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In Lewis’s “The Screwtape Letters”, the old and experienced demon Screwtape is mentoring his novice nephew, the demon Wormwood, on how to best secure the damnation of the young man assigned him by Satan.
In one of his letters to his prodigy, Uncle Screwtape writes, “One of our great allies at present is the Church itself.” He goes on to explain this odd observation, “I do not mean the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners” (O, how I love that description).
Screwtape tells Wormwood not to worry too much about “that” church, because humans do not see or think of the church that way. Which is why he offers the following advice to the young demon:
“When he [Wormwood’s assigned man] goes inside [the church], he sees the local grocer with rather an oily expression on his face bustling up to offer him [a bulletin] containing a liturgy which neither of them understands, and one shabby little book [a hymnal] containing corrupt texts of a number of religious lyrics, mostly bad, and in very small print. When he gets to his pew and looks around him, he sees just that selection of his neighbors whom he has hitherto avoided. You want to lean pretty heavily on those neighbors.”
Wormwood’s advice? Screwtape was to tempt and harass his man with the peculiarities of others—those who “sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes.” By doing such, he will lessen the likelihood of his man attaching himself to the church.
I am not too concerned we will vacate the gospel or do away with “Word and Sacrament” ministry. Those temptations do not resonate. What concerns me more is the damage relationships can do to the church. I have seen through the years it is this aspect of church life that does the most harm.
A misspoken word or a misunderstood glance. The relational awkwardness of some. The difficulty of making new friends and the maintaining of old ones. Finding one’s place and exercising one’s gifts can be a difficult and frustrating process to navigate.
During such times, perceptions change. The preaching becomes less engaging, the officers become less competent, and those in the pew become less friendly. Though the “engaging, competent, and friendly” may not have changed, it begins to feel that it has. The exit door starts looking larger.
The weekly conversation Pastor Henry and me have concerns this matter. How can we provide opportunities for our large and growing church to act like a small one? That is, how can we foster an environment where brothers and sisters in Christ know and love their fellow brothers and sisters?
This is on your pastoral staff’s mind. And it is an ongoing conversation your Council has. We would like you to think about it, as well.
There is no doubt some of us sing out of tune, doing so with squeaky boots and double chins. But those things are noticed less when it is done by your brother or sister, after all, they are family.
Families can be quirky. Aren’t you glad? Perhaps it is the reason you found yourself welcome here.
Pastor Rich Hamlin
February 18, 2021