February 17, 2010
Avatar and Becoming Mature in Christ
What a not-so-Christian movie says about the goal of the Christian life.
I have been thinking a lot lately about Colossians 1, where Paul writes: "We proclaim Christ, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this reason I labor, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me." It strikes me that this comes close to a creedal text for those of us involved in church ministry. Sometimes we get so immersed in the X's and O's of church work that we forget to step back and ask what 's the real reason we're doing all this. Paul has great clarity on it, and is more concise than usual: "so that we may present everyone mature in Christ."
If your church is looking for a big hairy audacious goal, this will do for starters.
The scale: everyone.
The outcome: mature in Christ.
That's not common language in our day. So recently I have asked church leaders in a number of settings to take a few moments to describe what someone who is "mature in Christ" looks like. Certain words always make the list: loving, joyful, peaceful, forgiving, serving, courageous, loyal, humble, generous.
And when "mature in Christ" is explained in those terms, there are not many people who are uninterested. This offer has remarkably broad appeal. I went with a friend to see Avatar last week. The 3-D thing is pretty cool. The writer does not actually attach a denominational label to the script, but it was pretty obviously not produced by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. However, the qualities in the heroes are remarkably consistent with many of the words listed by church leaders: courageous, loving, giving, loyal, generous. What it means to be a good person has been embedded by God pretty deeply into human consciousness.
How we get there is another matter.
Then I'll ask this question: do you think the average unchurched person in America thinks of these characteristics when they hear the word "Christian"? Not so much.
Here's another question (you can try this one at home, or with your elders if you're feeling perky): on a scale of 1-100, how is your church doing at producing this kind of person? It's a funny thing how often we're aware of our attendance trends or how close to budget we're running, but we often have not worked much to assess the real target we're aiming at.
Sometimes we're not even clear that this is the goal. I was talking to a church leader from a European country recently, who commented on a difficult dynamic where he lives. It is expected that the state will pretty much care for all human needs—the alleviation of poverty, provision of care for the sick, needy, and elderly, and so on. There is little or no expectation that the church will be involved in such issues.
The result, of course, is that most people in that society do not believe that those in churches care about them, or are marked by compassion. In the Acts church, it was almost exactly the other way around; it was the compassion of the church that reached the world.
For only the church has the goal of presenting everyone "mature in Christ." Other entities can try to lessen suffering or care for needs, but these do not have the same power.
I heard a great talk not long ago by Harvard professor Michael Porter about "doing well at doing good." He had been part of a project bringing renewal to Newark, New Jersey. They did this, not by trying to meet needs through charity, but by identifying competitive advantages that could attract businesses and create a sustainable financial strategy. The advantage they discovered was that, because of population density, Newark actually had higher purchasing power per square acre than Beverly Hills.
And much good has been done. But it did raise the question in my mind: Is it a good goal to seek to replicate Beverly Hills all over the world? Shouldn't we aim a bit higher?
Which is part of the reason why the church must be in the compassion business. True compassion is about more than just alleviating suffering. Its final aim is a redeemed humanity and a flourishing earth—"to present everyone mature in Christ."
This was the work of Jesus himself: to heal the sick, feed the hungry, give sight to the blind, care for the poor; give righteousness to the scandalous and scandalize the self-righteous; give hope to the hopeless and love to the loveless.
And he's not done yet.