THIS is the book I’ve been waiting to read. I just didn’t know it. “Naughty Thoughts: On Church, and Why I Think We Need to Change,” by South African author Johan van der Merwe, addresses every doubt and internal conflict I’ve had about church attendance for the past two years. In fact, his central question is “Do I have to belong to a local church?” There are some for whom this question is satisfactorily settled, on either side, and you may not be interested in the question, and that’s fine. Neither van der Merwe nor I is interested in digging people out of a way of practicing Christianity that is working for them. Van der Merwe makes clear on several occasions that if you are finding life in a traditional church of any denomination, he has no quarrel with you continuing to love and serve God in that context. I do not fall into this camp. I have been struggling with questions of church for quite some time because, while I understand the nature of the gospel to be communal, and I don’t know how to experience that communal relationship outside of church, at the same time, I don’t feel that church is really enabling that experience, either. For people who share this longing and dissonance, this book might be very compelling for you. I personally experienced such a huge paradigm shift while reading this book that it’s hard for me to write this review because I don’t have enough distance yet from the shift to be able to articulate it. All I can say it that it was foundationally liberating to hear someone acknowledge, articulate, and honor all my subconscious questions and conflicts.
“Thinking Naughty Thoughts” is van der Merwe’s somewhat lengthy reflection on why the church as the institution we have come to know, is, per se, a fundamentally flawed and perhaps even toxic vehicle for trying to communicate the gospel of Christ. Not because the church is corrupt, although it is sometimes, and not because it needs some reforms, although it often does, but because the very principles that help institutions to exist conflict in some central ways to the gospel. Van der Merwe points out repeatedly that the primary metaphors used to describe the church in the first century all revolved around families, meals, bodies, and households – very natural, organic, fellowship-oriented concepts. And while we pay lip service to those metaphors today, our weekly church experience doesn’t actually practice them, whether you are Catholic or Protestant. Or if your church makes a special effort to foster familial relating among its members, it does that over and above and separately from its standard Sunday event – Sunday service and fellowship and community service, when van der Merwe points out that in the first century church, church basically was fellowship and service.
Van der Merwe takes a critical look at several basic elements endemic to institutional church, including tithing, liturgy, the role of the pastor, the Sunday sermon, church buildings, the Eucharist (yes, the Eucharist), and Sunday worship.
I’ll take one example to illustrate the dynamics that “Naughty Thoughts” is taking a look at – the role of the pastor. Van der Merwe spends several pages at the beginning of the chapter explaining that he does not mean to speak against any particular pastors, and neither do I. He (and I) are acquainted with many wonderful, hard-working, Christ-loving, long-serving pastors who do wonderful work, and his critique is not meant as personal slander – he is critiquing the institutional office of pastor, and what it has become, rather than any individual people who serve in that office. Despite this disclaimer, it is still a difficult critique to make precisely because van der Merwe is arguing that the existence of a professional pastor (or priest) per se is not only unnecessary but sort of contrary to some of the primary values of the gospel.
Van der Merwe makes a detailed case that Christ came to found, not a great religion, but a family of equals. I won’t go into that case in detail, but considering that Christ disrupted first century Jews’ understanding of their own religion, radically moved the boundary line that decided who was included, and left precious few instructions on how to proceed, and that first-century Christians shared everything in common, etc., you can probably see where he is going with that without me giving you the full exposition. Anyway, he goes on to point out that if Christianity is to be a family of equals, and yet every Sunday our way of coming to God is to sit and listen to the same person monologue at length about what we are to take from the Bible and the tradition, rather than engaging with our neighbors, dialoguing, and taking turns offering illumination of varying kinds, then the message (Christianity is a family of equals) is in tension with the delivery of that message (one man delivering all your wisdom from a place of authority). Even when churches go out of their way to foster community outside of Sunday services (small groups, home groups, fellowship groups, service projects), the primary, standard event that unifies the church community still falls back on this model, and the message the model sends is still in conflict with the message it is trying to deliver. This is an oversimplification of both van der Merwe’s point and the fully expressed dynamics of the situation, but hopefully you can see the point.
The entire book is laid out in that basic format – examine the central principle of the gospel, examine the institutional adaptation we have adopted (he goes into church history quite a bit), and ask the question – in what ways are our practices in conflict with our message? I LOVED, loved, loved, loved, loved this book. The only thing I could possibly say in critique is that the style feels a little to informal at times, and I wished for a little more structure in the editing. There were times when the book felt very much like a long string of blog posts, and I felt that the informality distracted from the brilliance of the ideas contained therein.
So, in sum – if you are quite happy with your church situation, then you don’t need this book, and I (and I think van der Merwe) are very happy for you. If you, like me, are finding church to be a bit thin, and your experience of the gospel more rich in other contexts, this book might help lay bare some of the values and principles involved.