I had an excellent conversation with my non-Christian barber about the Lord just before coming to Austria. He enjoys our chats and usually has an opener. This one really stung:
"I went to visit a historic church building in Bath with a friend. Right next to a sign asking for money to cover the vast costs of upkeep, two officials were throwing a drunk tramp into the street. When I asked why they did it they replied that the building is a place for worshipping God and they didn't want his kind around. I decided to get some money out and give it to the tramp not the church" He half-grinned "what have you got to say about that?"
My normal rule is that we should never defend the Lord or the gospel by diminishing or too-easily agreeing with negative assessments of the Church. I had no difficulty believing my barber, he is a straight-forward man. I asked him what he found most offensive and he said that he thought it was a perfect example of "money-grabbing religion posing as the real deal, but that clearly didn't know anything about God." I had to completely agree. Religion posing as Christianity makes me feel ill. Religion posing as Christianity while behaving unchristianly, and then justifying it to non-Christians on the grounds of worship makes me feel iller than just about anything else I can think of.
The trouble is that my barber thinks this is probably normal for Christians. He said "why do you have all those buildings with the massive upkeep anyway? Surely they stop you living for God rather than help you do it? Shouldn't you spend it on people? I reckon your institutions put a lot of people off." Double ouch.
I asked him how he would ideally like to see churches positioned at the centre of communities. I was astounded by what he said: "get rid of your buildings, use community facilities like school halls. People will listen to what you say about God much more when they think you actually care about what is going on in their lives. The two times people are interested in God is when they are in serious need and when they are getting old, and almost none of you do anything for the community at either point."
I felt very challenged indeed. it would be all too easy for me to ease my conscience by saying "I and my church are not like that place in Bath." In fairness we probably aren't and do welcome all kinds of people. But I know how easy I find it to let my traditions, structures and buildings form a comfort zone that insulate me from having to relate to the community. How easily I adopt a form a religion that doesn't look very much like the New Testament, however much it may come dressed in evangelical garb. And how I can justify just how small my reservoirs of compassion are compared to Jesus'.
How many churches are comfort zones for people, that justify and validate us not living as Jesus lived, rather than discomfort zones that challenge and equip us to live as Jesus lived? I am not sure I am even comfortable asking the question. I suspect very many in the UK, including mine sometimes. When this is true it doesn't matter if we take a different form to the Bath institution, we have still substituted powerless and godless religion for the real deal. Let's call false-religion- posing-as-Christianity for the godlessness it is whenever we see it. Starting with and always including ourselves.