The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. His praise endures forever.
Reaching new Christians, finding a way to engage with the so-called “nones” (no religious affiliation), is all the rage these days. Countless books are published about growing church by reaching new people, there are symposiums offered on the subject, and there are even “3-step programs” online about how to knock on strangers doors with the hope of getting them to become Christians.
Since the days of the first disciples the church has grown and changed with the addition of new people. Though, for the majority of the church’s life, it was not done by what we might call evangelism today. Instead it was either a matter of public normativity to be involved in a church, or people were forced into the realities of the church by overextending powers like the nation-state.
Today, however, Christians might canvas certain public spaces in order to “grow the church” by asking people to repent of their sins. Repentance, after all, is what John the Baptist was calling for in the wilderness and it’s what Jesus called his followers to do. But using it as the beginning of faith, as the mechanism by which people are initiated into the church, often falls flat.
Many years ago the theologian Karl Barth met with a group of Swiss Methodists and they had a rather interesting exchange on the same subject:
Methodist: “Should the church, in its proclamation to modern people, follow the example of Jesus and quite decisively call them to metanoia (repentance) as the first conscious step that initiates discipleship to Christ?”
Barth: “Certainly, this question causes some upset. But to my knowledge Jesus called the pious people of his time to metanoia. These people were the theologians, the scribes, the Pharisees (the Pietists back then and maybe as well as the Methodists just a little bit), and then the Sadducees (these were the liberals). And so it makes me uncomfortable when this picture emerges: the church stands here, and over there are modern people – and now we, the Christians, call for metanoia. Is not metanoia something above all else that we must call ourselves to do, us and those like us? I would say this about our established church. It is precisely the church that actually has need of metanoia!
(Barth in Conversation, Volume 1 1959-1962)
Metanoia, the act of repenting for sins, is at the heart of what it means to be Christian, but that doesn’t mean it should be the first entry point for exploring Christianity. Who wants to join a group where the first thing you are called to admit is your wrong being? Barth was right to call the church to repent first, because the church (today) often appears to be extremely judgmental and archaic. When the church leads the way with metanoia, when the church looks in on itself and admits its faults and failure, it then can encounter those outside with an open heart to the way God is moving in the world.
Metanoia, like fear, is the beginning of wisdom, because in (re)turning toward God we are struck by the profound truth that God chooses us in spite of our faults and failures. God still sends us Jesus knowing full and well that we will have to repent again and again. God makes a way where there was no way for us to enter into the kingdom on earth. But it begins with our metanoia.
Or, to put it another way, we have to get our house in order before we worry about anyone else.
Or, to put it yet another way, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own?”