Ancient Greek pouring of libation

This is the second of a series of posts reflecting on how the Church is conceived by its leaders, and offering alternative approaches. The first is here.

In the first I described the Archbishops’ ‘global prayer movement’ Thy Kingdom Come. Martyn Percy’s characteristically robust critique of it is well worth reading in full, though Kieran Bohan has produced a useful summary. Here I ask: is the Church just one more club, or something more important?

Percy contrasts the Church of England’s two best-selling publications. Faith in the City (1985) ‘engaged seriously with the decay and despair in our inner-city communities. It was ‘a kind of theology rooted in the Kingdom of God; one that put the people and the places they lived in before the needs and concerns of the Church.

Its sales figures have now been overtaken by the more recent Mission-Shaped Church (2004), a document focusing on how to build up church congregations by appealing to ‘homogeneous groups’. ‘These new genres of church’, Percy writes, ‘are usually apolitical in outlook, and often tend to be socially, politically and theologically conservative’.

To Percy, Thy Kingdom Come stands in the tradition of Mission-Shaped Church and, before it, the Decade of Evangelism which the 1980s were supposed to be. Observing that they don’t achieve their objectives, he describes the Church’s hierarchy as being in ‘broadcast mode’: ‘Like the proverbial Englishman abroad, they cannot make themselves understood in a world that increasingly finds the Church incomprehensible’, so ‘It just talks louder, hoping, somehow, it will be heard. It won’t.’

New Testament scholars are familiar with the difference. They distinguish between the ‘Jesus Movement’ and the ‘Christ Cult’.

The Jesus Movement was a continuation of what Jesus had started. Galileans continued to promote his vision of the Kingdom of God. They wrote down his sayings, in a text later copied into the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Scholars call it ‘Q’. It says nothing about his baptism, death or resurrection. For a long time scholars considered this odd; but now they accept that three other early Christian texts do the same: the Epistle of James, the Gospel of Thomas and the Didache. Thus the first followers of Jesus focused on his teaching about the Kingdom of God: what life would be like if we lived the way God has designed us to live. The death of Jesus didn’t stop them.

The Christ cult was an adaptation. As the Jesus movement expanded it attracted people more familiar with the wider culture dominated by Greek and Roman ideas. Like today, people met in social gatherings. Very often they shared bread and wine. Unlike today, they often associated their group with a patron god or hero. Patrons would be honoured with a libation of wine and stories of what they did to justify being honoured in this way. As the Jesus movement spread into this culture, its shared meals naturally borrowed its character. Jesus could be conceived as a divine or semi-divine character, with a status somewhere between the hero Theseus and the supreme god Zeus. Bread and wine would be shared in the context of speeches about how he brought salvation. The epistles of Paul reflect the early Christ cult.

The adaptation was perhaps inevitable, but differences arose. They are well illustrated by Percy’s contrast between those two publications. The Jesus Movement did not need to describe the death of Jesus. In the name of God’s kingdom he had led a movement critical of Roman rule. What they preserved was his vision of the Kingdom of God. Faith in the City, written in very different circumstances by very different people, nevertheless stood in that tradition. Like Jesus, it was condemned by the Government for being politically rebellious, though mercifully no crucifixions took place in 1985.

The Christ Cult lost the connection with the political and economic circumstances of first century Galilee. What Jesus stood for, and why the Romans treated him as an enemy of the state, ceased to be of interest. Instead he could be compared with the dying and rising gods of pagan Greek culture.

Mission-shaped Church fits this tradition. The universal perspective, based on the idea of a god who created and cares for the whole world, has almost disappeared. With it has gone public debate about how God calls individuals, society and humanity to live. What replaces it is an invitation for individuals to adopt a new identity as a member of a cult. The world outside the cult can then be imagined as alien.

The Jesus Movement and the Christ Cult didn’t have to go separate ways. Matthew, Mark and Luke did their best to hold them together. Among British church leaders today, however, the Christ Cult dominates. The values of the Jesus movement get little more than lip service. Thus Thy Kingdom Come

invites Christians around the world to pray for more people to come to know Jesus

without telling us what it means to ‘come to know Jesus’, let alone why it would be a good thing if more people did. It is the language of cult membership. In reality it is addressing people who already speak its language, and giving them something to do.

This form of Christianity resembles the countless hobbies that occupy those with time on their hands and no urgent needs. It offers a club with shared interests, like the community of Alfa Romeo drivers or antique furniture collectors. Like those clubs, it generates activities for its members. What it achieves is that it gives people a sense of belonging to something bigger than themselves.

An alternative evangelism

What I long for instead is a reaffirmation of the Jesus Movement. As I see it, its main features would be:

  • A renewed emphasis on God. When we worship Jesus rather than God, we distinguish ourselves from those outside the Christian tradition. When our worship is directed to the God who created the universe and cares for everybody alike, we remain inclusive. However strongly we disapprove of some other people, God loves them as much as us and calls us to live in harmony with them.
  • Public discourse. We should refuse to hide away in a churchy club. Our beliefs about how God has designed us should be our contribution to public debate about how our communities, our nation and humanity can make the most of life. If we do it well, we will find ourselves agreeing with Muslims and atheists about some things and disagreeing with fellow-Christians about others.
  • Prayer for the job. The way to encourage people to pray is to explain, openly and honestly, how it makes a difference for the better. Individuals can be left to try it out for themselves in their own good time.

There are some church leaders who long to see a change of direction along these lines. I think it would prove popular; after all, among the unchurched there is a hunger for spiritual leadership. Even if it didn’t, for those who believe in the Jesus Movement it would be the right thing to do.