Natural transformation in the church

Religious view on transformation in the Sunday service church

How do people get transformed in character? Here is a ridiculously simple answer: by hearing the “Word of God”. There’s also a bible verse for it: “[F]aith comes from listening, and listening comes through the word of Christ.” [Rom 10:17 ISV]. So the idea is that the “Word of God” is something special that transforms people supernaturally, probably because the Holy Spirit produces the “fruit of the spirit” [Gal 5:22 ISV]. If this notion is correct, then we’d be correct to offer a Sunday service, preach to them, and that’s it.

This view on transformation bears at least the following problematic implications:

  • Character transformation is supernatural. It is effected by God, cannot be done by men, and cannot be reproduced by natural means. Therefore, followers of other religions are suspected to be essentially untransformed people. Which is not appropriate to many non-Christians unfeigned kindliness and happiness.
  • Sunday services include a supernatural encounter with God. Where people think that God speaks through a sermon and transforms people supernaturally they start to think that a Sunday service means meeting God. Practical expressions include: the idea that one can be “close to God” when worshipping; the idea that our positive emotions when worshipping are something God creates in us; the idea that very prayer is a talk with God as close as interpersonal dialogue; the idea that God “speaks” to persons by purely subjective inner immpressions, feelings and thoughts, on a regular basis, and about quite meaningless details of practical living. These ideas are simply problematic because one finds testimonies to such phenomena also in religions with totally different content, i.e. where Christians would expect that God is not present (e.g. the LDS movement). Of course I admit that God does (sometimes) speak immediately through a sermon to people, e.g. be hidden prophetic elements. But it is a big difference to view this as the basic principle of transformation, or as rare occasions where people have special needs. And besides, transformation is not supernatural on these occasions either: God speaks, and that’s natural interfacing with people because people can speak also.
  • Didactics have to be avoided in the church. Where God is believed to transform people supernaturally through the sermon, human contributions are seen as inappropriate, even impediments. Therefore, didactically skillful teaching is avoided in church, resorting to ex-cathedra lessons. People might quote to support this:

    “(17) For Christ did […] send me […] to preach the gospel, not with eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. (18) For the message about the cross is nonsense to those who are being destroyed, but it is God’s power to us who are being saved. […] (20) Where is the wise person? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? God has turned the wisdom of the world into nonsense, hasn’t he? (21) For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know God, God decided through the nonsense of our preaching to save those who believe. (22) Jews ask for signs, and Greeks look for wisdom, (23) but we preach Christ crucified. He is a stumbling block to Jews and nonsense to Gentiles,” [1 Cor 1:17-18,20-23 ISV]

    Note however that these verses speak about how the central, saving
    message of the Gospel is communicated, not about how people should be teached in the less central matters once they accepted Jesus as their

  • Naturally inviting conditions are inappropriate in the church. Again: where God is believed to transform people supernaturally, comfortable housing for a church is believed to be annoying accessory, and unspiritual. One of the best examples that I know of are served by some unpleasant church meeting rooms of closed brethren in Germany.

Natural transformation by truth …

As shown above, one might view transformation as solely the supernatural work of God, but experience indicates otherwise. In addition to the problematic implications shown above, here are confirmations that transformation happens in natural ways:

  • The truth will set you free. Some words from Jesus:

    “(31) So Jesus said to those Jews who had believed in him, “If you
    continue in my word, you are really my disciples. (32) And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (33) They replied to him, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves to anybody. So how can you say, ‘You will be set free’?” (34) Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly I tell you that everyone who commits in is a slave of sin. (35) The slave does not remain in the household forever, but the son does remain forever. (36) So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed!”” [John 8:31-36 ISV]

    Disciples (“learners”) of Jesus continue in his word, that is, continue to hear what he says [John 8:31 ISV]. In the course of doing so, they get to know the truth to the full, because Jesus will tell them the truth [John 8:31]. And this truth sets them free, esp. from the slavery of sin [John 8:34 ISV]. So Jesus presents sanctification as a result of learning the truth from him. And not of a supernatural immediate re-programming of the believer.

