When it comes to preaching on idols or idolatry, I sometimes ask the congregation to suggest idols that they think are issues in society today. The responses are usually reasonably predictable: money, sex, sport. Those are the things we good church people can often think of as idols. That’s not wrong – there are people for whom these things have assumed the wrong place in their lives. But I’ll be honest; I’ve yet to meet a Christian in the broadly evangelical church for whom sex is an idol; perhaps sexual purity, but that’s the subject of another post. I sometimes try and prod the conversation: what about family? marriage? church? Could they be idols?
As is so often the case, the real drama is in the silences. In The Wife, Glenn Close plays Joan – a woman who had been a promising potential novelist but whose career became subsumed when she married her teacher Joe. Early in the film we come to the two of them, now relatively aged, awaking to a phone call with the news that Joe has been awarded the Nobel Prize For Literature. As the news is broken to Joe – with Joan listening in on another phone – the camera shifts to Joan. She barely moves – but her face speaks volumes, hinting at layers and depths of varied emotions that imply a kind of darkness that can’t be named, but longs to be. It’s an astonishing piece of silent acting from Glenn Close, which is echoed throughout the film by similar moments. She is attentive to Joe’s every need (both as they travel to the Nobel Ceremony, and in flashback to the early days of their relationship); but something is trying to emerge, but also stay hidden. Christian Slater plays Joe’s would-be biographer, who thinks he can see there’s a secret to come out; and we uncover it with him.
To say more would be to spoil the film; it’s often comic, but really it’s a drama about ambition and frustration, about marriage and the challenges facing the wife of a lauded man. The film’s present day is 1992; it would be tempting to say that things have changed, but I’m sure many of us can understand that in much of life they haven’t.
At least, it often seems, they haven’t changed in the church – which is where I have worked for all my married life (save the first two years of our marriage, which was spent at seminary). When I was training for ministry (in the late 90’s/early 00’s), women had been welcomed to priestly ministry in the Church Of England for some years – though it’s only relatively recently that the glass ceiling to women becoming Bishops has been broken. Nevertheless, at the seminary I attended (chosen as much for geographical location as any theological conviction of mine), the support group for the spouses of students was very much a wives’ group. I can’t now remember the official name of the group; but there were a grand total of 0 female students training there for ordained ministry; many (though not all) of the staff and students at this conservative college did not agree with the ordination of women, and often said so – loudly and publicly. So it’s little surprise no women trained alongside me. My loss; though I suspect not theirs.
Never mind, though. Other parts of the Anglican church were better. Right? The network I was most committed to at that time contained few, if any, high-profile female church leaders. Platform speaking engagements were largely for male church leaders; women from para-church groups; or were wives of male leaders of (large) churches. These large churches were spoken of as being led by ‘X and Y Surname’ (husband and wife) where the husband was the ordained leader. The wife would often be on the large paid staff team; though sometimes not. She would sometimes be still be spoken of as leading the church with her husband, despite not being paid by the church, not having a formal input in the decision-making and only being involved in church life, like any other member of the church would be. Now it is fair to say that in this network things have got much better in these regards; I’m sure some would say there is still a way to go – but it seems much that is good has happened.
It’s true, however, that the role of clergy wife and clergy husband remain very different. My wife has been invited to chair Women’s Fellowships, sing in the choir (until someone overheard her singing), do the flower arranging. She’s not done most of it; whilst she was unable to work for Visa-reasons when we came to Cape Town, she did volunteer much time to the church; but things have long since changed. The same expectations or offers are rarely made of clergy husbands. Married women who are clergy speak often of a church’s inability to see that she must be ‘a wife, a mother and a clergywoman’; a similar expectation of a married clergyman does not exist.
The problem seems to be that inherited models of church leadership and gender roles within church and family have not kept up with a changing society. There’s also another, subtler pressure. In many churches – especially larger, suburban ones – excellence is a spoken or unspoken value. Professionals who are members of these churches work in businesses where excellence is prized; so churches have to imitate that. That’s expressed in many ways; but not least in the role of women. Either a clergy wife must be fully involved in ministry – paid, or not – to ensure it all happens; or she must sacrifice much of her time and career in order for her husband to meet church expectations. One theory goes that excellence in anything requires around 10,000 hours of committed practice; for that to be a reality someone must take care of the rest of life for the one who aims to excel. That’s almost always a woman, like Glenn Close appears to be in The Wife; doing everything behind the scenes whilst her husband is lauded across the world thanks to his 10,000 hours of labour. It never seems to be mentioned that by definition, as the man achieves his greatness thanks to the 10,000 hours given to his craft, the woman has invested the same amount of time in un-lauded areas. Behind every great man … the expression goes (the tag line of the movie is a clever play on this, especially in light of the film’s ending).
