This is a difficult post, because it will be easily misunderstood, and so I’ll do my best to speak carefully. I want to discuss the issue of personal salvation versus following Jesus. The two are not the same.
As some of you know, I’ve been mulling over my own ministry work, trying to determine whether it is right and valid to withdraw somewhat given my life at this point. Of concern to me, is that this becomes a “me” thing, and as a Christian, I am called to be “other” oriented.
In my EFM studying, I’ve been focusing on Amos and Hosea, two of the earliest “classical” prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures. Both preached in the Northern Kingdom of Israel in the 8th century BCE. Both condemn the Israelites for their unfaithfulness.
Contrary to popular belief, monotheism did not arise as a finished thing with Abraham. For centuries, and probably into more than one thousand years thereafter, the Hebrews struggled with this concept. They believed that Yahweh was their personal God, but certainly not as the only God. The scriptures reflect this quite often.
Most of the prophets continue to rant about the failure of kings and people to give up their reliance on Baal and other Middle Eastern deities. In addition, during this period, both Amos and Hosea add another charge–the people are practicing their “religion” just fine, but it is not confined to worship of Yahweh, but is self-serving. People come to be seen, to make connections, to offer tithes in return for fertility of field and wife. In other words they come to church with a personal agenda to fulfill. They are here to buy through ritual and alms, the good life.
I had to ask myself, was this still an issue for us today? And the answer is most assuredly yes. Here is where it gets tricky, since I in no way wish to condemn people for having personal reasons for attending church and engaging in missionary work. The work of parishioners is the life blood and backbone of most every church. They could not function without all the offered volunteers quite simply.
But we know that people attend church for reasons of being seen–politicians and professionals are often guilty of this. People attend because they are lonely and church provides a social life for some. It alleviates boredom for others–they have something to do during the week. And of course people attend because they are fearful of the future, and wish to insure a better chance that they will be heaven bound upon death.
These are not bad reasons–indeed if the work of the kingdom is done, it does not matter greatly that personal motives are also in the mix. In fact, these occasions become spiritual to the degree that one thinks of them as such. I in no way condemn nor chastise anyone who has “ulterior” motives in engaging in church work.
Churches themselves often contribute to this over-emphasis on “me.” Many denominations often focus on personal salvation as their main message. Others seek to be a home away from home to their congregants. They seek to provide every service imaginable, in some measure to draw in new members. Yet, one cannot deny that in doing so they are caring for the flock as directed.
But when do we cross the line from “feeding my sheep” to operating a country club? Surely one could argue that the “prosperity” gospel churches are entirely me focused, even though they often rail at the “secularization” of America and the world. What can be more secular than a me-oriented preaching that touts financial good as God’s desire?
I am blessed with a church whose focus remains constant. We are told that even though we fall, and fail again and again, we are loved and our duty is to love. We are urged to emulate Christ, by taking care of the world, little bit by little bit. The most beautiful words are in the time of Eucharist, “come you who have much faith and you who have little. Come you who have come here often, and you who have seldom come. Come because the Lord invites you to meet him here. It is not the church who invites, but it is our Lord, who awaits all who wish him.” Or words to that effect.
Easter Sunday, numerous folks are in church whom we normally don’t see. The “program” explained some of the common activities of the service and how to negotiate the Book of Common Prayer and the Hymnal. Included was an explanation of the baskets used for offerings. It was explained that visitors should in no way feel compelled to make any offering. In fact, they were gently advised not to. “Let us serve you today.”
Such is the mission of my Church–to serve. And with this serving is an unswerving dedication to leading its congregants to service to others. This seems to me to be worship at its best–teaching and by example, showing us how to put on the mind of Christ.
As individual Christians, I think we are called to examine ourselves regularly. How are we measuring up? Are our practices, rituals, and activities directed mostly for future benefit to ourselves? Or, are they aligned mostly to worshiping (showing our love and obedience) through emulation of our Savior?
It seems to me a balance needs be struck. It is proper and good that actions serve both of course, but I think that periodic evaluation is in order. Worship is judged aright when it is tied to service, for the proper way to obey is to do justice and equity within the land. Are we aware of what our practice is? I don’t know. I only ask the questions.
They utter mere words;
With empty oaths they make covenants; (Hosea 10:4)