Monday, 1 July 2013


A hermeneutic for church growth?
The Exodus narrative is rehearsed frequently in Hebrew liturgy, including Biblical text.  It is a key part of the controlling story, the bigger picture, of the Bible.  At key turns in Jewish history, the Exodus is recited, almost relived, as a defining event.  There's something deeply resonant, historically yet universally, about the Exodus.
For Christians, too, the liberation experienced by oppressed slaves, the road out of Egypt, has echoes of Divine salvation with wider implications than those mistreated Hebrews.
I have always found the bit starting in Exodus 2:23b very moving: "The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God. 24 God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. 25 God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them."
Yet, the climax isn't rescue from slavery and peril.  The road travelled by escaping Hebrew slaves didn't go to the other side of Yam Suph, the Reed Sea, but just through it.  It went to Sinai.  The literary climax of Exodus isn't the action scene, parting the water for the Hebrews to pass safely.  Rather, it's the Covenant on Mount Sinai.  Another moving passage - the Hebrews are camped at Mount Sinai:

“Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel: You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation."  (Ex. 19:3-6)
And it got me thinking about church growth, of all things ...
McGospel or Contextualized Gospel?
A big issue in church growth these days is whether we should try to meet people's needs at the risk of a diluted, or humanized, message, or stick to the 'pure gospel' and expect more from people.  On one side, we have the seeker-friendly, needs-meeting approaches like those of Saddleback and Willow Creek.  'But is the good news about spiritual massages and feel-good?' ask the critics.  On the other hand, we have advocates of a narrow church, where people know from the start what it means to set your hand to the plough, to be a sheep and not a goat.  Many are in aging congregations, feeling increasingly distant from the culture of the community outside.
The story of the Exodus has stuck in my mind recently in relation to this tension.  At our own juncture in place and sacred history, a post-Christian Ireland, recession-bitten, debt-laden Ireland.  Because as universally as Exodus resonates, it was an experience in this time-space continuum we call history.

God was concerned at the suffering of his people, their oppression, their cruel treatment, their tears.  And he acted to rescue them.
In his two-pronged redemption, God started by freeing slaves from forced labour, unnecessarily cruel treatment, targeted infanticide and dehumanized status.  How can the church not be in the business of caring for the suffering?  And there's plenty of it around us today. 
But that wasn't the telos of his salvation of the Hebrews, because he led them, not just to the other bank, but to Sinai where he entered into a covenant with the people.  Essentially, a relationship.
The word 'relationship' maybe doesn't carry quite the same weight as once it did - maybe when we talk about a 'relationship with God' it sounds a bit facebooky, transient, sentimental.  Maybe marriage is closer in meaning.  Something binding, permanent, solemn and very, very full of love and grace.
We can't ignore or be hardened to the plight of people around us.  That would be neither godly nor Christ-like.  But of course, we aren't social workers or therapists (except of course those  many Christians who are in fact social workers and therapists!).  We are witnesses to the fact that God desires to be in a covenant relationship with his people. 
Social action, mercy ministries, are essential hallmarks of the church, and ultimately expressions of God's character, God who Rescues.  They are not optional.  And they are not the end, either, but should lead people to Sinai, to covenant with God who Rescues.

Sinai Communities

Both opportunity and responsibility, people are in need of wholeness and the church must respond.  And we have to do more than fix problems and ills of society, we have to draw people into relationship with God.

Maybe we could design a new 'R&R' service, 'Rescue and Relationship' incorporating both strands?  (Think electronic music for the canticle 'Song of the Sea'!  That would be pretty cool!)

And/or start parallel 'Sinai' congregations in our parishes, perhaps in new housing estates, student halls or inner cities, wherever there are people in need of 'R&R'?

So, maybe my naïve ecclesiology is that churches are Sinai communities.  Groups of people who have this experience of rescue and relationship, tying both in some way to Jesus Christ.

And I think Exodus, this paradigmatic event in the Salvation Story of the Bible, can help those of us involved in growing church, in including more people in this Sinai experience.


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