It’s patriarchy writ into the fabric of family and career, of course. The church is slowly learning to let go of it, but whilst it slowly learns the ministry of women in church, business (or wherever) suffers and stagnates as the woman’s call is seen to be to follow and enable the husband’s call. Doesn’t Ephesians say a woman should submit to her husband?
Well, it does – but that was written 2,000 years ago; and it seems to ignore that at the start of that section of Ephesians the invitation to all of us, of whatever gender, is to ‘submit to one another’. So this assumes a husband also submits to his wife in some way; in fact, so submissive is he that he is expected to be willing to do for her what Christ did for the church (to die). More of that passage is about the responsibilities of the husband to sacrifice (and to submit) and of Christ’s love for the church than is ever said of the wife’s responsibility to submit – which in any case is never defined; presumably the better to be re-interpreted within each time and place. But the Bible has usually, over 2,000 years, been written, translated, taught by and written about by men – so it’s no surprise, really, that these attitudes and interpretations continue as the norm in many places.
As a married male church leader I speak to people like me. Are we willing to submit to the calling of our wives? Are we willing to say ‘no’ to posts, opportunities or potential avenues of church life in order for our wives to fulfil their calling – as we have so often expected them to sacrifice to us. I’m not talking here about motherhood and the ‘traditional’ housewife – though not to dismiss and denigrate that if that’s what both feel is best for their marriage. For most of my ordained life, my wife has had paid employment too. She has a calling too (of course she does; every disciple does). We also need a second salary – especially now with children. So my wife follows her calling and gifts in the world; social enterprise, academic research, photography – and other things; one of those other things is motherhood, but it’s by no means the only one. So, as sometimes she has had to say no to opportunities to enable my ministry, so I must also, equally, say no to some things in order to enable her ministry. If I were looking to move to a large, busy church (which I’m not), maybe I would have to rethink my plans because of my wife’s career and calling. Maybe a church shouldn’t be busy (or maybe even large? that’s to discuss another time, I think)? Too often I, and men like me, can be entitled in our expectation of our wives to sacrifice, to give up, to say no, for our sake. Of course, we say and think to ourselves that it’s ‘for the Gospel’; failing to notice that our wife’s calling is as much ‘for the Gospel’ (whatever that means) as mine – maybe even more so if she’s not spending all day in the church office.
This needs saying to us: male, married church leaders must say no (sometimes to the church, sometimes to ourselves), that our wives may yes to God’s invitation to them. If something we say no to must still be done, then God is big enough to cope with our no; and if the church complains … well experience seems to suggest that if the no is repeated often enough and for long enough, the point is taken.
God can cope without us; God can also cope without our wives. He can cope without all of us; but too often we have just assumed He can cope without our wives, or can only cope with them within very specific parameters. To misquote The West Wing, let’s let God be God; let’s be strong enough to say no, that our wives may say yes.
This seems to make some kind of sense, right? After all, there’s that parable about seeds and God making the plants grow isn’t there? And if the Gospel’s attractive and true, and if God’s grace is irresistable, then people will respond to it and the church will grow, won’t they? Didn’t Peter preach the Gospel on the first Pentecost and see 3,000 people decide to follow Jesus? Didn’t the early church see people converted ‘daily’? We just have to get back to the pure truth of the Gospel, preach that, and all will be well.
It all sounds very attractive. We church leaders are always looking for a programme, a method, a technique, a sermon series which will guarantee church growth and great stories of changed lives. This sounds admirably simple and free of guile – we can all ‘just preach the Gospel’, can’t we?
The problem is this view ignores reality and the Biblical witness, and is dangerously close to a very particular kind of heresy. You don’t have to read much of the Bible to find that the people who are really being obedient to God and preaching what God wants them to preach don’t always end up with a crowd following them – prophets lying on their side for days a time, people cooking food over excrement; Moses had a crowd following him, but they were wandering around in the desert for 40 years, doomed to die before they got to where they were meant to be going. Jesus had crowds though, didn’t he? Well, yes. Crowds who tried to kill him, and eventually left him more or less alone as he died. Many of the original apostles paid for their missionary and church planting exploits with their lives. The Bible – which the people who so often spout this particular lie are so keen to claim fidelity to – does precious little to guarantee the success of true ‘Gospel’ ministry.
