The Worldly Church

If you ask an evangelical what it means to be “worldly” you will probably hear a lot about sex, substances or other vices. You probably won’t hear a lot about love. This is currently a source of great disconnect for the church that is partly responsible to the current migration out of the churches that denominations, pastors and bloggers are wringing their hands over.

Currently in the west the most common foundation we easily arrive at for a community ethic is love. This should be good for Christians because it clearly reflects Jesus’ commands in the New Testament. It should give us a good place to start the conversation.

I often use the early parts of the Heidelberg Catechism to open a conversation on this common ground. Ironically the section on “Misery” is one of the most helpful.

How do I come to know my misery?

The catechism says “the law of God tells me”.

If we were to stop the conversation there we’d be in trouble because in my experience once we use the word “law” people hear a list of do’s and don’ts. This leads to a maze of questions about cultural relativism, who says things are right and wrong, etc. Fortunately the Catechism, following Jesus’ lead cuts right to the chase.

God’s law boils down into two things: Love God, and love your neighbor.

On a blog I found a link to a small church that put this into their logo.

From the Table Community Church in Walkerton Indiana


In my experience many people, Christian or not, will say “yes, love should be the beginning or our ethnic that we share and while we might differ on “God”, we can agree we should love other.”

The next Q/A in the Catechism (5) is where things get tricky because the catechism makes an assertion that not everyone will agree with, but I think is true. What’s more it personalizes it.

“Can you live up to this (law of love) perfectly?” 

While “perfectly” might make many people say “no, of course I’m not perfect at it, but I (like all the children of Lake Wobegon) are at least above average.”

The catechism indoctrinates the children to give a different answer. “No. I have a natural tendency to hate God and my neighbor.”

We might protest “hate is such a strong word!” and it is. It’s not a bad word to ponder and to use for some personal reflection though.

Watch Any Conflict

If you want to get a sense of our lack of self understanding, watch almost any conflict unfold. In most cases it is based on this assertion, “I may not be perfect (defensiveness), but he/she/they are WORSE than I am (criticism) and they deserve whatever pain it is that I/we are instructing them in or bringing to them (becoming the judge and master of the other’s moral character) in order to have them mend their ways (self-righteousness and an attempt to control others and therefore take control of your world).”

If you want to look at who explores this closely and personally look at marriage counselling. Check out the work of John Gottman and what he discovered destroys marriages. 

Now most people would see the paragraph above and easily say “now that isn’t very loving” and they would probably be right in most cases. Reading that paragraph I, and probably many of you would say “well, I’ve probably done that at times, certainly not as badly as some other people I know, but I’m making an effort to do better in the future.”

OK, good for you. Can we be honest about just how difficult this really is?

Loving Stuff, Using People

Chapter 1 on the book of James says that “pure and undefiled religion is caring for widows and orphans in their misfortune and keeping oneself unstained by the world.”

Now again, many might immediately balk at the “unstained by the world” line hearing it as narrow moralism but if we understand James or define “the world” as our tendency to NOT love our neighbor, then we might not balk so badly. If we understand “worldiness” as loving things and using people to get them then most people could agree with the entire statement.

Yeah! More Agreement! But how hard is this, really.

The next sentence begins to address something we don’t like to talk about, how social status or wealth impacts our relationships at a deep, implicit, and often unconscious level.

Our Relational Cost/Benefit Calculators

From a very early age, we developed inside our heads a very rapid, very unconscious, very controlling cost/benefit calculator with respect to other people.

Small children look at other people, as well as other things in this world, and decide “is this good or bad, is this wanted or unwanted, is this safe or scary?” and act according to that calculation. Will the infant respond to the invitation to be held by mom, dad, grandma or the stranger? The child isn’t even self-conscious enough to know he or she is doing it. It just happens.

As we grow these calculations become more complex. Money, social status, mobility, opportunity all become part of the calculation. These things play out every day in our relationships. Why do we make the friends we make? How do we prioritize our money and emotional energy? It is absolutely natural to prioritize the people who give us what we want and the relationships that create the opportunities to get more of what we want. We are social creatures who have developed not only our skills at climbing these social ladders but we as a society have developed an entire social economy around these ladders.

We all get this at an implicit level. We want to be in relationship with the wealthy, the beautiful, the gifted, the creative, the powerful and the famous. You’ll notice that often these things clump together.

We also avoid the poor, the ugly, the clumsy, the dull, the powerless and the nobodies in our far flung relational economy. It is simply not in our interest to invest time or relational capital with people like these. We know this implicitly and pre-consciously and we act accordingly.

