In America, the debate has raged for decades over the separation of church and state. I know that phrase is not in the US Constitution and it has become a tool for divisiveness and used out of sorts in many ways. However, this post is not about the separation (or presumed separation) of the church and state. This is about the private-public divide within the church or better yet within individual Christians.
Speaking of local church members specifically, each of us has a public life, a persona that is known by others in the community, at work, or school. This may be due to volunteering at the elementary school, coaching youth soccer, serving on the homeowner association, being in the Rotary, or numerous other options.
These roles are not bad. In fact, they're wonderful. Christians should be seen and known in these venues throughout the community.
This is where it gets really personal. This is the life within our family, hopefully our church, alongside our friends and loved ones, etc. This is where our faith resides, since it is a personal walk with Christ. This is where viewpoints, convictions, struggles, and even sins live. They're private.
Encouragement vs. Enablement
Bishop Lesslie Newbigin, educated at Cambridge and commissioned for missionary service by the Church of Scotland in 1936 to India for the following four decades had written much about what is now termed missional living and church/community engagement. When he returned from India to England in 1974 he wrote numerous articles and books over the subsequent two decades. The focus of his writing dealt with the question of how an authentic encounter between the gospel and western culture could take place.
He surmised that one of the fundamental issues plaguing modern western culture was the separation of public and private domains of life. Corresponding with this was the separation of values.1 He argues that this concept is a holdover from the age of the Enlightenment and is rooted in classical Greek thought. I have read some of what he has asserted and it makes much sense. Yet, I won't get into that here.
This very western concept of segmented lives is cultural and common. In fact, it is considered normal. The problem is that this normal life often leads to Christians having a "church life" and a, well, "real life" for lack of a better term.
The problem in the church is that while church leaders and pastors continue to encourage church members to "be light in dark places" and engage their world with the message of the gospel (rightly so, by the way), our systems of ministry often enable the continued separation from the world, thus creating a private-public dichotomy.
While we encourage missional living, we often enable sequestered huddling.
There is no easy remedy to this. We are pushing not only against human nature, but also centuries of cultural norms.
The private-public divide often leads to a Kingdom-church divide. While we desire to see God's Kingdom grow and we know the "fields are white unto harvest" sometimes the church practices ministry that reveals a desire to see God's Kingdom within the church walls, while ignoring the commission to go, or better yet to live missionally as we go. The relationship between the kingdom and church must be sorted. Otherwise, churches will continue practicing a church-centered Christianity that ultimately remains detrimental to the kingdom of God.2
Even Within the Church Privacy Is Expected
While the evangelistic, missional living aspect of the Christian life is often negatively affected by the prominence of the private-public dichotomy, an equally dangerous aspect is the fear that fuels superficiality among church family members.
Scripture references unity in the body of Christ numerous times. It is not just a western, cultural aspect that celebrates guarded living. Fear of trust and often a desire to not let others in keeps many relationships, even among brothers and sisters at places that not only ignores unity, but may fuel division.
Paul David Tripp stated this reality so well in his devotional book New Morning Mercies...
Your walk with God is designed by God to be a community project. Anonymous, consumerist, isolated, independent, self-sufficient, "Jesus and me" Christianity is a distant an distorted facsimile of the faith of the New Testament. You and I simply were not created (Gen 2:18) or re-created in Jesus Christ (1 Cor 2:14) to live all by ourselves. The biblical word pictures of temple (stones joined together to be a place where God dwells) and body (each member dependent on the function of the other) decimate any idea that healthy Christianity can live outside essential community.
Yet many, many believers live their lives with a huge separation between their public church personas and the details of their private existence. We are skilled at brief, nonpersonal conversations about the weather, sports, and politics. We are learned at giving nonanswers or spiritually platitudinous answers to people's questions. We live in long-term networks of terminally casual relationships. No one really knows us beneath the well-crafted public display, and because they don't know us, they cannot minister to us, because no one can minister to that which he does not know.3
While more programs, emphases, and challenges are developed to "get people out of the church building and into the field" we see that perhaps the first hurdle is a barrier we have erected, and continue to add bricks upon, that separates our private lives from our public ones (even within the church.)
Once we remove these sinful barriers through repentance and dangerous openness, the church may grow healthy and recognize that its members who already are engaged in life outside the church structure can also remove the private-public barriers there as well. This may just result in the largest engaged mission force the church has ever experienced. Christians will realize they are validated by God to live holy and wholly for Him privately and publicly.
In other words, as Christians continue coaching youth soccer (not creating a church version of it), serving on homeowners associations, volunteering at schools, spending time at Rotary meetings, etc., their Christianity is not practically shoved to the back burner. They are freed to live missionally, engaging their communities for the sake of the Gospel.
Dangerous, perhaps, but worth it.
1Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986), 14.
2Reggie McNeal, Kingdom Come: Why We Must Give Up Our Obsession with Fixing the Church – and What We Should Do Instead (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale Momentum, 2015), 62.
3Paul David Tripp, New Morning Mercies (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014), July 12 devotion.