Jesus: “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”
I continue to be troubled about the effectiveness of the Christian church in Paris. I’m not going to mince my words, not going to put a happy face over a situation that appears dire, not going to gloss over problems to encourage those still trying to “make a difference.” To sum: I see very little evidence of Christian faith in this city. I have walked for block after block past locked and shuttered churches. I have seen absolutely no sign of faith in public spaces, have never observed people praying over their meals or praying at all (except Muslims), have not heard even the blandest cultural references to Christian faith in political speeches or on television … Christian faith, to the extent it exists, is hidden in Paris.
Shouldn’t faith show? Shouldn’t it “shine forth?” Isn’t the ideal to convey both a strong taste of saltiness and a brightness of a light shining outside a bushel?
Supposedly a new church is started in France every eleven days. If so, these churches are a well-kept secret for I have seen few of them. Perhaps a church folds every 11.1 days, too? That would explain it. Look, I want to know the real success rate for church planting. Not the start-up rate, but the success rate. Permit me to quantify success: success = five years of continual growth in the number of people who come weekly. So, using this admittedly arbitrary metric, how many churches which started five years ago — about 33 annually, if I’m doing the math correctly — are still around today?
In an undated article, Russel Moore discussed what he described as an flourishing interest in spirituality in France: “Secular philosophers now question secularism and its dearth of truly human values. Millions of French people are looking for a spiritual root to life.” This may be true — I pray it is — but as a historian/philosopher who has spoken to many other historian/philosophers, I have never heard such questioning or seen such seeking. If anything, Seculars, here, are doubling down against Christianity (at the same time they go gooey and jelly-kneed before Islam). There are entire sections of Paris described as “no-go” areas for a blonde who refuses to cover her head — this leads me to wonder where are the sections of Paris dominated by Christians I can walk about safely? Shouldn’t our Christian faith be as culturally obvious and domineering as that of Muslims?
Perhaps faith can be no bigger than the sum cultural presence of each of the faithful which means that individually, we mass into a corporate blob called “Christian faith,” a bit like Bush’s “thousand points of light” — we each shine separately thus making the firmament a bit brighter.
I’m looking at myself now. I’m not very shiny. Quite honestly, I don’t think that anyone would know I’m a Christian by my appearance, mannerisms, speech or behaviour. No one would know I believe in God unless I said or did something unusual or they saw me among other Christians, perhaps at church. My neck is not ringed with a jeweled cross on a chain … I don’t carry a Bible … I am just a typical well-bred woman. I exude my social aspect, not my faith.
Maybe I’m looking for something that doesn’t exist, but I don’t think so. In the past, Christians had to be identifiable to be “persecutable” and since they were persecuted, presumably they were different than the average Joe. So, should faith be visible? Should I hear it? Feel it? Imbibe it in social interactions? See it in others? If my faith is not visible to others, am I a lesser Christian doing something wrong or not doing enough?
Paul: My speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power …
I understand that God works quietly in people’s hearts and that His workings in the world may be invisible. But I also know there has to be fruit which must be visible or it can’t be picked.
I’ve never felt as Protestant as I do now living in Paris. The faith that defines me is quite far from “showy” Christianity of Catholicism and oldline Protestant denominations. I don’t share the lovely mentality that built the cathedrals dotting Paris. I love and appreciate their aesthetic, but don’t share it. My faith is spartan and unadorned. It’s scraped raw and to the bone. In essence, when aesthetics are sliced away, my faith lies somewhere between me and Jesus. One of the reasons why Protestants, in particular, find it difficult to articulate the reason and purpose for church is that our faith is soul-located. It’s inside of us. Hidden and secreted.
As a Protestant, the meaning of ritual and Christian aesthetics is not something I deeply grok, but I do understand that some of the stuff Protestants do NOT do makes visible the invisible. What we keep hidden may be the cultural marker of faith that is so needed. Though I recoil at the sight of men in long black robes and clerical collars sashaying through the streets, I admit this makes them stand apart from the typical woman in yoga pants and a t-shirt or the typical man in skinny pants and a cropped suitcoat. A priest is clearly a holy man — his garb identifies him.