“When You Throw A Party, Invite the Poor”

In Luke 14 Jesus advises his listeners to behave opposite of this relational economy. He tells people to intentionally invite persons into their parties, homes and circles who are unable to reciprocate the invitation. He invites us to invest our relational capital in people for whom this is a foolish investment, people who will not afford us any advantage in our relational economy. He wants us to throw away our time and energy and what this will undoubtedly do is move us down the relational ladders in the relational economy, because instead of using our time and money to rise, to network and create connections to the wealthy, powerful, famous (which is about access and increasing relational capital) he says “throw it away”. It is very much the relational application of giving your money to the poor (in secret).

This is of course just another in a long line of highly impractical advice that Jesus gives. It is, in fact, in the eyes of “the world” where we are always trying to advance our relative position economically and relationally, very bad advice if we wish to be upwardly mobile.

The Definition of A “Worldly” Church

According to James, the definition of a “worldly” church is one that participates in the world’s natural, relational economy just like everyone else.

You don’t have to scan the Internet too much to see lots of criticism, accusation and conflict about which church is loving and which church is “worldly”, but you won’t see this definition very often.

James goes on in chapter 2 to illustrate what a worldly church looks like. A worldly church participates in the implicit relational economy. It’s that simple.

Many of us know it happens. Many of us can see that we do it ourselves. What’s even worse is that we find it tremendously difficult to stop ourselves from doing it. Go ahead and try one week.

This is especially true for professional pastors who are paid by their churches.

Being a pastor over time will fine tune your relational cost/benefit analysis along a variety of scales. “Will this person strengthen the program of the church or cost the church financially or in some other way?”

We pray hard for God to send people who will make the church stronger though the use of their gifts and who won’t be “high maintenance”. We know that churches have various gift economies within them that the institution is dependent upon. If you have a church filled with financially poor, and worse yet, relationally poor people, you have a community that is unsustainable on a variety of levels. Church leaders know this and implicitly subtly, prioritize our attention and relational capital to those people who have something to offer the institution and/or community. This is the definition of a “worldly” church.

Is This Relational Economy Really Your Friend?

James wades into this by admonishing his church to stop it. James really isn’t saying anything different than what Jesus said in Luke 14. The church should be about love and love means loving people, not subtly using them to climb our economy of relational ladders or build the kind of institution we believe is worthy of our attention, allegiance, time or money.

He goes on to note, writing to Hebrew Christians who were poor and persecuted by the wealthy and powerful people in their contexts, that their participation in the system, in fact, is counter-productive. By participating in this economy they are giving more relational power to the very people that are abusing them and persecuting them. What sense does this make?

It makes all the sense in the world if you are “worldly” because what it shows is that you have never left that system and your deepest hopes are to eventually use those ladders to climb to the top to secure for yourself what it is you want.

God Does Not Show Favoritism

In a very uneven world one of the chief complaints about God is that he has not (if there is a God) created any justice.

If the guiding hand of your world is natural selection through competition then you of course should have no complaints (nor anyone to complain to) about the injustice of the world. Natural selection cares not about love, it just cares about power.

In the Old Testament we find God picking and choosing among the people. He picks Abraham and not Lot, Isaac and not Ishmael, Jacob and not Esau, Judah and not Reuben. This always seems unfair.

Deep within the Jewish worldview is an assertion that God does not play favorites which seems contrary to these stories. What this assertion of God’s impartiality really refers to is that God doesn’t choose us according to what we have to offer God. Whatever status you might have in the world’s relational economy God does not recognize it. God stand outside of our relational economy which is in fact one of the most offensive things about God. This of course offers the foundational difference between holiness (being apart) and worldliness, being invested in our relational economy.

God is not invested in our relational economy because he has no need of us. Our relational coins have no value to him.

The Church Must Reflect God’s Relational Economy, Not the World’s

And this is where we come down the heart of the matter. God’s relational economy, which values “your wellbeing at my expense” rather than “my wellbeing at your expense” (the heart of the world’s relational economy) is the one that he wants his church to reside within. This is why the worldly church fits in the world, but the holy church does not.

This is why the worldly church will always have a problem with love because love is antithetical to the world’s relational economy.

This is also why the church is an integral part of God’s mission of love. The church is the place where we are to try to love and not use people. The church is a place where the conflict between love and the world’s relational economy gets revealed in all of its gut-wrenching tragedy. It is in the church where our deep faith in the world’s economy and our deep suspicion of the worldly uselessness of God’s economy gets exposed.

We see it all the time in the church’s failures. We see it played out in the Internet conversation about how the church has failed boomers, busters, millenials, and everyone with enough money to get a computer and an Internet connection and been born into a family with enough money to educate them to complain in a blog that others will read.

Do You Want To See How Hard It Is To Love?

Try stepping out of the world’s relational economy. How can you do this? Can you do it alone? If you do do it alone will anyone else see or notice? Will it “matter”?

The church is supposed to be the place where this is done in a communal way.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
This entry was posted in Institutional Church, On the way to Sunday's sermon and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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