The Wooing of the Church

Things get lost. Sometimes important things. They thought the ring had been lost, until Bilbo found it. The church too has got lost.

I was once struggling over a passage in 1 John 4, which warns against the danger of leaving the truth. The message seemed pretty clear, yet I felt I was missing something of its heart, something important, even though I did not know what I was looking for. So keen was I to understand this that I had got up in the night to pray into this, but still nothing. It was on my way back to bed that I felt God say to me, “I’m wooing my church back” and it upended my understanding of the passage. John was warning the early church, but now I wondered if those warnings had been sufficiently heeded, and I was reminded of an earlier dream. I dreamt of the bride of Christ, only it was not the picture of a glorious bride, but one from a horror movie, covered in rotting flesh, though still alive. It has to have been one of my oddest dreams, yet it felt strangely significant – even if I could not make it out. Maybe the church is not in such a great shape.

I blame a lot of this on the Greeks. In the first century things seemed to be going well for a mainly Jewish church. Yet, as it moved into the wider world it found itself confronted by the ideas of the Greeks. Ideas that needed responding to, but in the process became mired by them – and has been ever since. The trouble with ideas is that we don’t agree on them, which gives rise to conflict and then division. Whether it be over biblical criticism, science or the work of the Holy Spirit. No wonder we are in such a mess and riddled with division. A curse on all our houses. God is interested in none of our battles or our divisions, he wants one thing: that we love each other and are one.

On that night, as I went back to bed and I heard God utter the phrase “I am wooing my church back”, I broke down and wept. I wept over the state we had got ourselves into. Tears of repentance, yes, but not tears of despair, for I knew God was wooing us back. For me, that was closely linked with Toronto. Now, I don’t fully understand all that God has been doing through Toronto, but that God was at work I had no doubt. Somehow, the falling down, laughter, gold dust, glory clouds are all part of Gods move towards turning us back. God is wooing us. And I do not believe our past will be wasted. God will even use our divisions, as he causes the many streams to flow back together they will form a mighty river, pure and clean, sparkling like crystal. Yet somehow each stream will retain something of its hue, like many woven strands weaving in and out of the river, sparkling with iridescent light like many coloured gems. The river will bristle with life, with nothing wasted.

So, this is not a message of despair, yet it should stir us out of our complacency. If things do not look so bad to us, then maybe it is just that we have become used to the current state of affairs and see it as normal. It is not. I believe the truth is that the church has for many years been in a sorry state, but God is wooing his church back, and impossible as the challenge might be, what God sets his mind to do, he will surely accomplish.

Solving the Right Problem

We live in a broken world filled with those who are hurting and lost. Glibly, we say the problem is sin, but in an age that no longer recognises sin it has no meaning. We live by the mantra of not hurting others, if you feel guilty you are sick, so see a psychiatrist! We give the wrong answer because we do not listen to the question.

I was recently given an insight into this while helping fix a problem with central heating. Some of the radiators were not getting hot and the room they were in became cold. It turned out their was an air lock stopping the hot water circulating properly. So what was the problem? Well, clearly, the radiators were not working, but equally clearly, it was the air lock. The air lock was actually the root cause and so the more important issue – even if most people don’t see this. What they understand is that the radiators are cold. What struck me was that the gospel also seems to function at these two levels. The root level is always that of sin, but there is also another level, the level through which it is perceived. For example, for first century Israel the problem addressed was the dominion of the Romans. It was not so much sin they wanted delivering from, but the Romans. Similarly, for fifteenth century Europe the problem was less the sin, but more the guilt and punishment which resulted from it. In both cases, the root cause would have been understood as sin, but the pain they were suffering was different. For one the Romans, for the other guilt – and the gospel spoke to both because it dealt with the root cause, which was sin.

So, how does that relate to today? Well, clearly, people are not looking for deliverance from the Romans. Nor do they want deliverance from guilt (for which they see a psychiatrist). Yet, this does not mean that we are all well sorted now. Quite the contrary. We are, with our media, perhaps more aware of the brokenness we live in that ever before. We still need deliverance – from something, because we still suffer and the root is still sin, as it always has been – even if sin is no longer understood by the majority of people. The Gospel still restores the wholeness that is the hallmark of the Kingdom.

We need to understand the problem that needs solving, not look to what needed solving five hundred years ago at the time of the Protestant reformation. In our Western culture, the answer will be complex, but likely to include certain themes. In a fragmented society, with loss of both family and community, we cry out in our loneliness for love and belonging. In an infinitely vast Universe we are overwhelmed by our insignificance and look for significance somewhere – even if just fifteen minutes of fame. In a world with a material reality that is only here by chance, we seek for something beyond ourselves to bring meaning to it all. Our entertainment drowns the pain of our lostness, but the problems are never far away.

The gospel message of the fifteenth century no longer touches lives, as it deals with a problem that is rarely experienced. We need to learn to listen to the heart-cry of people, to understand what is broken in their lives and from which they are looking for deliverance. We will then realise that the gospel is as powerful today as it always has been.

Rise and Fall

They’d been waiting five hundred years for the Messiah, only to watch him die. It could not have been a great day for his disciples. So, when a few days later he comes back from the dead, I think they would have been euphoric, if, perhaps, a little surprised. Given such an astounding start you can understand the energy of the early church, and no wonder it grew rapidly – in spite of the occasional loss to an odd lion or two.

Yet something went wrong, because within a few generations the church seems very different, with works of the Spirit largely absent. I can understand how some of the early enthusiasm would dampen with time, but while this might effect the rate of growth it does not seem to account for the change in the very nature of the church. Something happened in the transition to the Gentile church it became.