  • Accepting authority empowers education. Repentance is, basically, accepting God as authority. This is a proper foundation for successful education, as such people are willing to obey. There seems to be no need to demand other differences between Christians and non-Christians than this, which fully and naturally explains the differenteffect of Christian teaching on both groups. Repentence resp. accepting God as authority might also be verbalized as “being humble in spirit” (admitting to be wrong, where applicable, and turning one’s way) or to “convert”. Conversion experiences are also found in other religions, so they are natural and cannot prove the Christian faith to be true, as supernatural conversions (i.e. miracles) could. But this shouldn’t bother, as the Christian faith gets its proof from God’s supernatural signs (see below). It’s not the form that makes the Christian faith unique (there are other religions as well, where religion means pursuit of something supernatural), so there’s nothing to bother about when seeing analogies in form. But it’s its substance, its true content, that makes the Christian faith unique.
  • Christian education produces nice non-Christians. The character of people who where brought up in a Christian context but are not (yet) Christians themselves indicates that education builds character and that no supernatural work is implied therein.
  • Truth produces nice non-Christians. There are other religions which emphasize love and friendly behavior, and these religions produce authentically friendly people (at least to some degree). It is truth that love and friendly behavior are good things, so becoming loving and friendly people is here an educational effect of this truth.
  • Everything human is spiritually relevant. Psychological defects like being overly shy due to some traumatic experiences of rejection are of spiritual relevance because they are impediments to spiritual life (here, to encouraging andreproaching people). Character transformation here needs to cope with “psycho-mechanical” issues, and it does, my “psycho-mechanical” means (education). The idea that human attributes like temperament are “unspiritual” is itself unspiritual: we are the collection of our human attributes. God does not want to free us from our human attributes until we are some abstract spiritual being, but to cleanse and then perfect all of our human attributes.
  • Being a disciple. Jesus termed his followers “disciples”, i.e. learners; see e.g. [Luke 6:40 ISV]. Learning is a way how human beings get  deliberately “re-programmed” by experiences and teaching. To add some rather speculative thoughts: the human “spirit” might describe a  complex infomation system, not an atomic unit; see also my crazy article Wesen der Personhaftigkeit, Wesen des Geist-Seins. The human spirit might include the information system implemented in our brains, and some other information system which is independent of material substrate. So learning might be seen as changes to this “spirit program”. The “fruit of the Spirit” indicates something growing, so probably something that the Holy Spirits sows by teaching people the truth, and what then changed their “spirit program”, i.e., “grows up in them”.
  • The permanence of the flesh. Christians know something they call “sinful nature”, “flesh nature”, “flesh” and the like. It can be described as a program directed to do evil. Everybody has it, and the fact that Christians never get fully rid of it (though it gets weaker) proves that Christians remain “normal” people by substance, i.e. their character transformation is effected by education, not by substantial changes.
  • Natural effects of the Bible. Here’s a passage where Paul admonishes his young co-worker Timothy:

    “(14) But as for you, continue in what you have learned and found to be true, because you know from whom you learned it. (15) From infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures that are able to give you the wisdom you need for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.(16) All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, (17) so that the man of God may be complete and thoroughly equipped for every good work.” [2 Tim 3:14-17 ISV]

    Note here that he attributes the source of the “Holy Scriptures” to
    God, but lists only natural effects: one learns them, may find them to
    be true, may have trust in those who taught them, may gain wisdom
    through them, may get teached, reproofed, corrected and trained in
    righteousness by them or by people who apply them. Together, these
    effects amount to a full transformation of character [2 Tim 3:17 ISV].
    So the Bible works by transporting truth and educating in the truth,
    just as every other book that contains truth. The Bible has no special,
    supernatural way of changing people. That God is the source of this
    book should not make us expect a quasi-magical mode of operation.

