Part of the experience of life is trying to find out where you find your place. Almost no sooner than you can walk you discover there are people who are 'in' and people who are 'out'. As least this is how the world manufactures things. A five year old has a birthday party but who shall they invite? Twenty five in the class and only ten places. Will it be the child who sets the invitation agenda or the parents who discern they would like certain people at the school gate to be there and certain ones not. This continues as we get older and at school we sort ourselves into the cool and uncool, sporty and non, bright and stupid, beautiful and ugly, jock and nerd. All the teenage movies ever made are the working out of this reality of whether or not the protagonists will find themselves defined by either of these groups or be delivered into something bigger and more meaningful. This continues into work, parenthood and retirement too as the world jostles to get itself 'in' on the 'in'.
the ten books a pastor should own which got me thinking. Near the top of my own list would be the essays of C S Lewis which only recently I have been dipping into again. Lewis has a way of capturing a truth that is uncanny at times and this is made all the more extraordinary when you think he was writing midway through the last century. I confess the first thing I did upon arrival at Oxford for Vicar studies was walk to the Eagle and Child to drink a pint of warm bitter and read The Four loves. I know it's corny but there you go. Anyway, I read an essay called The inner ring a week or two ago by Lewis [ take time to read this slowly before you go on] and something in my musing on what I now go on to describe clicked. Lewis gave me astounding insight into a recent experience.
The gospel should above all be good news. Those who have understood grace see that we are no longer defined by our own external identity produced by effort and appearance or association but by the action of God himself dying for us on the cross. Grace is a gift to be received not a product to be sold. Grace invites, melts and includes and it does so because it is free but never cheap. If we try to commodify the gospel and make it glint in the sun to attract a crowd, the real danger is all we will attract are the magpies. Magpies come not to give but to get. We all have a tendency to be Christian magpies, myself most of all probably.
A while back our worship musicians and singers went off to an event and at the very last minute I tagged along. It was billed as a 'worship event' and I love to worship God so it seemed like a great evening was in prospect. It was held at a venue that for many years I used to go and see rock bands so right from the off my inner world was a bit confused. The Clash, The Jam and the Smiths had all played there. My 'old man' as Stott would call it had all sorts of memories of visiting venues like this and I wondered what was hoped would be the benefit of 'worship' in such a place. Maybe it took the worship performers into a place of their rock dreams but for me it returned me to my sin-soaked nightmares. I had to buy a ticket on the door (£9) which as I paid for it seemed rather a lot. I don't begrudge paying a bit but it cost me about that much to see the Smiths in 1984.
One of the skills that a lovely man we called 'Uncle Geoff' taught me at Vicar Factory was the process of theological reflection. This is the process of reflecting ...'on the practices of the church as they interact with the practices of the world with a view to ensuring faithful participation in the continuing mission of the triune God" (Swinton). That's a clever way of saying we should ask the question "What's really going on and what is God doing?" As we entered the venue I surprised myself by turning to one of our worshippers and saying, "Reflect on tonight- tell me what you see and what you feel and what God is saying then we will chat about it afterwards".
Not minutes after this, I led my small band up the stairs of the the venue only to be stopped by a T-shirted girl branded up with the name of a church.
Here was her question to me:
"Are you a V.I.P?"
I am not often silenced but I was by this.
I must have looked so stunned that she thought I hadn't heard.
"Are you a V.I.P?" she asked again.
She asked it of all of us.
In this moment, I wanted to preach the whole of chapter eight of Romans to assure her I was indeed a V. I.P as were the band of wonderful saints who stood behind me. Instead I replied,
"I fear by your definition of V. I. P we may not qualify"
Indeed we didn't.
"You'll have to stand at the back then"
This dear girl's question has gone to the top of my "Things Jesus never said" list and ranks right up there with one of Bill Hybel's axioms "Hire tens".
"Are you a V I P?" is a dreadful question. Truly awful.
This is the inner ring personified.
As we all stood in a row at the back, my dear worshippers all with rather long faces, the lovely warm-hearted man on the stage who looked uncannily like Morrissey did in 1984 (pointy shoes, drainpipe jeans and spikey hair - funny how fashion comes full circle) tried to enthuse us with lots of clapping and whooping. None of us felt much like it surprisingly. If there was an 'in' and and 'out' we were left in no doubt which we were. I simply couldn't get the question out of my head.
Let me be clear, the evening had many things to commend it and most of us there are secure enough in Jesus to know we are 'in' - V. I. P or not. The gospel was wonderfully preached by a larger than life grace-saturated Greek man who made me cry as he spoke and I have no doubt most there are wonderful passionate followers of Jesus. I know it to be so. In fact, we now sing one of the songs from that evening in our church and it is a great blessing. Here is my point. I am concerned when there is such an overt articulation of an inner ring in the church. All tribes have inner rings and many are jostling to be in them and all of us are seduced by the power of association (church leaders are not-exluded from this-far from it sadly) but to put voice to this reality with such a question should sound an alarm. The world has this of course, but the church should and must be something different. If I were to have a tribe this might be one I would join- I love its passion for the lost- and these are some words of caution over what may be happening perhaps without anyone having noticed. As Peterson wrote to the American Church "Baal culture in the American Church" I want to suggest that when the church is asking questions like "Are you a V.I.P?" it may at some point have unwittingly taken a turn in the wrong direction. My friend was able to feedback this thought to the events inner ring so this post is happily not now news to them and is why I have let some time elapse before reflecting on it. He was as surprised as me.
I leave you with some words of an elder statesman of another tribe, Don Carson, whose words seem to cut a prophetic edge:
"In an age increasingly suspicious of (linear) thought, there is much more respect for the “feelings” of things - whether a film or a church service. It is disturbingly easy to plot surveys of people, especially young people, drifting from a church of excellent preaching and teaching to one with excellent music because, it is alleged, there is “better worship” there. But we need to think carefully about this matter. Let us restrict ourselves for the moment to corporate worship. Although there are things that can be done to enhance corporate worship, there is a profound sense in which excellent worship cannot be attained merely by pursuing excellent worship. In the same way that, according to Jesus, you cannot find yourself until you lose yourself, so also you cannot find excellent corporate worship until you stop trying to find excellent corporate worship and pursue God himself. Despite the protestations, one sometimes wonders if we are beginning to worship worship rather than worship God. As a brother put it to me, it’s a bit like those who begin by admiring the sunset and soon begin to admire themselves admiring the sunset.
This point is acknowledged in a praise chorus like “Let’s forget about ourselves, and magnify the Lord, and worship him.” The trouble is that after you have sung this repetitious chorus three of four times, you are no farther ahead. The way you forget about yourself is by focusing on God—not by singing about doing it, but by doing it. There are far too few choruses and services and sermons that expand our vision of God—his attributes, his works, his character, his words. Some think that corporate worship is good because it is lively where it had been dull. But it may also be shallow where it is lively, leaving people dissatisfied and restless in a few months’ time. Sheep lie down when they are well fed (cf. Psalm 23:2); they are more likely to be restless when they are hungry. “Feed my sheep,” Jesus commanded Peter (John 21); and many sheep are unfed. If you wish to deepen the worship of the people of God, above all deepen their grasp of his ineffable majesty in his person and in all his works.We do not expect the garage mechanic to expatiate on the wonders of his tools; we expect him to fix the car. He must know how to use his tools, but he must not lose sight of the goal. So we dare not focus on the mechanics of corporate worship and lose sight of the goal. We focus on God himself, and thus we become more godly and learn to worship—and collaterally we learn to edify one another, forbear with one another, challenge one another. "