Now, the first Gentile converts were familiar with the Jewish context of its origins, but it was not long before the Jewish ideas became associated with Greek philosophical thinking. In part, this was probably motivated by making the Christian message easier to understand by the Greek world. At the same time, the Greek speaking world fought back with arguments of its own, while others began to assimilate Christian ideas into Gnostic thought. A battle was fought, entirely along Greek lines, which seems to have entrenched Christianity into a solidly Greek mould. One that had somehow lost sight of some of its Jewish roots, one where its narrative of Israel had been replaced by philosophic ideas and where the washing of feet had been relegated to a mere symbol, no longer affecting the way we live.

Before long, the church’s gentle drift away from its roots had become a rift and open hostility even arose towards the Jews, who were increasingly seen as those responsible for Jesus death. While Christianity lost its Hebrew edges, at the same time it increasingly began to find favour with the Empire. Christianity had become fashionable and eventually even the Empire became Christian – or at least, that is what the baptismal certificates all said.

The church had become influential and powerful, but it was a different Christianity. It had forgotten its narrative of God come down, becoming a servant to the point of death (let alone washing feet). It had forgotten that its power was found in weakness, and so, while finding power within the Empire, it lost it where it mattered.

Or at least, that is the explanation I have, the one I find most convincing. But what does it show us? It shows us just how easily truth can get lost when it moves from one culture to the next. Arguably, if the church had retained its Jewish perspective the issue would not have arisen, yet I suspect that this was not an option. The Jewish story meant nothing to the Greeks. To get the truth of the Gospel heard it had to be retold in the language of its culture. A transition that, history has shown, did not go well. This is an important reminder to us, because, like it or not, modernity represents perhaps one of the biggest cultural shifts in the history of civilisation. Our truths need re-embedding if they are to be heard, and that is not going to be easy.

A dream, a word and them bones…

Her bridal dress was in tatters. She turned around and smiled, but it spoke only of death, her flesh barely clinging to her body. The only thought in my mind was, how could she still be alive? She looked as though she had died long ago and been rotting in the ground, and yet still she lived…

I’d been up in the night praying about a warning against the antichrist in one of John’s letters. A warning that we would be deceived if we did not preserve the truth that was within us. Yet it was my own thoughts I was touching, not those of God. I had given up seeking God and was heading back to bed, when some words entered my mind, “I’m wooing my church back”. In an instant my perspective changed. John’s warning had not been enough. It was no longer warning lest the church become deceived, but a realisation that we had been deceived already.

Ezekiel looked out upon a valley full of dry bones. It was desolate without any sign of life. Yet God was asking, can these bones live?

The church has drifted a long way from its first century roots. Yet, my dream still horrified me, because I knew the corpse was how God saw the church and I was shocked. It was a hopeless picture, just as Ezekiel’s was a hopeless picture. But just as God breathed life back into those dry bones, so he is wooing back his church back. Toronto was the start of something. In the early days we expected so much, and it is easy now to look back and wonder what it was all about. Yet God is once more breathing on dry bones. Life is coming back.


Bonhoeffer was killed by the Nazis. A final desperate act by Hitler, who could not bear the thought of him being released. His life and writings have been a provocation to many, myself included.

I remember the time I read his ideas on religion. He had observed that society was becoming more and more religionless, and that the church would be less and less relevant to such a society, as society would not longer be able to relate to church religion. The church could no longer survive as a religion. While liberal theologians were trying to remove the ‘myth’ from Christianity to get it back to its essential form, Bonhoeffer believed that it was the removal of religion that was required. A religionless Christianity would (he argued) speak as freshly and dynamically today as Jesus’ did in his day. Jesus message was a religionless message.

History seems to give us an example. When St Patrick first attempted to convert the Irish, he failed abysmally. It was only when he was able to shed his Christianity of its alien Roman form that anything began to happen. This pure form was ‘spliced’ onto the Celtic DNA and then spread like wild fire. Our bodies seem to act in the same way. They react to anything that is foreign, but will accept things that are pure, like gold, or grafted onto our own genetic material. The trouble is we have never known Christianity without any form of religion. We often do not even know how to distinguish between Victorian values, societal values, and the heartbeat of God. We may have known different religious forms, but we do not know God without religion.

The road back to a Christianity without religion is likely to be a hard one, and we won’t get there by theorising. We will get there by once more allowing the Gospel to devastate us. Bonhoeffer makes a similar point when he quotes Martin Luther speaking prophetically:

‘Discipleship is not limited to what you can comprehend – it must transcend all comprehension. Plunge into the deep waters beyond your own comprehension, and I will help you to comprehend even as I do. Bewilderment is my true comprehension. Not to know where you are going is the true knowledge. My comprehension transcends yours. Thus Abraham went forth from his father… not knowing whither he went. He trusted himself to my knowledge, and cared not for his own, and thus he took the right road and came to his journey’s end. Behold, that is the way of the cross. You cannot find it yourself, so you must let me lead you as though you were a blind man. Wherefore it is not you, no man, no living creature, but I myself, who instructs you by my word and Spirit in the way you should go. Not the work which you choose, not the suffering you devise, but the road which is clean contrary to all that you choose or contrive or desire – that is the road you must take. To that I call you and in that you must be my disciple.’

What we have in the way of church life now is far more religion than any of us realise. God is wanting to take us beyond this. He is wanting to take us to the place where we have not only counted the cost, but have left everything behind. This is the only true discipleship and is a fearsome road.