I’m not saying that Christians should wear funny clothing to separate ourselves from Seculars, but have noticed that it works. When Christians are visibly different than Seculars and Muslims, they speak back into the culture their faith. It’s not hidden anymore, at least. When Muslims drop everything and bend down on their knees in city streets to worship, it’s a spectacle, of course, but it also brings to mind that they are not us. I can’t think of anything that Christians do, publicly, that sets them apart from Secular culture. There are many things we do NOT do, but negation only rejects Secularism; it does not promote Christianity. By not doing what Seculars do, we do not reveal the content of our faith, but reject theirs. That’s not a good outreach, or I don’t think it is.
Establishing a church is a public display of faith. These churches show. Or should. They DO the Christian things that separate them from the culture and values that surround them. It’s a way to make faith show.
Having said this, in my wee opinion, we’ve screwed up the sequence of how God does things. People don’t come to faith because a church exists but because the Spirit comes within to pull them to God; they allow themselves to believe because they understand, on some deep spiritual-visceral level, that they are going toward a better place. God calls all of us. He pulls us toward Him. He makes Christians out of pagans. It’s all about Him and His down-reaching.
Church is subsequent to God’s work in the hearts and souls of individuals. It doesn’t precede it. It’s not like God is limited in His saving work by the presence of a church or two. Obviously, we have to tell people about God. That’s the Great Commission which obedience requires. But this is one-on-one, not the result of an evangelistic call to the altar in church. So yes, of course, people become Christians in church, but I’d hazard a guess that most of us were saved when someone gently explained salvation AFTER God’s Spirit had softened our souls.
One of the things church must do, in society, is provide a baseline of information needed to make this faith decision. We’re doing a horrible job at this. Few people, today, know even the basics of faith. This is what I see in Paris, today. It’s a city with social routines developed during it’s long forgotten Christian past. To it’s core, it is a Secular city with Secular people doing Secular things. When France assumed laïcité, it necessarily rejected Catholicism — it switched faiths, in other words.
Secularism is religion. Secularism isn’t constructive but destructive; it’s not creative but parasitic; it doesn’t affirm but mocks. A secular society is one in freefall, gasping for the thinning air left by the Christian society that spawned it.
Again, Secularism is parasitic … it nourishes itself and is utterly dependent on the faith of the four generations before it. As these generations pass, which takes about a century, Secularism becomes the only religion people can see — they see only aimless, ravening selfishness. Seculars can’t create society but instead weaken and tear it down. They define themselves as peripheral to social values which requires something core and solid for them to be over-against. When this social core weakens and disappears, Seculars wander about like feral cats looking for their next meal. That’s the state of Paris.
Societies do seem to rise and fall. This is Gibbon’s cyclical view of history as well as the story of the Jews in the Old Testament: God’s gentle restoration of a stubborn, foolish tribe that habitually turned to other gods every few generations, then reaped the consequences of their actions until God rescued some of them, the remnant. This pattern repeats itself throughout the Bible. We never seemed to learn that the wisdom of faith is inherent in individuals, primarily the elderly — if those individuals don’t pass on their Christian faith and morality, it is lost.
This is a tangential impetus behind church planting, evangelization and revival. Society will rise and fall, as always, but the peaks and troughs won’t be as dramatic if Christians have a leavening and levelling effect on society. We stabilize society, one individual at a time.
So, why plant churches that mostly shrivel and die? Why plant unsuccessful churches? Why keep banging our heads against the odds?
Answer: Because … every point of light matters. If a church plant results in ONE Christian, that’s one point of light pushing back against cultural devolution and Secularism. It’s one public display of faith, however ephemeral. It’s one way that Christians, in their showlessness, actually reveal who they are and why they serve Him.
And it’s one more guy or gal plucked out of damnation.