Refreshing the Hearts of the Saints
Saturday, March 24, 2001
Marva J. Dawn
Theologian, Author, Educator with “Christians Equipped for Ministry”
Adjunct Professor of Spiritual Theology, Regent College
Reported by Andrew Leahy
This was the second time I had heard Marva Dawn speak. My reaction was the same as the first time. Based on the power of her writing and the strength of her convictions I had expected someone with a powerful voice and a flamboyant appearance. What I saw was a soft-spoken, gentle woman, dressed in modest clothing, wearing tennis shoes. (She explained that she must wear tennis shoes because of a condition related to her diabetes.) Her image is a reminder that it is not safe to judge a book by its cover. In spite of her mild manner and her casual dress she comes across as a theologian of great insight and exceptional authority.
Perhaps the core of her presentation was a statement she made early on. In talking about faith she said, “Faith gives us boldness to look at the world in real ways.” Christians can never be pessimists because we have hope–the hope that is given to us by the resurrection of Christ Jesus. However, Christians can not be optimists either because we are fully aware of the sinfulness of the world and that we each have sinned and fallen short. Instead, Christians are “realistically hopeful – hopeful realists.” We neither kid ourselves about how things are in the world and in our own lives, nor do we become hopeless about what we see. We have the promises of God, especially regarding forgiveness, life and salvation through Jesus.
In order to have this realistic hopefulness she says that our “primary focal concern” should be God. For Christians that seems like an obvious statement but Dr. Dawn believes that the church allows too much concern with the ways of the world which wants to lead us away from God as our center. To illustrate this she talked about worship. “There is a danger of worship becoming a device to produce a commodity.” Worship, she says, is for God, not to attract people. If worship is good outsiders will be attracted to God not to the worship. “The practice of worship is to engage God.” For her God’s way is engagement not passivity. God is at work in the world engaging people in an active relationship. Jesus is the heart of that work of God. We do not worship to produce anything or to get anything. We worship and pray to engage God.
She also went on to say that it is dangerous to make Christianity efficient. The central acts of Christianity, prayer, worship and loving our neighbors, are non-efficient. As an example she said that one of the great works of pastors is to waste time at bedsides. There is little productivity in a pastor sitting at a bedside holding someone’s hand and waiting with them. She also thought that worship should be done “three miles an hour.” To engage God and through that engagement engage our neighbor worship must be leisurely. She recognized the need to be conscious of time and the need to keep worship from being unnecessarily too long. But she also warned against worship driven by the clock. She told about being instructed at a church where she was to preach that she had 12 ½ minutes, no more.
She also talked about our culture’s “quick fix” mentality. She said that we have confused worship and evangelism to the detriment of both. Ninety-five percent of real conversion (not church switching) comes about through a friend. There are no “quick fixes” for evangelism. It requires a way of life. She pointed out that the word “method” is only used two times in Scriptures, both times negatively. We do not “go to church.” We go to a building to worship, fellowship, learn, etc. in order to be the church.
“We give a great gift to a world starved for transcendence.” She said that kids are jaundiced and cynical because they can’t find any meaning in life. Christianity is a people who form character. She was also quick to point out that we don’t make Christians. “Making” Christians commodifies Christianity. The role of Christians is to rekindle gifts. We believe that God has given all people gifts for contributing to the well-being of all. Christians have the means to rekindle these gifts in others and in themselves.
What we need to do according to Dr. Dawn is be “fervent and focused.” We focus on redemption. Since many, if not most, of us were raised in the church or have been in the church a long time we forget how much darkness we have been rescued from. The turning point in the Christian story, after which the story could end in no other way, is the Resurrection – the defeat of the final enemy, death. Because of the Resurrection we know the end of the story. Revelation is about how the turning point and the ending point of the story change how we live today. Because we know the turning point and the ending point we live eschatologically. Heaven is not a place but a who and we now live with that Who.
According to Dr. Dawn there is a longing for transcendence in our culture. The only way to reach the world with the Gospel is for each Christian to be in the world loving their neighbors. In order for this to happen true comprehension of the Gospel is needed. She reminded us of the impracticality of Christianity. How we live as God’s people will not make sense to the world. It is not practical or efficient. Unfortunately that also identifies a problem we have as Christians. We’re afraid to be church because we are afraid we won’t fit in. We need to remember that the Bible redescribes the world. Biblical patience is “remaining under” in the world not waiting till things get better. We do not give up but rather we work with hope in spite of how things are.
She concluded by asking, “How do we motivate all the people in our pews to love Christ?” She answered, “Make sure they know who he is.”
I have to admit that I am a fan of Marva Dawn’s writing. I appreciate her grasp of the Gospel and her willingness to confront how we as Christians live in this culture. She is, I believe, a voice in the wilderness. Her message is to Christians who are caught up in the culture of our nation and that message is not an encouraging one. She challenges us to recognize that our actions do speak as loudly as our words if not louder. Or, to paraphrase an old teaching of the Church, the way we worship does reflect what we believe and the way we believe must be reflected in our worship.
Marva Dawn is a voice that needs to be listened to. And fortunately for us it is a voice that is not strident or flamboyant. It is a voice of reason and gentleness. A voice that is filled with the love of God and because of that is filled with a love for those she meets. She wants us to make sure that God is at the center of our lives and she makes clear that the only way we will know that is if Christ crucified and risen is at the center. She wants us to be sure we know what we are doing in worship. Are we worshiping God in Christ Jesus or are we worshiping the culture, or worse, ourselves. In gentle but firm and authoritative words she proclaims the Gospel to us. And like the Lord she serves she expects us to respond to that Gospel with lives of active love for God and for our neighbor.