It seems that the gap between Joe Public and the majority of church-goers is widening. This trend is evident in conversations with people from both sides of the divide and looks set to continue. I often meet people born in England who have never heard about Jesus.
Joe Public doesn’t care, he’s just relieved that the ‘odd bunch of God worshippers down the road’ seem at last to have realised that he doesn’t fit into their circle. Finally, they are leaving him alone. What does anything they could have to say have to do with him anyway? He isn’t religious, doesn’t have money that he wants to give them and isn’t interested in giving up his Sundays to go to church. He doesn’t want to wear smart clothes, sing old songs about concepts that are alien to him, or listen to boring sermons with a lot of words he doesn’t understand.
Joe has to work hard to keep his house. He has bills to pay and a wife and two teenagers to keep happy. There is a constant list of ever-growing demands. He worries that his wife will leave with the children if he doesn’t live up to their expectations. The stress of work is getting to Joe and he has been on anti-depressants for a number of years. His father has terminal cancer. His parents separated after forty years of marriage and are now fighting about money. He’s sure one of his children is experimenting with drugs.
What could the religious zealots at the end of his road know about any of this and how could anything they have to offer help Joe with his immediate problems? They always seem to be cheerful and without a care in the world.
Mr Church-goer is in a rush. He must get to church on time to make sure things are set up for the service. His suit must be smart and his shoes polished so that everyone will see that his life is orderly and he needs to be an example to others in the congregation. He is out of the door and into his car. There is just enough petrol to get him to church. He heads off, arriving just in time. He summons his best fake smile and plasters it across his face as he greets people entering the church. A nod and a handshake here and there. He hears himself using words like “fellowship, welcome, gathering, warm” and making bland comments about God and the weather. He isn't really listening to the replies and his eyes have glazed over by the start of the service.
Mr Church-goer is dying inside. His wife lounges at home in bed. She walked away from God a year ago but hasn’t told anyone. He apologises for her absence but doesn’t explain it. His children are off the rails. He’s pretty sure they take drugs at the numerous parties. Mr Church-goer has to work hard to keep his house. He has bills to pay and things he must buy. He is also on anti-depressants although no one knows apart from his doctor. A close relative has cancer. He knows that a couple that used to be in the church are getting divorced. He worries that he will be next.
Perhaps the gap between Joe Public and Mr Church-goer isn’t quite as wide as it appears to be. In fact, they are often facing the same crises and struggles. The difference is that Joe Public doesn’t have a solution--he will just hang on, trying his hardest until everything falls apart. Mr Church-goer has the solution, providing he is actually a Christian. His response to trials and difficulties is what is important and he should face them differently as a believer. He needs to remember that he is not living for this life but for the life to come in Heaven.
Unfortunately, Instead of being open about his problems, Mr Church-goer often feels that he has to hide them. He tries to deal with them in-house to avoid bringing dishonour to the church and/or ‘losing face.’ His number one priority is holding himself together instead of honestly facing up to his situation and admitting that he needs help. He may feel that he is somehow letting God down if he fails to be the example he should be as a Christian, or that he shouldn’t have gotten himself into the mess in the first place. He has false expectations of himself and of God. Often, he struggles alone until he too falls apart.
What Mr Church-goer really needs is for his church family to encourage, help and pray for him. He needs to be reminded that we all fall short of God's holy standard by a very long way. We fall short due to our own sin, and we suffer the consequences of the sin of others due to living in a world that is under the curse of God and the temporary schemes of the devil. Mr Church-goer cannot deal with his failures and trials alone, none of us can. He needs to ask Jesus to carry his burden, then he must trust God to bring Him through.
When I came to faith after years of backsliding, I found myself in a group of Christian young people. Most had been Christians for as long as they could remember having been raised in Christian homes. I felt like the black sheep and they seemed to be talking a foreign language at first. They were very nice, but the nicer and more patient they were with me, the more of an outsider I felt. I wondered if I would always feel like that or if one day I would fit in. It wasn’t until someone took pity on me and shared a few of the problems that were commonly known in the group that I felt a bit better. These people were human too!
This failure to be real is one of the reasons for the widening of the gap between Joe Public and Mr Church-goer. A testimony of triumph after years of visible struggle is much more powerful than a hidden struggle resulting in a superficial appearance of a wonderful life that no one can relate to.
This is also why presenting the Gospel in the popular format beginning with, “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life….” is misleading at best. What if God’s earthly plan includes trials, struggles and pain? Contrary to a lot of contemporary teaching, we are not promised health, wealth or happiness. Christians are, however, promised forgiveness of sin, peace with God and a certainty of life eternal in Heaven. Consider that the wonderful part won’t be fully enjoyed until we get there! It's worth asking the question, what is man's greatest need?--Surely this is it!
Let’s be real about our trials but show people that there is hope for the future through Jesus and that we can face the toughest circumstance with God’s help.
“Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.”
1 Peter 5 vs 6-10