  • Challenging Bible passages. The natural, educational
    mode of operation in Christian teaching can be shown from various
    examples of Bible texts, which are Christian teaching and serve as the
    basis for further teaching. For example:

    “(11) Dear friends, I urge you as aliens and exiles to
    keep on abstaining from the desires of the flesh that wage war against the soul. (12) Continue to live such upright lives among the Gentiles that, when they slander you as evildoers, they may see your good works and glorify God when he visits them in judgment.” [1 Pet 2:11-12 ISV]

  • God’s grace educates us.

    “(11) For the grace of God has appeared, bringing
    salvation to all people. (12) It trains us to renounce ungodly living
    and worldly passions so that we might live sensible, honest, and godly
    lives in the present world” [Tit 2:11-12 ISV]

    Paul uses here the word “παιδευοω” (Strong 3811), transliterated
    “paideuo”. It means to educate, parent, bring sb. up. Nothing about
    supernatural, quasi-magical experiences.

  • Educators in the church.

    “(11) And it is he who gifted some to be apostles,
    others to be prophets, others to be evangelists, and still others to be
    pastors and teachers, (12) to perfect the saints, to do the work of
    ministry, and to build up the body of Christ (13) until all of us are
    united in the faith and in the full knowledge of God’s Son, and until
    we attain mature adulthood and the full standard of development in
    Christ.” [Eph 4:11-13 ISV]

  • Recognizing God’s children. The fact that Christians
    should be recognizable needs not to imply a supernatural
    transformation. As with every children, it will be apparent who brought
    them up and educated them.
  • Where God’s word does not transform.

    “(6) For some of these men go into homes and deceive
    foolish women who are burdened with sins and swayed by all kinds of
    desires. (7) These women are always studying but are never able to
    arrive at a full knowledge of the truth.” [2 Tim 3:6-7 ISV]

    These are people who do study the
    Word of God
    but do not get transformed because they don’t want to
    accept truth in exchange for their lustful life. So not the Word of God
    transforms (in some supernatural way), but it communicates truth, which
    would transform people
    upon accepting this truth.

  • The Spirit as the implantation of God’s law. The
    following promise of God for the New Covenant seems like a confirmation
    for the view that God supernaturally transforms people by directly
    re-programming them, changing their substance or implanting something
    in them:


    “I will also give you a new heart, and I will put a new
    spirit within you; and I will take away the stony heart out of your
    flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh.” [Ezechiel 36:26 WEB]

    But read on:

    I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk
    in my statutes, and you shall keep my ordinances, and do them.
    [Ezechiel 36:27 WEB]

    Viewing this as an explanation of the preceding verse, the “new spirit”
    and “new heart” is identical to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
    Which is a person, communicating with the persons she dwells in. By
    teaching the truth ever and ever “from the inside”, the Holy
    Spirit is God’s law “in our hearts”. So the difference to OT
    is not a supernatural change in our substance but having the Holy
    Spirit as a companion who will never leave as he did back then. Thus,
    we will never be without the truth any more, never lost in a situation
    where transformation stops because nobody tells us the truth.

  • God’s educational dealings with peple. From the Holy
    Spirit it is said that he is the Spirit of Truth [John 14:17 ISV] and
    that he teaches and reminds Christians of all that Jesus teached and
    said [John 14:26 ISV]. So it appears that even where God (through his
    spirit) interferes immediately with individual people, he does not
    change them supernaturally but educates them, using natural means such
    as interpersonal education.

… and supernatural confirmation of truth

Christians believe in the supernatural reality of God and his son
Jesus Christ, whom the believe to be their savior. In the above
discussion of practical Christian living we found a natural mechanism
only: transformation by education. Natural mechanisms could work
without God, or if God would cease to be. In fact, education (to the
good) is at work in other religions, which Christians believe
to be “without God”. So natural mechanisms cannot
prove believed supernatural content: the Christian day-to-day
experience serves no justification to believe in God.

