Sounds like a pretty smart statement, doesn’t it? It was a statement I heard in a recent class on Church planting when we were discussing the way in which people choose Churches. It was said that people never seem to be interested in the things preached from the pulpit, rather in the community the Church represented; the way people acted towards each other.
My difficulty is that, while the observation about what people openly value about a Church community is not the preaching, the teaching, or the doctrinal convictions of the Church is a good one, it is not correct to then think that people are not ideologically driven. Indeed, I’d actually say that the evidence leads to an opposite understanding.
First off, everybody is driven in some sense by ideology. We act based on what we actually believe to be true. Indeed, even in those cases where we don’t, it is our own beliefs about what the standards of our actions should be that make us believe that we have acted poorly at a given point. We do not always reflect on the ideology we have, but we always act on it.
It is this assumption that bases the actions of people in seeking a Church based on how they act with one another. They are looking to see what the Church ACTUALLY believes as opposed to what they say they believe. Any group of people can come up with nice words to state what they believe, but those words will remain words unless they are actually brought into the life of the Church community.
I remember being part of a Church organization that often said all the right things, but when it came right down to it, there was precious little in the way of actually teaching those things to people to the level that they began to act as if the things they were saying were true. The result was that while the first blushes of good community began to develop, there was no root for it, as people were not allowing the truth being expressed to embed upon the heart and then change them. To use the theological language, while they had a good understanding of justification (becoming right with God through Jesus Christ), they had a terrible understanding of sanctification (the altering of a person from the heart outward through the work of the Holy Spirit).
Contrary to popular belief, this was not a failure of action in the face of ideology, but a failure of ideology itself. The community in question had allowed in the tacit ideology that as long as one confessed Christ with their lips, and acted in vaguely loving ways, they were a Christian community. What was lacking was a belief in the work of the Holy Spirit as an agent for positive change in the life of the believer, a change that was not simply passive, but actually worked on the mind and heart to change them to be in conformity to Christ. The beliefs were incomplete, and as a result, the community eventually collapsed under its own inconsistent beliefs (and resultingly inconsistent actions).
When a person looks at a Church community, attempting to grade it’s value, they are not ignoring doctrine. Far from it. They are actually asking what doctrines actually move the Church. If they do not ALSO look at the official stated beliefs of the Church, and what is preached from the pulpit, they will get an incomplete picture, but they will not get a non-ideological picture.
The implication for the Church? While it is good to affirm in words that Jesus Christ is Lord, it is far better to then act like it, by loving God with all you have, and loving your neighbour as yourself. You can say all you like that you believe the word to be the word of God, it is quite another to bring your life humbly in submission to it.
In the end, God is not looking to create solely moral actors, or positive affirmers of good doctrine, or even passionate feelers of positive feelings towards God and others. These are all effects. He seeks to recreate unregenerate man into worshipping vessels of His grace. We are being made into the image and likeness of Christ, a very total alteration, and seeking to stop at any point short of that, no matter which point, is going to be inadequate.