Thursday, July 31, 2014

Beyond "Applying the Bible to Our Lives" Christianity

I grew up in small church in rural North Texas called Foote Baptist Church. The pictures below depict the actual building restored back to it's early 20th century look. When I say "I grew up" I mean that. I spent a ton of time in that old school house church building. It was just part of my childhood. And listening to sermons was part of my childhood. There was not children's church. That was the day when we sat with the adults.

As I've reflected on the sermonizing of my childhood, I realized that there was a basic pattern to them. It went like this:
  • Part 1: The Passage and What it Said—In this part, the pastor would identify the passage and explain what it was about.
  • Part 2: The Meaning of the Passage—Here would come the interpretation.
  • Part 3: Application—Here is where we were challenged to implement the passage to our lives.
This approach to sermons was based upon something called decision-based ethics, which assumes that when we hear the truth that we should be able to apply the truth by making a decision to change our lives. The Bible commands it so we should obey those commands. If we make the right decisions, then we will live our lives in accordance with the Gospel.

The problem with this is that it requires "us" to be the agent who enacts the Gospel. Our decision to obey is the focus. It detracted us from see how the Spirit was forming us that went deeper than our surface decisions.

As I reflected on my childhood at Foote Baptist Church, I've realized that the way I learned to respond to God did not line up very well with the assumptions of the preaching. Even though the preaching typically ended with some kind of call to action or decision, this is not how I was formed in my ethics. The reality of my ethical development as a child at Foote Baptist Church did not come through a command-obedience, decision-based ethics. Instead, my ethics was formed through the story of Foote Baptist Church and the practices that were are part of that story. This was the story that we told in our life together, the story lived by patriarchs of the church like Smith and Pauline Roberts, the story of people like my parents who served there. It was the story of faithful people who worshipped, who loved, and who sacrificed for one another. Ultimately this was based in the story we heard in our every week in our sermons, the story of the love of God displayed by Jesus on the cross. But somehow we did not understand the importance of the story and how it formed us, so we focused a lot of attention on application and decisions.

This story and the corresponding practices that flowed with that story, shaped my character. It became part of who I am. I learned the story of God by watching is play out in the character of the people called Foote. The people with whom I shared life shaped me.

The problem was that I did not have words to describe how my ethical formation really worked. I learned a set of rules—applications and decisions—of what good Christians did and what good Christians did not do. As I grew older, I focused more and more on those rules. And I focused more and more on my being the primary agent in my journey as a Christian. The story became all about me and what I did or did not do.

Looking back, I was truly blessed by the story of Foote, and now I've begun to develop a language to describe the formation by the Spirit that was occurring under our noses. Here's a brief explanation.

Our walk with Christ is more about our being than it is about our decisions. Being is about who we are or our character. Character aligns with the story of a group's life together and is shaped by the practices of that story. When the story of cross-like love shapes the story of a church, it defines their character and the practices it adopts. As a result, the decisions being made will flow out of that character.

Instead of deciding to act the right way, we live into the practices of the story that will shape our decisions regarding how we act. 

N. T. Wright speaks to how individual Christians develop the character of Christ in his award-winning book After You Believe. By interacting with the writings of the New Testament authors and many writers who have identified how an individual develops a virtuous lifestyle, he demonstrates how a person does not simply decide himself into a faithful disciple by will and effort. Instead, he adopts a set of practices that over time forms his character into that of a faithful disciple. Wright makes the point this way:

"It was Aristotle, about 350 years before the time of Jesus, who developed the threefold pattern of character formation. … There is the first the “goal,” the telos, the ultimate thing we’re aiming at; there are then the steps you take toward that goal, the “strengths” of character which will enable you to arrive at the goal; and there is the process of moral training by which these “strengths” turn into habits, become second nature."

We need practices that can eventually develop into habits which will change our character. Think of it this way:

Choices turn into practices.
Practices become habits.
Habits cultivate character.
Character shapes our ethical decisions

At first glance, this might still look like we are focusing on decisions because the first line talks about our "choices." But the choice is largely based on the story in which we will participate. I grew up in a story called Foote Baptist Church. I did not make an overt choice as a baby, but subsequently, I've chosen to participate with others in other stories. For instance, when I went to Texas A & M for undergrad, I made a choice to participate in the story of a student ministry called the Baptist Student Union. That story of shared life with those people shaped my practices. I could have chosen to enter into another story and make another community my primary group, and that group would have shaped my practices in different ways.

If you choose to participate in the story of "climb the latter at work until you reach the top," then you will be shaped by the practices of a community that will develop into habits that will shape your character, that will determine your decisions.

If you make a choice to participate in the story of "I'm a victim of my circumstances," then you will be shaped by the practices of a community that supports those habits and displays that character.

Many such examples could be added.

The story you choose will correlate with the community with whom you share life. In other words, our character is shaped by the community with whom we share life because our character is shaped by stories not just decisions. The story of the church is a story that should be shaped by the cross. (We won't talk about whether this is actually the case in churches today; that's a different conversation.)

Making decisions that are cross-like rides the back of cross-like character. This character is developed through habits. And these habits are developed through practices. In order to change the character so that it lines up with the relational way we must develop new practices. Stanley Hauerwas puts it this way,

"To emphasize the idea of character is to recognize that our actions are also acts of self-determination; in them we not only reaffirm what we have been but also determine what we will be in the future. By our actions we not only shape a particular situation, we also form ourselves to meet future situations in a particular way. Thus the concept of character implies that moral goodness is primarily a prediction of persons and not acts, and that this goodness of persons is not automatic but must be acquired and cultivated."

This stands in contrast to many approaches of spirituality today that promote making decisions that are radical or zealot like in order to line up with the teachings of Jesus. That approach calls for Gospel heroes. What I'm calling for here are Gospel saints who live in a way with others that shapes their character.

This idea of character challenges us to go beyond trying harder to make the right decisions. It calls us to think about our life in Christ as something that we already are, while at the same time we are becoming. It's a paradox. It is not "automatic but must be acquired and cultivated." The choices we make now as a community will have a direct bearing on our ability to live out the life of Christ in the future. This is why we cannot simply think in terms pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps and making it happen. This is not about effort. This is not about producing decisions that line up with God's will.

The Spirit is forming us through the story of our community that shapes our practices. Through this, we are transformed by the renewing of our minds. Of course, we make decisions and we apply the truth of the Gospel to our lives, but this is not the primary way to faithfully follow Christ. It's actually pretty far down on the list.

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