This is a problem. Therefore, God shows up and proves the believed
supernatural content by supernatural acts:

“(3) It was the Lord who first told people how to be saved.
Then those who heard him told us the true way. (4) God also proved that
it was the true way. He gave signs. He did things that surprised
people. He did many things by his power. He gave the gifts of the Holy
Spirit to people just as he wanted to.” [Heb 2:3-4 BWE]

“(17) “These are the signs that will accompany those who
believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new
tongues; (18) they will pick up snakes in their hands; even if they
drink any deadly poison it will not hurt them; and they will place
their hands on the sick, and they will recover.” […] (20) The
disciples went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord kept working
with them and confirming the message by the signs that accompanied it.”
[Mark 16:17-19,20 ISV]

“(7) They made them stand in front of them and began
asking, “By what power
or by what name did you do this?” (8) Peter, filled with the Holy
Spirit, said to them, “Rulers and elders of the people! (9) If we are
being questioned today for a good deed to someone who was sick or to
learn how this man was healed, (10) you and all the people of Israel
must understand that this man
stands healthy before you because of the name of Jesus from Nazareth,
whom you crucified but God raised from the dead. […]”” [Acts 4:7-10

Of course, Mark 16:20 does not imply that the Lord does nothing else
on earth that performing these signs (think of answerig prayers, e.g.).
But this verse shows that signs are there to prove believers to be
right. And not to help the believers in their everyday life. Healing is
not to help people
but to show God’s power and character, so it’s not unjust that some
people don’t get healed.

God also justifies the content applied in transformational education
by these supernatural acts. And by contemporary supernatural acts he
shows that all this content is still true. With such an
enormous confirmation for our faith, there’s no problem with
transformation by natural means: as there’s no need any more to search
for confirmation in a supposedly supernatural transformation process.

Here’s a short explanation why God’s supernatural acts indeed prove
Christian’s believed supernatural content. Truth means that the
difference between reality and a piece of information about reality is
zero. In post-modern times people realized that their ability to
perceive reality is quite limited, so they argued that we can never get
to know the absolute truth. This neglects, however, that truth might be
revealed to us by a being that knows better than we, namely, by an
omniscient God. God shew his omniscience and character of integrity
throughout history to let people experience that he can be trusted.
That is, trusted in what he says about Jesus today. One problem
remains: as God is invisible, we know about him by information, which
is a coded representation of reality, referring with names like “Jesus
Christ” to entities of reality. But how can we be safe from
misinformation, perhaps coming from evil sources to deceive us? How can
we be sure what information about God is true? The answer is simple:
“God” is per definition the mightiest being, so he can hinder other
beings from misusing certain names. He proves that Jesus is his son and
the Messiah by laying power to the name of Jesus: outstanding miracles
happen “in the name of Jesus”, which are impossible in any other name,
showing that there is a connection between Jesus and the Almighty.
Jesus told of several such signs [Mark 16:17-18 ISV], and gramatically,
the term “in my name” refers to each of them, is the centerpiece of all
these signs. This, by the way, explains why non-Christians are able to
do miracles “in the name of Jesus” [Mt 7:21-23 ISV]: God lets them
happen as he wants to give evidence that Jesus is the Christ, not that
the miracle-workers are godly people.

Summing up: natural transformation by truth makes up a natural,
non-religious day-to-day life; and supernatural confirmation of truth
makes up a sure,
justifiable faith in God. The separation between the natural, normal
and the
supernatural, exceptional element in Christian living is probably
sharp, that is, everything belongs either fully to one or fully to the
other category. At least, the difference is much sharper than most
Christians believe; wherefore it could be described as a “dichotomy”.

20 ideas to freak out of Sunday service church culture

It made me feel quite relaxed and free when I realized that
transformation is effected by education, and that it’s religious to
believe that all transformation is supernatural. Which is my
expericence for today that the truth sets us free [John 8:32 ISV]. I’m
free from the burden of eliciting or imagining ongoing supernatural
events in a “naturally supernatural
Christian life”. This new freedom grants some fascinating new thought
about congregation!! Originally, I wanted to name this article “I don’t
believe in church anymore”, and to whine about congregations being
without a sweeping effect on people. I wanted to give up hope for this
to ever change, as I never saw anything different and had no idea what
was wrong. Missing any rewarding or motivating effect, I wanted to
resign active service for the congregation thing, focusing on
intentional community as an alternative for personal sanctification.
Now, things have changed. If transformation happens by education in the
truth, we are welcome and even obliged to apply truth in our
congregations in ways that change people radically, intensely,
absolutely crazed, and even more radically, to more and more personal
Christ-likeness. Here are 20 ideas, and you might have some more:

