The contemporary American Church has forgotten itself, both the letter and the Spirit.
There are three contending voices in the modern Church concerning the letter, concerning the role of Scripture in the Church. First, the letter has been lost among modern megachurches who forego exegesis to such a degree that it is not clear how, if at all, the Bible undergirds the proclamation of the church. The text is at most a theme upon which the pastor riffs, a pastor whose voice trumps that of Scripture. His tone and content need not reflect those of the letter; the Bible is there only as a source of material among the many anecdotes from the pastor’s family life, his sporting loves, and illustrations clearly mined from some website. Were one to only learn the Bible from these pastors, one might reasonably assume the book is a practical guide to successful work and marriage, a therapeutic relief to stress and anxiety, and a promise of material rewards that are just around the corner.
I listened to a great big pastor in a great big church not long ago who said he “had enough people in the cheap seats.” It was time for serious discipleship, he insisted. His only text for the next 45 minutes was John 3:16, which he read and then never mentioned to again. I came to realize that the reference to the cost of the seats was meant to point out that many people attended but didn’t tithe.
These churches have largely surpassed and replaced the second voice, the dying stream of liberal Protestantism which practiced a sleight-of-hand exegesis, using the Bible, but only so as to give the educated the clergy the opportunity to cleverly reveal that it didn’t mean what it seemed to say. Mainline Protestantism is now settling into a well-deserved retirement.
Third, the last refuge of the Bible is American fundamentalism. Unfortunately, what we find here tends to be the people who know the words but not the meaning. They want to debate how long were the days of creation and whether or not life could have evolved, just as their predecessors were energized against the heliocentric universe. Here, conversation is consumed by creed. They read the Bible, but only so they can weaponize it.
We’ve forgotten that the Bible is God’s word, and thus it’s worth learning. We’ve forgotten that it’s living and active, rather than static and dogmatic.
Likewise, the Church has forgotten the Spirit. The early church spread for one reason – Jesus was a wonder-worker. People weren’t traveling for miles to hear a good speaker; they were coming to see paralytics walk. People weren’t praying to make themselves feel better; they were praying because someone was answering back. They were sufficiently convinced that God was present that they gave away their money with reckless abandon. Honestly, what might it take for you to do something like that? It takes a miracle.
I envision a church of the letter and the Spirit, where we embrace the Scriptures enough to care about what they say to us, and the way they say it. I envision a church where miracles come to be as natural as they are super. And I don’t think any of this is unreasonable or far-fetched. I think this is what Jesus meant from the very beginning.