Last week I wrote a post thinking about the Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutierrez’ great work, “A Theology of Liberation“, that I read mostly in a globalized coffee shop, which is a car-crash setting I quite enjoyed:

Costa + Gutierrez

In that post I wrote:

But the quantitative universal question (who is in, who is out and how many people are saved which is typically how the word universalist is used) is not nearly as interesting to me as the qualitative universal question.

I’ve been thinking about this and I want to suggest that by being primarily concerned about the “qualitative” question of salvation you will end up being much more appropriately concerned with the “quantitative” question. To be properly concerned about salvation for immense numbers of people we have to properly focused on the immense reality of each individual salvation.

One of the things that has stuck with me this summer is something a grand Corkonian poet trapped in Belfast said to me. Citing R.S. Thomas he told me that to be universal we must first be parochial. I took that home to my little local church work where one week this summer fifteen people showed up and it gave me great solace.

Fifteen people! I spent more hours on the sermon than there were people in the room to hear it! A voice whispered urgently to me from within as I stepped up to the microphone to start our corporate worship “What a failure I am, we are, this whole blasted project is?!”.

But the 11 year old girl and the woman from an Anglican background who still manages to be encouraging who were sitting in front of me at that time were more than able to overcome my concern with numbers and size and scope because salvation has come and is coming in fresh new ways in that woman’s life and when I think about the ways in which that little girl could light up the world in years to come I think there is no where else in the world where I’d want God to put me.

This inward meditation is an attempt to talk around something instead of blazing right through it and making it a principle. But here comes the principle nonetheless: To whatever degree the churches in Ireland can hope to see significant growth in numbers, it will be determined by the extent to which they are able to cultivate growth in disciples.

I am not hopeful that a church as stubborn and downright corrupt as ours can move with hurtling momentum. If I were God I’d invent purgatory and throw the Irish Church into it. But I am hopeful that the Gospel can continue to work with universal reach inside the lives of the individual people who get caught up in it. And those lives will the be the great testimony (alongside my intensively prepared sermons of course!) that the church has to invite others in.

The mission Jesus charged us with is one of loving and of dying. These are two words that are not often present in discussions in the circles I move in. The first is love, expressed for Jesus in unity. Unity in our individual churches and unity (much more than tolerance) between church traditions is an essential hallmark of love that is absent from our witness and it can only be conducted from the ground up, in the local church you are a part of. Not even the Pope can manage to create the unity of love.

The second is dying, expressed for Jesus in suffering. It took me a long time to understand why Dietrich Bonhoeffer could say that persecution was the hallmark of the authentic church. But the Gospel that is borne by us is born by the God who suffered and was brutalized by the very hands He had created. At Easter, Jesus shows us what true humanity looks like. If the church lives and has its being in the life of the crucified Jesus then the path we tread is not one of success and adulation, numbers flocking to us and crowds besieging us. It is to declare Jesus as LORD even if other so called lords choose to silence us and it means doing that in a way that demonstrates solidarity with the very weakest in society. This too can only be achieved by the individual and the individual community going down this path in little steps together, learning something that honestly, the Irish church really knows nothing about. We have inflicted the suffering, but rarely suffered.

If we focus on the real-life application of the universal Gospel message in the lives of our local parochial little communities so that the good news takes shape in flesh and blood in transformed lives, that will far more likely lead one day to an exponential explosion of new movement mass evangelisation. It is a much better investment of energy than any big scale televangelist campaign you can hope to imagine or fundraise for. There is the not inconsiderable added bonus that when that momentum builds, we will have been changed by doing loving and dying work we are called to that we will be far less likely to see such “success” as vindication of our individual, corporate or institutional merit.

If it happened now I fear we’d be delighted that the churches had been saved instead of the people.

Your Correspondent, Driving in your car he never never wants to go home.