Five hundred years after the Reformation, we need to be delivered yet again from the curse of indulgences.
It is a well-known fact of history that when Luther sparked a revolt among the churches of Europe one of the catalytic issues was the sale of indulgences. At that time, an emissary from Pope Leo X was sent to Germany to extract payment from people so that their dead relatives could be freed from the purgings of Purgatory. He even developed little songs to be sung along with his often-hyper-dramatic portrayal of how the rellies were suffering: “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from Purgatory springs.” Payment of money instead of going to jail was a well-established practice in the legal systems of Europe at the time, so the church borrowed the idea as an alternative form of fundraising. The funds themselves were almost always used to pay for extravagant building projects or lifestyles for the bishops. Since Leo himself was a member of the affluent Medici family, he was good at spending money on himself.
If the sixteenth-century church had problems with indulgences, the twenty-first-century church also has problems with indulgences – more specifically, self-indulgences Once again, it is an issue for the church because it has liberally borrowed values from the wider culture. This time it is not coming from the top down. It is coming from the bottom up. This time it is not about securing some comfort for the hereafter, but has everything to do with the here and now. The twenty-first century western version is not about indulgences, plural but indulgence itself – self-indulgence.
It seems to me that self-indulgence has become the highest priority for most people I know in the community and many people I know in the church. The matter of following Jesus is no longer about denying yourself, taking up your cross and following Jesus. It has become exactly the reverse: self-centred; self-preserving and self-determining. The question is, what kind of reformation do we need to deal with this form of indulgence? I’m not sure that if I go and nail up a list of complaints on the door of our church facility in Belconnen the ripples will be felt either in the lavish home entertainment rooms of people’s houses or the equally lavish resorts at Phuket.
The epidemic of self-indulgence in our part of the world has immediate and telling outcomes for all kinds of churches, whether large or small:
- people are less willing to take responsibility for anything;
- people are less willing to make long-term commitments;
- the average church attendance of supposedly committed has dropped to 1.6 times per month;
- parents are building their lifestyles around indulging their children rather than modelling loving self-sacrifice for Jesus and the kingdom;
- using US based statistics supposedly committed Christians watch more than three hours of TV per day but have little time for reading the Bible or praying;
- people are less and less accustomed to reading or conversing at depth – in a “twitter-sized” world we learn that even though the limit is 120 characters, most people don’t like reading more than 40.
My (possibly overgeneralised) observation is that the reasons for these trends are not just generational culture per se. We are not looking at something different, but something less. I am confident that the forces driving the change have much more to do with self-indulgence than with godly passion. That is, the shaping force comes from the kingdom of this world rather than the kingdom of God. If that is true, we need to push back against the trend consciously and develop lifestyle habits and traits that are the result of Holy Spirit transformation, not contemporary cultural accommodation.
HERE ARE TEN THINGS YOU CAN DO TO PUSH BACK:
- Go and read the Bible. Find something there that is inside the Bible but outside your current experience. Pursue God and fellow believers until this has become part of your life experience rather than something you read about. When you have done one of these, go and look for another one.
- Get connected to a Christian group or ministry who do kingdom advancing things that are way beyond your comfort zone. Make a commitment to hang out with them for at least three months, or as long as it takes to gain a genuine understanding of what they are doing and how they are doing it. When you have accomplished that, find some other people around you who will do something similar in your own church or sphere.
- Instead of going on a cruise or to a resort somewhere for a (self-indulgent) holiday, find a group who are responding to some form of direct human need and offer to spend your holiday time serving with them.
- Instead of reading, watching or listening to your usual restricted range of inspirational leaders (podcasts, video streaming, etc.). Talk with two or three fellow believers in your world whose commitment to Jesus you admire. Ask them who they listen to/what they are reading. Make a point of listening or watching what they have found helpful and seeing how it might relate to your world.
- Make a list of five well-known Christian leaders you respect. Look up their websites and search carefully until you discover what they are reading and who they are hanging out with. Even if you have to write four or five emails that they don’t answer – hang in there till you make enough contact to get your information and then spend time reading, listening and watching the stuff that tells you where they get what they have.
- Plan in advance to spend a day – or as much of a day as you can – in some place where you can pray, worship, read and reflect on the values that shape your life. Make a list of the things that you spend 80% of your time on in an average week. Ask Jesus to comment on what changes need to be made for you to become the person He has created you to be and to fulfil the purpose he has created, sustained, redeemed and empowered you for. Ask him specifically to show you areas where you are caught up with sterile self-indulgence and then listen hard enough and long enough.
- Decide to go on a TV/video streaming fast for a week or even two weeks. Plan in advance what you will do with the time that is available to you. Intend to spend at least a portion of that time doing something that meets the needs of someone else – if you can, outside of your immediate domestic sphere.
- When you have a day of a weekend free from other commitments, ask your spouse or someone close to you what might be something special they would like to do – or find out by other means what they love doing. Suggest that you would like to spend the day doing that with them. As you spend that day together, make sure you observe, ask questions and gain an understanding of why they like doing it.
- Who is the person in your world who represents the “least?” (cp. Jesus in Matthew 25, i.e. the least in your family, in your workplace, your neighbourhood or a community group. This will be the person who is furthest from the insider club in the group; the misfit; the difficult personality; the most arrogant or the one you would most naturally avoid). Decide that you are going to spend a month trying to reach out to them and get to know them well enough to be a blessing to them.
- Begin to learn and practice the principle outlined by Paul in Philippians 2:1-18. Make a list of the things that are described there as a way of developing a Jesus-like attitude to the people in your normal world. Make a deliberate attempt to consciously DO one and then two and then three of them. Explain to one or two trusted fellow believers what you are doing so that you can report your progress to them and ask them to pray for you and help you. Set a specific period for this experiment and measure your progress. See if you can make this to become a core part of your lifestyle.