By Mark Wingfield
In a world of “Ten Steps to Effective Christian Living” sermons, what’s happened to allowing some room for the mysterious ways of God?
The self-help mentality that has invaded churches may have produced the unintended consequence of devaluing the unknown and unexplainable.
During the Lenten season, Senior Associate Pastor Jody Alderman of Northside United Methodist Church once preached a sermon using the title “Is God’s Presence Enough?”
In the sermon, he talked about the trials of life and the promise of Jesus to be always with his disciples. After the service, a woman approached him to declare that she didn’t agree with anything he had said that morning. She recounted the trials she was experiencing and concluded, “God’s presence is not enough.”
Surprised, Alderman could only respond: “God’s presence has got to be enough. God’s all I have to give you.”
In some other churches, the pastor might have preached on 10 traits for better living or seven ways to overcome adversity, with a guaranteed checklist for success. But that type of approach seldom happens at traditional Protestant churches. These churches are uniquely situated to help congregants wrestle with the tough questions of life and faith.
This is the area German scholar Rudolf Otto in 1917 labeled the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, the mystery of terror and fascination. In his book “The Future of Faith,” Harvey Cox of Harvard Divinity School cites this notion as evidence of a new Age of the Spirit dawning in religion.
He also quotes Albert Einstein who, in response to a query from a rabbi as to whether the great scientist believed in God, said: “The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. . . . To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: this is religiousness.”
Willingness to grapple with questions of faith rather than statements of belief marks the current state of interest among people outside the church, Cox suggests.
“A mystery is not something anyone solves,” he writes. “It is something we live with, and people find that this mystery touches them in different ways.”
That notion resonates with pastors of traditional Protestant churches, who shy away from easy answers and fill-in-the-blank sermons.
“We want to be a thinking, nurturing church and a safe place for people to ask questions and explore their faith,” said Bob Browning, pastor of First Baptist Church of Franklin, Ky. “You’ve got to be comfortable with questions. Faith begins with questions.”
He tells his congregation frequently, “Faithfulness has more to do with the questions you ask than the answers you memorize.”
This approach runs counter to much of the church growth movement that has swept American Protestantism in the past 30 years.
“In our culture, we know what works,” Browning said. “Entertainment works. And dumbing down works. And giving people lists every week of what they should do works. All that works, but we don’t know if it develops faith that works. What’s the end result?”
Alderman, of Northside United Methodist Church in Atlanta, likens this to the biblical story of Nicodemus, the Jewish ruler who came to Jesus by night to ask how he might be saved.
“Like Nicodemus, we have questions in the dark,” Alderman said. “There are some questions we can’t answer. We have to live with those questions.”
While there’s clearly a market for easy-answers Christianity, there’s also a market for the kind of open dialogue traditional Protestant churches do best.
Some mega-church pastors already have learned the lesson of deeper faith development, now that they’ve accumulated masses of people in chairs who are not yet disciples of Christ, notes Frederick Schmidt Jr., professor at Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology, writing in the online journal Patheos.
“It turns out that bringing large numbers of people through the doors to hear dramatic preaching and great music doesn’t necessarily form Christian souls,” Schmidt wrote. “Mainline churches don’t need to adopt the abandoned strategies of their larger neighbors in the desperate effort to build a bigger church—unless you are just into learning things the hard way, again. In a world that is spiritual but not religious, where people ‘do God,’ but they don’t ‘do religion,’ churches would do well to ask how they nurture a deeper sense of connection with God, rather than fill pews.”
A popular song in the early days of contemporary Christian music stated, “Our God is an awesome God.” By this, the lyrics speak of how wonderful God is more than the wonder of God. One of the perils of the contemporary church movement has been raising up the awesomeness of God while laying aside the awe of God.
One of the churches I grew up in had thin strips of paper with hand-lettered words posted under the wood frame of the balcony. Anyone sitting under the balcony, as our family often did, couldn’t help but see these pithy words week after week. One of those yellowed strips presented this Scripture: “Stand in awe and sin not.”
This passage from Psalm 4 is one of many reminders within Scripture that we must approach God with awe and mystery. To make God awesome but fail to stand in awe of God surely is a sin.
Adapted from “Staying Alive: Why the Conventional Wisdom About Traditional Churches is Wrong,” by Mark Wingfield, published in collaboration with The Columbia Partnership. Mark Wingfield is associate pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas.