More on “cheap grace”

This was originally posted on 29 March 2005

Here’s something you might not hear at church this week, but should.

Following on from my previous post, I wanted to add that this concept of “cheap grace” is one of the biggest problems facing the “established” church (by this I mean orthodox, traditional, and/or evangelical churches/denominations) is that many of them have a rotten image amongst non-Christians. I do not simply mean that they are not attractive to non-Christians (at one level, of course, the cross is an affront to non-Christians, and cannot be “attractive” in a simple sense). The problem goes a lot deeper.

In his excellent book, A Generous Orthodoxy, Brian McLaren writes a great introduction in which he addresses a number of different types of people who might be reading his book. Here is a short excerpt:

“You may not be a Christian and wondering why anyone would want to be. The religion that inspired the Crusades, launched witch trials, perpetuates religious broadcasting, present too-often boring and irrelevant church services with schmaltzy music – or else presents manic and overly aggressive church services with a different kind of schmaltzy music – baptises wars and other questionable political programs, promotes judgementalism, and ordains preachers was puffy haircuts… doesn’t make sense to you why anyone would want ‘in’ on that.

You may not yet be a Christian, and you’re thinking of becoming one, but you’re worried that if you do you’re become a worse person – judgemental, arrogant, narrowminded, bigoted, and brainwashed… Do I have to like organ music? Do I have to say ‘Praise the Lord!’ all the time? Do I have to vote Republican? Do I have to oppose civil rights for homosexuals?… you wonder if there is any way to follow Jesus without becoming a Christian.

You may already be a Christian, struggling, questioning, and looking for reasons to stay in. Or you may have officially left the Christian community, but part of your heart is still there, and you wonder if you might some day return. So many of us have come close to withdrawing from the Christian community. It’s not because of Jesus or his Good News, but because of frustrations with religious politics, dubious theological propositions, difficulties in interpreting passages of the Bible that are barbaric (especially to people sensitised by Jesus to the importance of compassion), and/or embarrassments from recent and not-so-recent church history. Or perhaps it’s simply boredom – dreary music, blase sermons, simple answers to tough questions, and other adventures in missing the point. Or perhaps it’s fatigue – a treadmill of meetings in books and programmes and squabbles that yield more duties, obligations, guilt trips, and stress.”

And that’s just the introductory page…

The point I want to make is quite simple: I believe that in an attempt to deal with the declining image and acceptance of the church in general society, and, paradoxically, in moves by the existing leadership of churches to entrench their positions of power over laypeople, we have created churches that firstly make it too easy to become Christians, and secondly give too easy answers to the tough questions that fill the lives of people inside and outside their congregations.

We are currently living with the awful consequences of decades of cheap grace. There are many churches beginning to attempt to deal with some of the problems this has caused. There are many ways of approaching this problem and looking for solutions. There are many practitioners experimenting with new practice, many authors are beginning to write about it, a few theologians are attempting to systematise it, and some philosophers are trying to fathom it.

I find myself wondering between these different categories, continuing to look for questions, answers and markers for the journey. This issue of cheap grace seems to me to be an important marker.

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