Allow me to paint a couple of different pictures here.
Your plane has just touched down on a runway in the middle of rural Kenya. Your eyes move over the foreign landscape as you take in the dry roads, the Acacia trees and the high, African Sun. Your skin feels the warmth that comes with being on the Equator. You smell the dust rising into your nostrils, mixed with other unidentified scents. You hear the whir of the plane engines powering down.
OK. Now the next one.
You walk into your favourite shopping centre. The familiar noise of chatting shoppers mixes with Michael Buble-esque jazz pop in the background. You smell the new perfume from your favourite brand. You see the newest line from Topshop. The air conditioning provides a nice relief to the warmth of outside.
Some of you will have experienced a version of the first and many more of us will experience the second. This isn’t an article about the differences between Western culture and rural Africa – they show just how much we experience life as physical bodies.
My church has recently been studying the book of James. It’s different in tone to many of the New Testament letters as it’s written by a church leader who is living with the flock. It feels like a New Testament version of Proverbs – it’s riddled with wisdom. Of course we all know that wisdom isn’t just knowledge, but applied knowledge.
One of the central themes of the book is that we were not created, as James KA Smith suggests, as brains on a stick.
We are far more than belief machines. We are seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting, smelling beings. We are bodies in a physical world.
I’ve always thought it’s strange that church gatherings are often just a lecture, bookended with a few songs.
The Reformation, which was when this service pattern began, was a vital time in human history. It corrected many wrongs; it’s important to believe the right things. But our faith becomes problematic when we place emphasis on that correction. The fact that we have grown up in a society that has been significantly shaped by the Enlightenment – the moment in human history when we declare reason to be Lord – is another issue.
A by-product of this Reformation plusEnlightenment recipe is an over emphasis on ideas and doctrine.
Ideas left as just ideas won’t change our lives.
We need more than that. We are deeply habitual creatures who crave rhythms.
Take porn as an example. Research shows that pornography has a similar effect to drugs. It hijacks the brain by laying down neuro-pathways that get stronger with every return. From there, behaviour is affected. Porn users tend to think that what they see in porn is normal behaviour and even expect it from their partner. Action matters.
It isn’t just in a negative sense, either. Positive habits create positive rhythms.
My friend’s three-year-old old daughter, Norah, was asked by her mother in the supermarket to choose any thing she wanted as a treat. Norah’s response? “Please mummy, can I have an apple? They’re so tasty!”
Her parents didn’t give her a sermon or a 16-point tract on why the apple would be better for her than a bag of Percy Pigs. The apple was the literal fruits of reinforcing of a good action.
Actions shape how we live. Sermons, unapplied, do not.
Do you think that a 45-minute sermon from your pastor is going to change your life? Dallas Willard said: “Grace is not opposed to effort, it’s opposed to earning. Earning is an attitude. Effort is an action.”
We are called to make disciples, not brains on a stick.