I know many faithful ministers of God, plugging away week by week in difficult situations. They ‘just preach’ the Gospel (and do much else besides); there’s little in the way of growth. Why? All sorts of reasons; we’re in post-Christendom culture now, where the Gospel is not assumed a preference, or they may be in a rural setting where there’s few people who haven’t experienced the ministry to reach and what’s really required is loving presence as much as any words you might come up with. Maybe the soil into which the minister is sowing is not healthy soil – maybe it’s rocky ground, and the parable is quite clear about what happens to the seeds there. That’s not the minister’s fault; it’s got nothing to do with her fidelity to the Gospel or otherwise. Maybe she’s been called to plough hard ground.
Ahh, comes the reply, You’re not preaching the Gospel if you’re not seeing growth. That’s a very circular kind of argument that’s hard to disprove. Until you consider reality, and the teaching of the church. A few years ago at an international evangelical congress, it was agreed that prosperity theology is heretical. Briefly, the prosperity ‘gospel’ says that if you give to God he will make you happy, healthy and rich. This doesn’t stand up to the Biblical witness of taking up your cross, and how much Christians suffer just like everyone else. It piles guilt on the poor, offers false hope and is a perversion of the Gospel. Hence, it’s heresy.
The statement ‘Just preach the Gospel and your church will grow’ is a particular kind of prosperity theology. It says, in essence, if your church isn’t growing, there’s something wrong with either your theology or your presentation of the Gospel. The problem there is that it fails to take account of the fact of how attractive a lie is – the prosperity gospel is dangerous because it’s so attractive. Churches which preach it are very full – and very rich. Can you see how close this is to ‘preach the gospel and the church will grow’? Just get the formula, the presentation, the content right and bingo! Your church will grow. You’re not growing? Well, there must be something wrong with you. It’s a kind of prosperity gospel related to doctrinal purity – God will reward your doctrinal correctness with growth.
You see, nowhere does God reward success or doctrinal purity with growth. When we are given a picture of God welcoming His servants into eternity with him, what are the words He uses? ‘Well done my good and doctrinally correct servant?’. No. It’s ‘my good and faithful servant, enter into the rest I have prepared for you’. Faithfulness speaks of marriage vows – for richer, for poorer, for church growth or shrinkage, in good soil and rocky soil. Faithfully plugging away.
What about fruitfulness though? Doesn’t Jesus promise – and require – that? Well, yes. But He produces it. In all honesty, I can only point to a handful of people who have truly been converted through my 18 years or so of ordained ministry. But I still hear stories – of how people I ministered to have remembered something I preached and that launched them on a lifetime of missionary service; disturbingly, one person in the church I served my curacy in still listens to my sermons from then, all those years later. I remember one young man came to me for advice about getting ordained. I doscouraged him; I told him I thought God was calling him to be an evaneglist and foreign missionary. He took that on board – he’s been serving for years now, in a foreign land, with great effectiveness and fruitfulness.
I haven’t seen significant growth; but it seems there’s been the slow fruit of encouraging the saints and being an instrument of God calling others to ministry through my ministry. Who knows how many will hear the Gospel – and respond – through them? That seems to me to be the faithfulness and fruitfulness God calls us to.
I’ve seen churches grow for many reasons – to be honest, in Westernised contexts, very few of those are about conversions and ‘Gospel responses’; they’re sociological. People of the same nationality being attracted to a community where there are others like them; a church school being used to crowbar unwilling parents through the church doors; the newish church in the area being more attractive, comfortable, having better music or coffee than the churches these people used to go to. The list goes on – it’s not that God can’t use these things to woo people into His kingdom, of course; I would just prefer a little more honesty about it. Much of what passes for church growth is about something rather different to what we pretend it is. If it was what it is often claimed to be then our nations would be in the midst of revival, so many ‘vibrant and growing’ churches there are. And it doesn’t take much to see that we aren’t in revival.
