Our Sunday School class has been studying the Book of Acts. We are moving slowly through the early chapters which relate the beginnings and early history of the church. These chapters describe the church's early preaching and growth. We've been discussing the conflicts within the church and the persecutions without. One of my main goals has been to compare our 21st century church with that of the 1st century.
One of the seeming points of contrast is that of the miraculous: the early church experienced genuine miracles regularly; our church doesn't. And yet we hear of miracles and healings occurring in the church elsewhere. So I invited a member of our church who had recently been on a mission trip to Africa to describe what he had seen and experienced.
As he spoke, (I must confess), I got sidetracked by his comparison of the traditions of the church he had visited, with our own church. One in particular impressed me. He told how, while we would think that we should give Bibles to all the church people, the church leaders there did not. Bibles were kept at the church, where they could be studied. The people would come, read and study, then leave the Bibles at the meeting place when they returned home.
The reason given for was that every household has a shelf on which sit the various idols of their culture. The fear was that if a person were given a Bible it would be carried home and placed on the shelf to become just one more idol to be paid lip service to. (I'm not here attempting to discuss the wisdom of this policy; I'm sure that experience had taught the church leaders a need for this concern.)
While our speaker appeared to think of this as an interesting and quaint contrast between two cultures, my mind focused on the similarities. These people in Africa who were still burdened with the paganism of their past, were tempted to so something that we educated European Americans are guilty of.
Isn't that what we do? Don't we take our Bibles home and set them on a shelf along with our other gods? And not just the Book, but also the God whom that Book reveals.
Have we placed our Christianity right there along with all the other goals, desires and pleasures we seek? Is God - is Jesus Christ - merely a supplement to our life? Is He someone we can go to when needed, but normally left to sit neatly on the shelf to receive an occasional dusting along with the other idols and His Book?
Didn't God tell His Old Covenant people, "You shall have no other gods besides Me."? (Yes, that Hebrew expression can be translated "besides.") Didn't He say, "I the LORD your God am a jealous God."? Yet I fear that we want Him to sit conveniently on the shelf next to our other gods.
What are they? Well, we each have our own pantheon. But here in 21st century America, I suspect that Mammon is there in a prominent place, along with Civil Religion and many other minor deities.
I have no easy solution. I fear that we deal with the problem the same way that that African church does: we keep God at church where He is convenient when we need Him.
Perhaps we should start by cleaning the idols off the shelf into the (metaphorical) trash can and bringing God home from church and giving Him the prominent position He deserves - and demands.