Monday, 22 August 2011

Why do Christians Gather?

In a telling post, Chris Wienand, speaks about formatting Christian gatherings to serve the 80% those not-yet-Christians.  I’ve heard this kind of thing many times, and I’d like to talk through some of the questions that have arisen for me from this discussion. 

The first thing to note, is that Chris gives some very helpful tips on being “user” friendly in our gatherings, and I can probably go along with all of them.  But the critical ideas here are not necessarily the one’s being addressed, but rather the one’s being assumed (an echo of C. S. Lewis, for those with ears to hear).  A question that is immediately raised for me is the following:

Why do Christians gather?  

It seems to me that the overwhelming reason Christians in the New Testament times gathered was for worship, fellowship and mutual edification (1 Cor. 14:26; etc. and then think of Pliny’s description of early Christian gatherings).  Now, I don’t want to apply a na├»ve hermeneutic that says that just because that’s the way the first Christians did it, that’s the way we should do it, but I do want to say that’s probably been true of most of Church history, and at least the New Testament writings provide a exemplary model of this in action. 

In a telling comment after the main article, Chris makes the claim that “there are so many examples in the scriptures of people coming to faith in their gatherings.”  I’m afraid without careful qualification, this statement is false.  1 Cor. 14:25 provides the only example of people coming to faith in Christian gatherings, and I can’t think of any in the Old Testament scriptures either (I’d be interested to hear if there are any specific responses if I’m wrong on this point).  The book of Acts provides numerous examples of people coming to faith, but this does not happen in Christian gatherings, but rather in market place settings, philosophical gatherings, and open air preaching. 

So why do Christians gather?  Well, that’s a specific decision we have to make.  If we decide to follow the model of the New Testament, then we have to say that we gather for worship, fellowship and mutual edification and this probably isn’t the best context for mission.  Although the exception of 1 Cor 14:25 is instructive, as they weren’t trying to be user friendly, they were pursuing the gifts of the Spirit and the byproduct was mission.  There is nothing in Scripture that suggests that gatherings must be missional. 

However, if we decide that the gathering is the best place for mission, we must then ask where are the other elements necessary for Christian gatherings (worship, fellowship, edification) going to happen?  My concern with making the gatherings for the 80% is that we dumb down what’s available for the 20% and the focus shifts from worshipping God, edifying and encouraging one another, to a missional focus.  Some may suggest this is a false dichotomy, but I’m not so sure. 

Another concern I have with making the Christian gathering the focus of mission, is that (whether intentional or not) mission becomes the job of the pastor or speaker, with the congregation merely playing a “supporting” role.  This is the complete opposite of what we see in the first centuries of early Church.  As Rodney Stark has described:
Christianity did not grow because of miracle working in the market places (although there may have been much of that going on), or because Constantine said it should, or even because the martyrs gave it such credibility.  It grew because Christians constituted an intense community, able to generate the “invincible obstinacy” that so offended the younger Pliny but yielded immense religious rewards.  And the primary means of its growth was through the united and motivated efforts of the growing numbers of Christian believers, who invited their friends, relatives, and neighbours to share the “good news.”[1]

Of course, the ideal would be to have all elements of worship, fellowship, edification and mission present in our Christian gatherings.  And yes, that would be ideal.  But I just wonder if we should privilege one of these elements, so that it becomes the “focus” of our gatherings. 

I’m not pronouncing judgement on either of the options, and I’ve seen many of them work.  I’m just raising a question that I think is worth pondering.  What are your thoughts? 


[1] Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western Word in a Few Centuries (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1997), 208.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Virtuous Reading

To be good readers and interpreters then, we must cultivate interpretive virtues.[1] “An interpretive virtue is a disposition of the mind and heart that arises from the motivation for understanding, for cognitive contact with the meaning of the text.”[2] Although I agree with this description of interpretive virtue, I wish to add the above insight that these virtues are not necessary to just engage the meaning of a text, but rather to engage the voice of a person or community that is represented in and through the text. If texts are “an extension of one’s self into the world, through communicative action,”[3] then the ethics of interpersonal communication come into play as we seek to read and interpret faithfully. Here we are helped by Vanhoozer who notes four specific virtues that will aid our reading and interpretation.


