Preaching and Practicing the Gospel

This morning, in the shower, my brain posited the following question to myself:

Which is worse:
A church that preaches, but doesn’t practice the Gospel?
or a church that practices, but doesn’t preach the Gospel?

The question was a culmination of interactions I’ve had recently. While on jury duty, I got into a discussion with a retired AF officer on the subject of churches, and told her a little about the 52 project. I think she thought we were church shopping, because she launched into a dissertation on the importance of getting the mission statements and doctrines of the churches in question, on the grounds that there were a lot of churches I might find that supported things she thought I shouldn’t, notably abortion and homosexuality. I refrained from quipping that I had mentioned I was Episcopalian, and that right after we have abortions, we’re assigned gay lovers*. But this whole doctrine thing got me thinking about how much importance I place on doctrine . . . the answer to which seems to be “not much.”

When I think about the Gospel of Jesus Christ, I see his care for people in the here and now, his emphasis on the Kingdom of God being HERE. And it seems to me that lots of churches get hung up on other things: doctrine, efficiency, the wrapping and trappings of worship style, effectiveness, internal politics, money — so often money – that the Gospel gets lost in all the paperwork, committee squabbles, and money raising.

I am in danger of running afoul everyone by answering my own question:
Which is worse:
A church that preaches, but doesn’t practice the Gospel?
or a church that practices, but doesn’t preach the Gospel?

A church that preaches, but doesn’t practice the Gospel runs over those in its care. The grand thing about preaching the Gospel is that it compels the listeners to Gospel action – so the church that preaches the Gospel inspires those in the pews to go out and practice it, but if the church and her leadership isn’t also practicing, there will be those caught in the crossfire – and that’s a real danger.

James writes about faith without works:

James 2:17, 19-20, 26
Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe — and tremble! But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead? For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.

Faith without works is dead . . . okay, so having faith and sitting on your ass is bad . . . I can see that — which is part of my contention with the church that preaches, but doesn’t practice, the Gospel.

The church that practices, but doesn’t preach the Gospel is in danger of focusing solely on works, but I’m not sure that’s necessarily a bad thing. It’s not very useful in distinguishing a church from, say, a fraternal organization, an NGO, or any other charitable organization, but practicing the Gospel is the most compelling form of evangelism, love, and witness the church can make. Although she hoped none of us would ever read it, we know that Mother Teresa found herself in this position: continuing to do the work of the Gospel without even being certain any longer that God was watching, caring, or even there.

Frederica Mathewes-Green writes, of works without faith, “Morality without God is works without faith, and works without faith are not only useless, they are unlikely. No one lives a life of self-discipline and sacrifice without powerful motivation, and it is a motivation that nothing short of spiritual renewal can effect.” But I don’t think that religious people have the corner on the market of good works, or even morality. And even if you argue that Mother Teresa was a devoutly religious woman, even in her dark moments of questioning — none of this accounts for the generosity and compassion of atheists, agnostics, or others who don’t have faith in God, but work as (or more) diligently than those of us who do, to make the world a better place.

And maybe that’s part of it . . . the commonality between atheists and those of us who believe the Kingdom of God is here and now–that this is the world we have before us, that this is the work set in our paths, that what might or might not happen after our deaths does not relieve us of the work of today.

*Please, dear reader, understand this is a tongue-in-cheek statement. Most Episcopalians have a high threshold of tolerance for many things, including both of these hot topics. And the tolerance swings both ways in the ECUSA – you’re neither obliged to support or condemn either of these positions.

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2 Responses to Preaching and Practicing the Gospel

  1. Pingback: 52 Churches » Blog Archive » Ouch.

  2. Our Gra says:

    For me the doctrine, beyond the basics of the Nicene Creed, rapidly becomes problematic as too often it divides. There are tenants and practices of my faith that strengthen and help me to be a servant, but they are not for everyone.

    The Gospel keeps me humble as a servant. It calls me to avoid serving for glory or honor. Service is NOT about me. It is a quiet way to bring the light of Jesus Christ into dark places. The presence of Christ adds more healing to a situation than the service given by someone who does not follow Jesus. Not because of my actions or theirs, but because He, the creator and sustainer of the universe, lives in me. He ultimately is the Healer and Servant.

    On the whole I think the American Christian church in all forms has failed abysmally in living out the call of the Gospel. If we had done what needed to be done, more people would be truly cared for and helped, not simply had money thrown at them by our too large and intrusive government.

    But there is a real need to both serve and proclaim the Gospel, as Jesus really is the way, the truth and the life.

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