We define ourselves by our stories. By “stories” I mean metanarratives, framing stories, and such like. These stories may or may not be true, but we act as though they are true — sometimes contrary to all evidence.
For example, we tell our children that happiness is found in a college education, a career, a family, children, and a large retirement fund. Which sounds really good. What we ignore is that there are plenty of very happy people with none of those things. Evidently, there are other paths to happiness — but we aren’t about to share those other paths with our kids.
We tell ourselves that everyone all over the world covets the American way of life, our freedom of speech and religion, our free enterprise system. And yet we see on TV people who hate those very things. Why? Well, they tell themselves different stories about what the good life is all about.
Christianity is a story. A true story, in fact. But a story. And we tell the story several different ways and so we get several different results. These differing results we call “denominations” or even “sub-denominations.” And we are often completely unaware that where we differ is in the way we tell what should be the very same story.
This is why different churches emphasize different parts of the Bible. In the Churches of Christ, we tell the stories of baptism in Acts of the Apostles, and we’ve been deeply formed by those stories. The Pentecostal churches read the same passages and tell the story of the Spirit’s power to convert the lost and transform and heal people. Baptists read the same passages and find stories about the power of faith and a plea to Jesus to enter one’s heart.
The differences aren’t so much hermeneutical (how we interpret the text) as metanarrative (what we see and don’t see). Humans, being creatures of story, only see those things that reinforce the story they want to hear.
When a nation overthrows a dictator and installs democratic government, we are assured that the American way is best and the envy of the world. When a nation overthrows a dictator and imposes a theocracy even more cruel and restrictive than the previous government, we tell ourselves that the forces of democracy were defeated by foreign interventionists or a lack of American support — even when there really were no forces of democracy because democracy is completely foreign to that nation’s culture.
It’s the “No true Scotsman” fallacy —
Person A: “No Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.”
Person B: “But my uncle Angus likes sugar with his porridge.”
Person A: “Ah yes, but no true Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.”
Thus, the Churches of Christ dismiss as exceptional those passages that don’t fit their story. The Baptists do the same. The Pentecostals do the same. The passages that really count support our view. The other passages are difficult passages explained away by our easy, obviously true passages.
Now, once we realize how driven we are by stories, church leadership should learn that it becomes extremely important to tell the right stories — true stories that define the church to be the church God wants it to be. But usually we let the stories control us.
A given Church of Christ might see itself as standing courageously against the forces of Postmodernism (the Emerging Church, Situation Ethics, Liberalism, the community church movement, or whatever bogeyman is convenient) and standing for the Truth at great personal cost. The fact that evangelism is failing is explained by the Postmodern age in which we live and the anti-church culture of America. Those denominations that are growing by evangelism do so by compromising with the spirit of the age. If they stood foursquare for the Truth as we do, they’d experience the same poor results and would courageously continue standing for the Truth as their membership declines.
Another Church of Christ might see itself as filled with grace and the Spirit, teaching lessons that other Churches of Christ are afraid to teach for fear of losing control of their members. The beauty of the gospel is plainly taught each Sunday morning in Bible class and from the pulpit, and the truth of this teaching is demonstrated by the transfer of members from other Churches of Christ in town looking for a better, truer gospel. However, there’s no harm in letting a few members continue to believe that those who use instruments to worship God are damned in their sins. And cooperation with only those congregations to our doctrinal right is enough. There’s no need to reach outside the Churches of Christ to demonstrate unity in Jesus. Unity within the Churches of Christ is remarkable enough, and we can be content with that.
Do you get the idea? Now,the great danger is that there are so many false stories being told that you can convince yourself that no story is true. But there’s a cure for that. It’s called “the gospel.” But we in the Churches of Christ do a particularly poor job of telling this story. After all, if we were good at it, we’d be powerful evangelists. And we’re just not.
[Tomorrow: A better way to tell the story.]