Why do so many Christians find their faith unsatisfying and shallow? Whatever else, one of the key factors is that dynamic, genuine and healthy Christian spirituality must always be about both intimacy with God and involvement with community – and whenever that life-giving balance is lost it inevitably becomes unsatisfying. If intimacy without involvement is shallow and hollow – the sad sight of hoards of Christians endlessly chanting their empty clichés to themselves – then involvement without intimacy is a grinding, sapping, draining affair, which in the end not only leads to burnout, but leaves churches simply rolling out empty social programmes devoid of any transformational power. “Ultimately,” as Stanley Hauerwas puts it, “the Church’s mission is not to bring justice, mercy and compassion – it’s to bring God.” It’s a simple equation: intimacy without involvement feels shallow and boring because it is shallow and boring. Involvement without intimacy feels exhausting and joyless because it is exhausting and joyless. But more importantly, neither represent authentic Christianity.
Integrity demands a harmony between what we believe and the way we act. ‘That which we claim to be aware of in our souls must become visible before it is credible. Likewise, our actions need to spring from the depths of our spirit if they are to be of substance and significance,’ wrote Mike Riddell. The tragedy is the Church has too often neglected this sacred connection, which has invariably led either to isolation from its surrounding culture (the sacralisation of our faith) or to a seduction by that culture, leading to the secularisation of our faith. Either way, faith becomes impotent and sterile; genuine Christian spirituality is lost and the light that should be shining in the darkness is extinguished.
For much of the 20th century, in both the United States and the UK, there was a tendency on the part of many evangelical churches to deal with increasing secularisation by retreat. However, this retreat from contamination also proved to be a long march into irrelevancy. I know of one Baptist Bible College in Texas which even went as far as advertising its campus as ‘50 miles from the nearest sin’ – presumably to sell its remote location to pious parents worried about their ‘precious young darling’s’ moral safety on leaving home.
But that’s not the whole story. At the same time as all this was going on, other sections of the Church, unimpressed with this negative, head in the sand, ‘holyhuddle’ mentality reacted to it and the pressure of their surrounding culture by throwing themselves with all their energy and commitment into politics and social engagement. Rather than saving souls their eyes became firmly set on shaping society. And unfortunately, as we all know, in the desperate search to ‘fit’ the prevailing secular culture many slowly lost any semblance of Christian distinctiveness or genuine spirituality.
In truth, to subscribe to either the ‘otherworldly’ notion of Christian spirituality which is all about the inner life or alternatively to opt for the ‘activist’ public service option is to entirely abandon truly biblically-rooted Christian spirituality. To talk about inner versus outer life, religion versus politics or intercessors versus activists, is to attempt to drive a wedge between that which by nature is unified; thus, producing a perilous and destructive dualism which can only survive by turning its back on the teaching of both the Old and New Testaments. Spirituality that is focused on the inner life is dead and for the most part falls foul of the criticisms, which Freud and others have made of religion – that it is no more than a crutch for the weak. Likewise, mission, activism and public service that become detached from an inner spirituality will ultimately prove bankrupt of transformational power and energy.
Intimacy and Involvement: True Christian Spirituality
‘The art of great acting is learning to immerse yourself totally in the world of your script,’ explained the drama student. ‘It’s one of the most difficult yet essential elements of theatre. But it’s the only way you can ever really learn to embody your character on stage.’ This student’s insight reflects exactly the Church’s task when it comes to grappling with the Bible. In so far as the Church in the West has forgotten its roots, we have left ourselves impoverished and have neglected, even abandoned, authentic Christian spirituality.
Not surprisingly, it is Jesus himself who provides us with the foundational statement for Christian orthodoxy, making everything else in the Bible look like commentary on it: ‘Love God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind … and love your neighbour as yourself’ (Matthew 22:37-39); the two are inextricably connected. The ability to love your neighbour as yourself is funded by loving God. Your love for God is authenticated by loving your neighbour. Biblical spirituality is an integrated spirituality. Outward engagement is as essential as inner orientation.
Authentic spirituality is about intimacy and involvement.
It is no accident that Jesus did not simply present the world with a set of propositions to be believed. He came to demonstrate that God is passionately concerned with the needs of communities and individuals at every level, by being so himself. Jesus was a prophet. Through a combination of highly symbolic actions such as upturning traders’ tables in the temple or eating with the ‘wrong’ people, Jesus was engaging in nothing less than a highlypolitical and risky revolution – a revolution known as the kingdom of God.
