the curse of the casual

Taking a road trip through New Zealand, seeing the beauty in both sights and friends, reminds me of the many things I will miss when we leave this country (as we expect to do in a couple of months).

However one thing will not be missed. Being casual. It is not difficult to trace its roots to the shifts and turns associated with what is often called postmodernism - but I won't do that here. I quite like the casual in the culture. I can see the value of the casual in the church from time to time. But one thing I do not understand. Why is casual with God so popular? For example, consider two of the practices, often called sacraments, we do in the sight of God and for God's sake. Weddings. Baptisms.

casual weddings
I've kept taking weddings since I finished being a pastor 25 years ago. It is the same routine every time. I listen closely to the stories of the couple, both individually and togetherly. I pore over scriptures and prayers. I work with their song selections and their wishes. I stitch and I weave. I check flow and momentum. And that is all before I get to my message ... where preparing the wedding's ten takes longer than the Sunday's thirty. Every word counts. Every idea weighty. Its serious stuff which I take seriously. I am all about wanting to cast the vision of what marriage means for this couple in the sight of God. That does not mean the service is without humour, but it is definitely without casual.

But gradually, over the past 10 years in particular, it has dawned on me. I have been attending more weddings than I have taken. I've done far more watching and listening. I see it clearly now, even to the point of embarassment. I've been working too hard. I've been taking things too seriously. People want casual. People want spontaneous. People want informal. At times people seem even to want shallow. I can't do it.

casual baptisms
If you thought weddings were serious stuff in the sight of God - what about baptism? It is the outward sign of a dramatic change on the inward side of a person's life. The New Testament speaks in terms of moving from darkness to light. Faith is there - believing and trusting in Jesus come what may. Repentance is there - turning from sin and rebellion and turning towards God. With baptism I have insisted on people speaking a testimony (unless there are exceptional circumstances) and that the testimony be their personal story, in their own precious words, of faith and repentance. If that is not possible, then they are not yet ready for baptism. It doesn't have to be perfect - far from it. And then with the vows - as with weddings above - they are serious and deliberate, slow and meaningful.

But gradually, over the past 20 years as I have travelled around churches in New Zealand, something else is increasingly common. Many good and moving things are said at baptism. Healing and confidence and love are shared. But testimonies which speak in their own words of faith and repentance are rare. Explanations about what baptism means are often absent. Vows are rushed. So often baptism can sound like the next cool thing to do with God, a buzzy experience based on fuzzy theology designed to sustain us for the next season. And could we stop the talk about dunking?

I am far from convinced that God does casual - ever. Can someone describe the parameters of a biblical theology of casual for me? Is this not another example of Martin Luther's 'cultural captivity of the church' where we baptise cultural trends and marry ourselves to cultural values, thinking this to be the pathway to effective mission? It isn't. It never has been.

My concerns are theological and pastoral.

Theologically, is what we see here God's immanence eclipsing God's transcendence? We like our God to be near and close. Jesus can become kinda like a boyfriend, only much better. The Spirit indwells to help us and make us feel better. But 'methinks your thoughts about God are too human'. In popular conversation and spirituality, God's transcendent qualities, destined to help us take him ever so seriously, seem to be in a sort of recession. One area of the Bible we need to revisit is the Old Testament prophets. Their common message is that the people of God have become too casual with God.

Pastorally, being casual leads to such problems. The sacraments become less important. If the sacred and the solemn and the serious in marriage is minimised, what chance does God have to be at the center of the ongoing marriage? When the marriage is under threat, how does this impact on the mutual commitment to stay together and work things out? Won't there be a tendency to give-up sooner and easier? And if baptism happened without proper explanation and without accurate testimony what actually is happening when someone 'falls away' from the faith? Maybe they were never moved from darkness to light - and never actually converted in the first place? How does that change the counsel offered?

nice chatting - in a serious manner



Fred said…
Thanks Paul. Look forward to a follow-up regarding Communion.
Paul said…
Of course, I should have thought of that one. A Casual Communion. Maybe, a Lazy Lord's Supper ... or even, but what is a word that goes well with 'Eucharist'?
Fred said…
Try Egocentric Eucharist. Here's a quote from Todays meditation with Richard Rohr. "Even the Eucharist itself is still used... to define the worthy, the pure, and the true members... Where did this come from? And we do it right after piously mumbling... 'Lord, I am not worthy.' But I guess we think we still really are!"
Nigel Webb said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nigel Webb said…
Bless the Casual

Paul, thanks for your thought provoking words. I wanted to post my reflection on this post as a kinda derridian gratitude in the form of an adiĆ³s but alas I was too verbose and overshot the word count, so have had to post it on my own blog here:

It starts:

Dear Paul,

As one who rarely does formal, would you permit me to respectfully respond to your curse of the casual. Speaking as one on whom the suit and tie only appear at funerals (all too often at times) and the occasional wedding, never at baptisms or communions, not being suited for everyday use, I beseech you to consider the blessed value of the casual, the in-formal, a word for which you seem mal-content for it is an opportunity to be sacramental in a society where for-mal is largely out - mal-igned as stiff and ceremonious - for the bad.

And concludes that as Jesus said to the woman at the well (in my informal paraphrase), its neither here nor there, its what’s in there that counts.

I would love to continue the conversation, here or there.
Paul said…
Ahh Nigel - what fun!

I am not sure we are that far apart in what we wish to affirm. Over the years I have urged Kiwi preachers to be 'lucis' in delivery - laidback, understated, conversational, informal, and self-deprecating - and so I can see the cultural realities of which you speak.

However a few comments in response to your pleading with me to bless the casual.

a. For me the opposite of casual is not 'formality', but seriousness. In all dealings with God there needs to be a seriousness in tone and content. I cannot see a biblical basis for being casual with God.

b. I don't think you adequately respond to my theological and pastoral concerns. Where might you encounter people taking the transcendence of God seriously and responding to him with biblically-sanctioned fear? And the pastoral issues related to not taking marriage and baptism seriously enough are massive. I love testimonies at baptisms too - mostly I weep through them ... but when there is no explanation of the meaning of baptism and no understanding of the meaning of baptism by those being baptised. "I am getting baptised because it expresses my confidence in God and this will help me to be more confident in myself". What?! That does not express a conversion - that is a little pick-me-up.

c. I think there are some disjunctions in your response that I'd question - for example, 'structure of ceremony' vs 'preparation of couple' ... or, being serious rules out being spontaneous ... or, that somehow being casual is about clothing or the like. The casual I am concerned about is one to do with the tone and the content of the sacrament - not so much the way it is wrapped, or its context.

d. I suspect you are much more concerned about wanting to fit into the culture than I am. After 29 years in NZ, I have a jaundiced view about this now. Yes, I do think many an effort at contextualisation has slipped into a syncretism and sadly, there are times when the desire to become relevant (a noble enough goal when put in its place) has become overheated and idolatrous. These are carefully worded statements which stop short of sweeping generalisations - please note! This has been an era of too much salt and too little light.

as always, my friend


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