Hearing the Needs of Others

In preparing for my upcoming lecture on the Story of Christianity I ran across a line that stopped me cold.

What we often study in isolated detail as so many examples of literary, legal, and iconographic borrowings from the secular world, if taken altogether add up in themselves to a clue to the success of the Christian church: for Christianity could express itself in terms that rapidly shook themselves free from the archaic language of previous generations; and, in so doing Christian piety gained the incalculable advantage of being firmly rooted in day-to-day experience.

Peter Brown. The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity

It is the second half of that sentence that made me think, because what Brown noticed of Christians in the late Roman world was they were adaptive to the culture and grounded in what was going on in the everyday lives of the people. Having a connection to the realm of the spirits was an important part of Roman life, many wanted a stability which was offered by knowing that they had a spiritual presence to help in daily life. What Christians of the time were able to do was to take the concerns of many Romans and give them a more solid reality than the pagan world around them. As I think through Church history and consider some of the largest “reform” & “revival” movements within the Church these same two themes seem to run together– adaptive and practical. St. Francis, Martin Luther, John Wesley, the Great Awakenings all showed both qualities, the ability to through off archaic aspects of the church and a connection to the issues which matter to the people. I think of John Wesley abandoning some of the Church of England’s archaic practices and focusing on bringing new connections to communities in a time when people felt overlooked by both church and government. The same can be said of Methodists during the Second Great Awakening in America, when preachers were able to provide hope and comfort for people living in fear in the American backwoods. Again and again in Church history we see the people who reach the world are the ones who show a practical concern for community and a willingness to use the language of the people they want to reach.

But what these reforming Christians offered was not a generic assimilation with the culture’s beliefs but a rich expansion of the culture’s expectations. The cult of the saints in late Rome was not simply a continuation of the pagan Roman’s desire to have spiritual help; rather Christian practice took that shadow of an idea and expanded it to so people saw how our realm and God’s realm (the natural and spiritual) were blended in an intimate way, Roman Christians were not satisfied with the Roman idea that gods and heroes helped some people sometimes, they showed how the Jesus’ Resurrection altered the fabric of reality to bring heaven and earth into closer proximity. This idea might be completely foreign to you and so I do not want to dwell on it (for those interested read Brown’s wonderful book). What is important for us today is to remember the principle that we must see what is of practical value to the lives of the community around us and touch that felt need. But as we do so we must have a deeper motive and result than the other movements of our time.

The Church’s endeavor is twofold, understand the true priorities of the culture around us and show how the Christian worldview fundamentally addresses these priorities in a better way. There is a tendency to in churches to either under-appreciate the values of the culture around us (or even demonize them) or else to simply assimilate with the prevailing culture and offer nothing distinctive. These are both very human responses to the values of outsiders, but we can see the importance of hearing the concerns of outsiders when we stop to consider major companies are creating commercials around values and justice. We see people flocking to buy products from specific companies because that company speaks about the values they support. Such a reality shows that people want to feel heard and want to know that their values are shared.

The Church’s endeavor is twofold, understand the true priorities of the culture around us and show how the Christian worldview fundamentally addresses these priorities in a better way. There is a tendency to in churches to either under-appreciate the values of the culture around us (or even demonize them) or else to simply assimilate with the prevailing culture and offer nothing distinctive. These are both very human responses to the values of outsiders, but we can see the importance of hearing the concerns of outsiders when we stop to consider major companies are creating commercials around values and justice. We see people flocking to buy products from specific companies because that company speaks about the values they support. Such a reality shows that people want to feel heard and want to know that their values are shared.

But listening to the values of others is more than simply helping them be heard. Rather, Christians have always understood that no matter how far a person’s values are from God they can still contain truth. This means that it is possible for a person outside the church to shine light on a situation which the church has failed to properly address. It is possible that in listening to the values of those outside the church we will learn how to more effectively be the Church. Easy illustrations of this include dealing with homosexuality or climate science. These are not traditional areas of concern within some sections of the church but if they are the concerns of others we should learn to listen and respond in love and grace. When we drill down on such issues we can hear people calling out for justice, love, and community which are certainly at the core of every church. So we should listen with a compassionate ear and learn to work with the felt needs of others.

But simply listening to these values and joining in the concerns is not enough. While some churches might dismiss the values of outsiders, there is also a temptation to have no distinctive answers. Simply hearing the concerns of others and parroting the answers of the larger society is not a Christian response. Our answers must offer a deeper more valuable impact. It is not good enough for us to provide the same answers as everyone else. As an illustration, last year must denomination wanted to focus on the issue of racism and so recommended reading Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility, which is a fine book. However, that means they passed on reading books from scholars like George Yancey and Jamar Tisby who have more profound takes on racism because they can tie to a deeper reality in the world. We offered the same take as everyone else and if I had not been exposed to a variety of Christians talking about racism, I would have questioned our ability to speak to this matter. The early church responded to the needs of the culture and responded in a way which the larger culture could not match. If we are going to increase the church we need to learn this ability and begin to show the culture around us we are listening and have better answers.

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