Three of the four gospels tell the story of the rich young ruler who came to Jesus and asked, "What can I do to have eternal life?" Most who read the story focus on his backing off when Jesus told him to "Sell all you have and give to the poor, and come, follow me." His riches are seen as the sticking point. I am not so sure that is all of the story.
I think we see here two different approaches to "eternal life"--man's, and God's. Matthew quotes the young man as saying, "What excellent and perfectly and essentially good deed must I do..."(Matthew 19:16, Amplified NT)--and I'm afraid he meant, "What ONE good thing can I do (and have it over with and get on with the rest of my life.)" And Jesus' answer boils down to, "Get rid of your stuff, and come hang out with me." These are two totally different approaches, one based on actions and hoops to be jumped through, and one based on an ongoing relationship.
Years ago I read that the natural state of fallen man is legalism. It is, so to speak, the default position. You don't even have to be a Christian to be a legalist--I've seen vegetarians and environmentalists show the same attitude over their convictions. Human beings are constantly setting up codes of behavior (all too often, for others to follow--which was at the heart of Jesus' criticism of the Pharisees). It is typical of religious man to want things he can DO to show how good he is and be approved, whether it's natives sacrificing the chief's daughter to keep the volcano from erupting all over their village or the Pharisee in Jesus' parable bragging to God about how much he did--or Bob Girard's description of the good church member in "Brethren, Hang Loose":
"I found myself measuring individual spiritual growth by some of the same outward standards I had deplored in the established churches:
--how they were picking up the "language"
--whether they would pray in public
--regularity of attendance
--how many of the church's activities they involved themselves in
--availability to the organization
--agreement with the pastor
All the marks of a "truly involved" churchman." "Brethren, Hang Loose" p.31 [the italics were Bob's, not mine]
The thing is, you can jump through the hoops, conform to the expectations outwardly, reap all of the rewards of status in the church and public approval--and still be a sinner in the eyes of God. The truth is, outward religious practices do not reliably result in changed lives--all too often they result in people acting one way in church on Sunday and acting just like everybody else they know the rest of the week--sometimes even worse if they think they can keep it a secret.
So what do we do? Jesus Himself said, "Man looks at the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart." It isn't about what you do, it's about what you are. This runs through both the Old and New Testaments. The prophets kept telling the people that fasting and keeping the festivals was no good if they oppressed the poor the next day--"I desire mercy, and not sacrifice" was only one of many examples. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus expanded to the reach of the Law to the inner thought life, not just the outward actions. The lists of qualifications for church leadership that Paul gave to Timothy and Titus do not say anything about specific "deeds"--they are all character qualities. The "fruit of the Spirit" from Galatians 5 are all character qualities, not actions.
Yes, these character qualities are going to produce actions, sometimes the same actions that the "religious" types perform. But God is not that interested in the actions for their own sake, but the motivation of the heart behind them. The real difference is between a person who puts on a mask on Sunday and takes it off when the spotlight blinks off, and a person who is who he is, 24/7/365.
But how do you know which is which? It is not easy, especially in our modern fragmented society, with no more front porches, little neighborhood interaction, and even very little interaction between Christians once they're away from the church building. It takes time and proximity, spending lives together, not just looking at the back of someone's head on Sunday morning.
Roughly forty years ago there were some efforts to deal with this issue, some called the "renewal movement," some in the "Jesus people," some reflected in the book "Body Life" by Ray Steadman, some in Bob Girard's "Brethren, Hang Loose!". The term "emerging" or "emergent" church has been big in recent years--it was in use then to describe what was going on. There were variations, but much of it boiled down to restoring community in church life--people living their lives together in Christ, not just sitting in pews on Sunday morning. My wife and I were part of this movement as young adults.
So what happened? A lot of it faded away. One church we were part of dwindled to nothing because some of the men in leadership failed to love their co-workers. Others got distracted by new trends--the "discipling" movement, the "praise and worship" movement (and accompanying "worship wars"), the "Toronto blessing" and following "outpourings" and "next big things."
As I said, "emerging" churches have been hot for the past few years. A lot of the things they say remind me of what happened before, some do not. But already I am beginning to see some signs of fading. A church here in Indianapolis that we were part of for a couple of years shows signs of this drift already. A church in Cincinnati that our Indianapolis congregation tried to use as a pattern has drifted even farther, and seems to have ceased growing.
There's been some stir this past month over Michael Spenser's essay "The Coming Evangelical Collapse" in the Christian Science Monitor (first published in three posts in his blog "Internet Monk." He didn't claim Evangelicals will disappear totally, but thinks they will lose half their numbers, much of their funding, and their societal clout (Michael is a Southern Baptist, by the way, and seems quite committed to them). I think I see some of the same things that concern him (I blogged last year about rural churches having an appearance of strength without the substance).
The difference between Michael and me, I guess, is that I see some hope that this collapse is not merely a human thing. Back in January Frank Viola posted one of his old messages on his blog, "Reimagining Church," from a passage in Hebrews: "He [God] takes away the first that He may establish the second." Frank traced this pattern in God's dealing with His people through history. Jesus said in the opening of John 15: "I am the True Vine, and my Father is the Vinedresser. Any branch in me that does not bear fruit He takes away...." I think we are going to see some deadwood removed in the coming years, so that God can do something else. I'm afraid the Evangelical church is going to collapse because God has already given it two wake-up calls and most of them kept on in their own happy little rut. And while there may be some things lost that we may miss, my main concern is to be part of what God is doing, and to be the person He wants me to be.