Honesty


Vanhoozer calls attention to the interpreters prior commitments and presuppositions in reading and interpreting texts. He calls for interpreters to be clear about their own aims and interests and how these may affect our understanding as we read and engage with texts. Above all he notes that “a dishonest interpreter is less likely to be receptive to those texts that appear to challenge one’s most cherished beliefs or habits or desires. A dishonest interpreter is more likely to drown out the voice of the other.”[4]

Openness


This virtue refers to our ability to hear and appropriate the insights, questions, concerns and objections raised by other interpreters. “Readers display interpretive openness when they welcome the text as other, with courtesy and respect, and when they entertain other interpretations as well.” He also notes that openness implies a willingness to change one’s own understanding in response to the text and other readers. He then notes that “closed-mindedness is an interpretive vice; closed-minded readers are either unwilling or unable to go beyond themselves.”[5]

Attention


“Paying attention to the text is itself a form of respect and involves a number of related virtues, such as patience, thoroughness, and care.”[6] Rather than being self-absorbed or too preoccupied with our own interpretive interests and agenda’s, we should seek to carefully and attentively hear the specific nuances and details of the voice of the author which is embodied in a text. An author might be making a single statement within the context of a much larger project and thus we should look for the contours and shape of the author’s presentation in the text, seeking to understand how each part fits together within the whole narrative.

Obedience


Every text follows various conventions and conforms to various types of genre. Here the reader must seek to read with the grain of the text, seeking to understand the text on its own terms. “The obedient interpreter is the one who follows the directions of the text rather than one’s own desires.”[7] If there are conventions at play which may affect the understanding of the text, then we should seek to follow those conventions.[8]


Implementing these virtues does not guarantee success in the interpretive process, but it does set us off in the right direction as we seek to understand the communication of the other. With that in mind, Vanhoozer notes that,



Indeed, interpretation ultimately depends upon the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. Faith, that there is a real presence, a voice, a meaning in the text; hope, that the interpretive community can, in the power of the Spirit, attain an adequate, not absolute, understanding; love, a mutual relation of self-giving between text and reader.[9]
We are thus developing a relational hermeneutic which respects the voice of the other, and seeks to understand it on its own terms before we raise our issues and concerns. As noted before by Wright,



Each stage of this process becomes a conversation, in which misunderstanding is likely, perhaps even inevitable, but in which, through patient listening, real understanding (and real access to external reality) is actually possible and attainable.[10]
This position stands in strong contrast to the deconstructive and detached models of reading advocated by some postmodern theorists. In the next post we shall not engage with these voices, but merely note how their concerns and objections can be alleviated so that the miracle of understanding may continue.

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[1] Vanhoozer, Is there a Meaning in this Text?, 377.

[2] Vanhoozer, Is there a Meaning in this Text?, 376, italics original.

[3] Vanhoozer, Is there a Meaning in this Text?, 229.

[4] Vanhoozer, Is there a Meaning in this Text?, 377.

[5] Vanhoozer, Is there a Meaning in this Text?, 377.

[6] Vanhoozer, Is there a Meaning in this Text?, 377.

[7] Vanhoozer, Is there a Meaning in this Text?, 377.

[8] Vanhoozer notes that apocalyptic literature should be read with that in mind, the same for history, for poetry, and other genres.

[9] K. J. Vanhoozer, “The Spirit of Understanding: Special Revelation and General Hermeneutics” in Disciplining Hermeneutics: Interpretation in Christian Perspective. Ed. Roger Lundin. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 131-165, here 161.

[10] Wright, NTPG, 64.