So let’s abandon this lie that if we ‘just preach the Gospel’ our church will grow. Attractive as it may seem, it’s self-aggrandizing to those with big churches, and piles guilt and self-doubt on the rest of us. Out job as leaders is to be faithful. The rest is up to the one who calls, the one saves and the one who rewards us.
I get bored quite easily. People close to me – be they parents, my wife, or whoever happens to be on the receiving end at the time – have grown well used to me saying so, or displaying the symptoms. Restlessness, not focussing, disturbing others from the no doubt important things they’re doing, sighing, puffing of the cheeks. You know the score. I have a 9 year-old who does the same. I understood a bit of why I do this when I was diagnosed with ADD last year, making sense of my inability to settle unaided by medication.
In truth, many of us know the feeling – a weariness with what we need to do or should be doing, a sense that there’s something better and more stimulating just out of reach. I’m in my mid-40s now, and it can be something of a stage of life thing for many of us; we’re no longer young, but the finishing strait is a long way off. That can be a wearying, deadening thought for many of us; hence, perhaps, the famed mid-life crisis that some crash into, a desperate attempt to make life interesting again, often bringing others down with us into the bargain.
There can be spiritual, church-based ennui too. Especially, I think, amongst those who (like me) would call ourselves charismatic Christians. Our flavour of faith can often seem attractive because we can be seen to offer drama: ecstatic experiences, prayer for revival, things to ‘push in to’ and the like. That reels us in, and gives us a lot of momentum. I’m not saying that these things can’t be genuine or important, but they can end up inoculating us against how things often turn out to be. When the life of the church isn’t one of constant breakthrough, success and answered prayer, boredom can set in. Worship services can seem repetitive; the life of faith just a little more run of the mill than we felt we were led to expect.
At this point people like me – people who lead churches, that is – often start to berate ‘consumer Christianity’ and get a little shouty. It’s not about what you can get out of church; it’s about what you can give. Church isn’t about getting, it’s about giving; it’s not about me, it’s about others, and the audience of One. There’s truth in this, and I’ve said it myself in the past; the trouble is, it can all start to sound a bit too much like a list of ‘should’ and ‘ought’; alarmingly lacking in the winsome grace that draws us to Jesus in the first place. Add to the mix the wearying litany of church leadership scandals, and it can seem to very difficult to make it all seem attractive. The result is that good people; good, gifted, wise people start to opt out of church with all the implications that has for various aspects of the church’s life.
One of the reasons this can be so difficult is that church leader is often bored too. It can be quite dull ‘running a church’; or it can be very hard and costly and you can just get wearied and worn down by the cost of trying to bring to birth what you think God is inviting into being. Either way, the result can be the same – tiredness, cynicism and boredom. You opt out – in spirit, if not in body.
So what’s the answer? Of course it’s too complicated for there to be one silver bullet to fix it all; but I think part of the answer may be in reminding ourselves that Jesus doesn’t drive people. Rather, he invites, calls, beckons. We want to push people, drag them into deeper commitment and involvement; Jesus, on the other hand, seems to make an invitation that’s so attractive and luminous that people are compelled to follow. We often talk of church leadership in these terms – ‘The Call’; but what about the rest of us? Do we create a culture where each person gets to consider what the invitation, the call of Jesus is for them? Are people called to our churches, as we are as leaders; or do they simply fill a seat, a space on the rota, until they no longer can? This seems to me to be the art of spiritual direction, preached, prayed and discussed over coffee. Of course, there’s a responsibility on the individual there too – is she searching, listening, asking? Or is she allowing herself to atrophy? But that in turn asks questions of the leader; do we expect God to call people; do we structure church solely in terms of the event that will convert or create drama or crisis for people; or do we, through worship, word, prayer, sacrament, conversation take people with us in to the deeper life of God, where the self is redefined and the life reoriented? Do we expect that to happen – perhaps even multiple times – in the life of the disciples in our care?
These are big questions, not easily answered. But the boredom people – leaders and lay people alike – experience is real and needs to be addressed. No one ever promised the life of discipleship would be exciting; Jesus did promise a cross and a yoke, albeit an easy-fitting one – hardly images to engage the thrill-seeker. We have a difficult balance to strike between fostering holy expectancy of anything at any time, and the slow business of walking a hot and dusty road behind a man on the way to his crucifixion (and later, his resurrection). The question remains: are we, leader and lay person alike, listening for the invitation?