Currently I’m reading Dallas Willard’s classic book The Divine Conspiracy. There are so many good things that Willard writes that we could talk about but one section really impacted me due to current events and the church plant that I’m in the process of exploring.
In the section in question, Willard brings Clyde Reid into the conversation and quotes from Reid’s book The God-evaders (1966). Willard writes, “A few years ago Clyde Reid wrote a painfully incisive discussion of how our church activities seem to be structured around evading God. His ‘law of religious evasion’ states, ‘We structure our churches and maintain them so as to shield us from God and to protect us from genuine religious experience’ ” (201).
For Willard, Reid’s “law of religious evasion” is just another example of how “it seems to be a general law of social/historical development that institutions tend to distort and destroy the central function that brought them into existence” (201). When we strip away the building, the programs, the institution, and the money away from church, what is the church’s central function? It is, in Willard’s beautiful words, to be a “school of eternal living” where we learn from Jesus as “apprentices of eternal living.” Jesus is the master teacher and we are called to learn, as apprentices, his ways.
Think about the way an apprenticeship works. The student follows, watches, copies and tries to imitate the master. Often the apprentice begins with no skills but through the process of learning (seeing, then doing), skills develop and as they are mastered the apprentice is able to assist the master in his/her work. Apprenticeships consist of careful and deliberate steps of teaching, trial and error, re-teaching, practice and finally the student begins to do the skills in such a way that there is little difference in the work of the master and the work of the student. In the end, the apprentice that began with no skills has become a copy of the master.
I think you can see how that description overlaps with the Christian life- or, at least, is supposed to. How well are our churches taking those with no skills and teaching them to copy the Master? If we took an honest look at ourselves, how well are we apprentices of the Master?
I think many of our churches do exactly what Reid describes. We hide God behind our amazing worship music. We hide God behind our traditions. We hide God behind our bureaucratic structures, policies and procedures. We hide God behind our ministry programs. Sometimes, we even hide God behind our mediocrity. If someone comes into our church, are they getting their fill of those things while missing God entirely? Instead of allowing for a genuine religious experience, do our churches actually assist us in evading God?
More importantly, why would that happen? Reid says it covers up the fact that our churches don’t actually “change lives or influence conduct to any appreciable degree.” Willard says it’s because we worry about the judgment of others and desire praise from men rather than God. I agree with both of those conclusions and want to add my own as well. Another reason our churches actually assist us in evading God is because we cannot control God but we can control a worship service, a ministry or a bureaucratic structure. When we really reveal God, things begin happening, they often force a choice between the institution and God.
When it’s all said and done, are we trying to make apprentices of the institution or the Master?
* If you want more information about what a church plant in Midland might look like, please pass along your name and email here (at the bottom). We are also looking to have an informal get together next Tuesday (10-6-15) night- I’ll be inviting people through text, email and phone call but if you want the where and when, let me know.