Jesus’ message and work were built on the twin principles of relationship with God and positive involvement in society. He trail-blazed a pathway of both intimacy with the Creator and involvement with his creation, and he invited others to follow suit. His actions sprang from the deep conviction that the one who sent him not only deeply loved the world he had created, but that he was still intimately involved in it; and that only through the engagement of his people in the same task would the longed-for restoration continue. He knew that God’s love needed to become visible before it would ever be credible.
Intimacy with God and involvement with society are inseparably connected in Jesus’ final words to his disciples as recorded by Matthew, ‘Go…and surely I am with you always,’ (Matthew 28:19-20). So it is that the ‘stay-at-home’ church can never know the intimacy it so craves, for it is in the act of ‘going’ that we encounter the risen Jesus. True intimacy with God is the outcome of our involvement in his world. Involvement in God’s world is the outcome of genuine intimacy. Intimacy and involvement belong together - to ignore one is always to destroy the quality and depth of the other.
Jesus did not bequeath our contemporary Christian dichotomies to us – they came from elsewhere. He never separated the spiritual from the material or the sacred from the secular. Authentic Christian spirituality has nothing to do with the quest to attain some higher esoteric spiritual experience for the sake of it. In Jesus’ thinking there is no room whatsoever for such escapist, shallow and self-indulgent thinking. Just as his life was about bringing the creator God into the places of poverty, inequality, violence and fear, he implores us to be about this same task (John 17:18). Similarly, just as he brought a deeper understanding of personhood and community, bestowing identity to the marginalized, transforming the consciousness of individuals, families and society as a whole, our calling is to be engaged in the same enterprise. It is the job of the Church to interpret Christ to the world by demonstrating the qualities that Jesus demonstrated. If the Church loses hold on its mandate to do this, it quite simply forfeits its right to exist. What both Church and society need most is the intimacy and involvement that Jesus demonstrated.
A Moment of Opportunity: The Role of the Church in the 21st Century
The recognition of the breadth and depth of the dysfunctionality of 21st Century society is everywhere. It fills our newspapers and dominates the agendas of our politicians and social commentators. Government speaks of working to create well-being in each community, which it goes on to define as physical, social and environmental flourishing; of building active communities and social capital in order to achieve the task; and explicitly of the key role that religious groups, including churches, have to play in all this.
But the social reform, so longed for, will never come about exclusively through externals, government programmes or appeals to self-improvement.
Society will not thrive and people cannot flourish on mere ideological posturing or hollow encouragement. As history teaches us, physical provision without spiritual hope is an empty commodity. What is needed is a sense of inner hope as well as workable holistic solutions. The Church has an indispensable role to play in our society. It is time to demonstrate a faith and spirituality that work and deliver.
Being a Christian is not about meeting regularly with like-minded people to sing our favourite songs in a religious social club. Nor is it about badgering people about their eternal destiny whenever half an opportunity rears its head. True Christian spirituality turns on two axes; the first, our relationship with the God of love, generosity and inclusiveness revealed in the person of Jesus Christ, and the second (an inevitable consequence of the first), our love for and commitment to others. This not only necessitates an intimacy with God that informs our lives, but a depth of involvement in society that demonstrates the same outrageous love and inclusiveness on which we ourselves are continually dependant. However, not only is our faith the source of our action, at one and the same time our involvement in society informs, deepens, sharpens and authenticates that faith. Or to put it in the blunt words of the New Testament, ‘faith without works is dead’.
Steve Chalke starts a new series looking at the way churches have made a significant impact in their communities. Intimacy and Involvement, written by Steve Chalke and Simon Johnston, is the latest Faithworks book published by Kinsgway, price £5.99. Intimacy and Involvement: The Faithworks UK Conference, takes place in Eastbourne from October 10th – 12th 2003 for all Christians and churches who want to engage more effectively with the community around them. Speakers include Tony Campolo, Jim Wallis, Jackie Pullinger, Steve Chalke and many more. For more information about the full range of Faithworks books and other community building resources or to book for the conference, visit Faithworks at www.faithworks.info or telephone 020 7450 9052. The Faithworks movement was founded by Oasis Trust in partnership with Care, Care for the Family, Caritas – Social Action, Christianity+Renewal, Christian Herald, Moorlands College, Shaftesbury Housing Group, Stewardship Services and the YMCA.