth: It turns out, humans don't use explanations to make change happen. They change, and then try to explain it.

Though Godin certainly didn't intend it in the context of church, his quote immediately brought up all kinds of thoughts about Christian education, evangelism, and church culture. I think this quote captures part of what has been wrong with Christianity's approach to presenting itself for the past five hundred years or so. Starting with the Reformation and increasing through the Enlightenment, the Great Awakenings, and into the recent past, it seems that the Church (at least Western Protestantism), has come to believe that the key to evangelism is making a rational defense of faith. If I can make a logical proof of God/Jesus/faith, then people will come flocking to church. Many writings, sermons, and Sunday school lessons are built around that basic idea.

If Godin is correct, that kind of thinking is largely false. A logical argument may get the ball rolling in someone's mind or reinforce a change that was already underway, but it rarely is the whole of a person's life changing. 

I've attended church my whole life and when I think back, I realize that it wasn't the lessons I learned in Sunday school that "convinced" me about God as much as it was love my teachers had for me; it wasn't the logic in the sermons as much as the songs and rituals of worship echoing in my ears and heart. It was moments of supreme fellowship, beauty, truth/insight, and wonder that opened me up, turned me around, or overwhelmed my heart in ways that I didn't have language for in the moment. It was afterwards that I was able to use the vocabulary I had learned in Sunday school or Bible study to explain the change. I didn't get explained into a relationship with God, I found myself in relationship with God and then explained it.

A helpful contrast to the "Western" emphasis on explaining and logic can be found in the Orthodox church. An Orthodox worship service, with its elaborate rituals and traditions, is meant to give participants an experience of heaven, inviting people into the activities of God and being changed through the process. I'm a liturgy geek, so I know I'm biased, but I find a worship service that gives me an experience of God to be much meatier than one that just tells me about God. To be fair, Classic Catholic and Protestant worship was built around similar intentions to an Orthodox service, but the centrality of the sermon in most people's minds today demonstrates the shift that has happened culturally. (My tribe of Christians, Lutherans, also tends to be suspicious of anything that sounds too "emotional" because of some theological battles we had almost 400 years ago.)

Humans don't use explanations to make change happen. They change, and then try to explain it. If Godin is right, then the church doesn't need a perfect argument to "prove" God to the world. Instead, the church is a place where we promote and practice change (personal, social, mental, spiritual) and then help people find the language to explain it when it happens.

“Change this something normal into something beautiful.” -Jars of Clay, “Something Beautiful”

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