Thinking Naughty Thoughts on Church and Why I Think We Need to Change by Johan Van Der Merwe
With all the moxy of a street preacher, Johan Van Der Merwe in his new book Thinking Naughty Thoughts on Church opens up about his honest questions about the church. Growing up in the church, going through Bible school in the Pentecostal tradition and having a brother as a minister, Johan has seen the good, bad, and the ugly of church. The main reason Johan eventually left the church was because he could no longer stomach ‘all the unquestioned traditions that have become part and parcel of Western Christian spirituality, which by implication includes the whole idea of ‘belonging to a local church’ and adhering to all the practices associated with doing so” (25). The rest of the book is Johan’s outlining of these unquestioned traditions also known as tithing, communion, the local church, leadership, sermons, church buildings, and worship. In turn, Johan asks some really good questions of the traditional practices of the local church. Some of these questions are on my mind with a few different ones. The only drawback of the book is that some of the answers given to these questions are not fully engaged with reference to biblical teaching, church history, and practice.
Johan grew up in the church, was strongly influenced by his brother and went to a fundamentalist, Pentecostal Bible College. With these facts in mind, Johan came to a breaking point with church. The first chapter relates JVDM’s tension between belonging to a local church and the ‘communal expressions of faith that are found wanting’ (41). Prior to this statement, Johan gives a laundry list of his practices including not going to church but meeting with believers, not tithing to a local body but giving money to charities, and seeking to find expressions of church, worship and community that are at home in the world but not hindered by traditional church (39-40). JVDM has a striking way of critiquing the institutionalism of the church and all its foreign beliefs infiltrating worship of the true God. He goes onto offer a definition of the church as ‘a people sharing a common life and a common mission modeled on the example and empowered by the Spirit of Christ’ (50). Later on in the chapter, he writes, “And what if this eternal purpose is expressed best, not through creeds and rituals, but through a common a common life and a common mission mirroring the life, mission and teachings of Jesus Christ” (71)? I appreciate Johan’s desire to include elements of community and mission alongside focusing on the life of Christ as something to be imitated. But, I think he has set his idea of church up for a quick failure. If we are to value the life, mission, and teaching of Jesus Christ, what elements of his life are we to focus on? Furthermore, Johan doesn’t want creeds included in the definition of church but he has set up his own by making central the life, mission, and teaching of Christ. Filling out what it means to value the life, mission and teaching of Christ will inevitably be a return to core theological and practical commitments.
I appreciated Johan’s insistence that there are some big problems with the church. He writes, “One, a singular person or small group of people are charged with most if not all of the ministry that ought to be the portion of the whole body….the ‘lay people’ consciously or unconsciously begin to outsource our responsibility to others who have been deemed more qualified than ourselves” (150). This is a huge problem in our churches, not only with respect to the paid ministers in churches, but also with respect to the few lay leaders who bear much of the responsibility for the church. People will pull back from taking up responsibility in the church because this or that person has done it in the past. I think what might be a problem alongside the difference between paid professionals and laity is an understanding of the church as a volunteer organization by many. What you have with this is people who will help when it best fits their schedule but often drop off in help after a few months. There is not a sense of serving God, helping the church live out its mission and loving Christ by serving. I don’t share Johan’s refusal to see full-time ministers as deserving of their pay by tithing members, but I do share his concern about radical separation between ministers/laity.
This book was a really interesting read that brought up some good questions. Unfortunately, Johan missed many of the major arguments for topics such as church leadership by failing to go the fount of wisdom, namely the Scriptures. A thorough study of the Pastoral Epistles gives a reader a better grasp of church leadership and its value than focusing on other texts.
Thanks to SpeakEasy and Johan Van Der Merwe for the complimentary copy of this book for review.