  1. Encouraging lowering the privacy barrier. One of the
    biggest impediments to an educational church is our reluctance to
    approach one another, be it for correction or encouragement. At least
    in Germany. Because privacy is a taboo, and we fear uncomfortable
    experiences when ignoring it. There are some things we can do to lower
    our sense of privacy, especially growing mutual trust: being together
    until as a group until it feels “normal”, common undertakings and the
    like, see also below. But the biggest part is to get the courage to
    ignore the privacy taboo, even risk the relationship to somebody to
    help him or her. Interfere with people, get in their way. Pray for
    this. And, again, a practical tip, origninally from Dale Carnegie:
    practise what you fear and you’ll lose your fears.
  2. Communal setting. The kind of rooms can hinder or foster
    the educational purpose of a congregation, because education is
    implemented in natural means. Rooms that invite to hang around,
    socialize and spend time with people, in groups and in one-to-one
    settings, foster mutual education through the application of individual
  3. Supporting the family. Families are the basic units of
    education, and children experience a 24/7 education therein, which is
    close to ideal if the education’s quality is close to ideal.
  4. Pooling books. When the members of a church pool their
    books, cheap access to pre-selected quality lecture is possible for all
    without problems. This is by far better than to sell books in church,
    which is often practised today.
  5. Experiencing extraordinary situations together. Risky
    undertakings, dangerous situations (even moderately dangerous ones) and
    other extraordinary stuff binds people together as it produces “social
    ecstasy”, tipping over many taboos. Volunteering as a team to help in
    catastrophy relief and humanitarian missions is a practical idea here.
  6. Travelling together. These times will turn out to be
    filled with intensive community, mutual openness and mutual dependence,
    also in practical issues. Remember Jesus and his disciples on these
    dusty roads. Also, you’ll undergo lots of extraordinary situations
    together, binding you together.
  7. Doing sports together. Can have some of the effects of
    travelling together. Also, physical efforts makes people come out of
    their shell.
  8. Making music together. Avoid the typical presentation
    setting where one worship group plays the music and others sing along.
    Instead, create an open setting for several hours where people are
    encouraged to take part in prominent and experimental ways, like
    improvising another part when singing, playing percussion and so on.
    Things are fine when the groups happens to play in flow state, as then
    all reluctance to interfere with each other, to take a prominent
    position and to make errors is gone, and this will lower interpersonal
  9. Temporary community living. Weeks oder months long
    phases of being together 24/7 could turn out to be times of intensive
    character changes. Because one has to bear all those nice people 24/7.
    After such phases, a recreation phase might be advisable, i.e. a
    temporary return to Sunday service congregationalism. Practically,
    community living might take place in somebody’s home, but people must
    not be reluctant to experience the proximity.
  10. Intentional community integration. At least one part of
    the congregation might be an intentional community, inviting especially
    broken people as a community setting provides a better opportunity to
    help those who need more care.
  11. Intensive discipleship. Practise much mutual
    encouragement and correction.
  12. Training in interpersonal communiction. Thinks like not
    interrupting people, developing trust, detecting and describing one’s
    own emotions, detecting and understanding other people’s emotions,
    special hints for cross-gender communication.
    Women practise sometimes a special variant: they take an audio-visual
    lecture (they view a soap-style feature movie), then discuss the
    character’s emotions, decisions etc..
  13. Training in convincing people. Where transformation is
    natural and conversion is no miracle, mission is the attempt to
    convince people of the truth. God’s Spirit will do the same when on
    mission: using sommunication to convince people.
  14. Training to rebuke people. Peope are reluctant to say no
    and to criticize people because they don’t know how. So train this, by
    enacting ficticious situations, videotaping and then discussing them in
    the group. This idea can be extended to enacting complex social
    situations, perhaps even creating a feature film from this, thus
    training social competency. Then, more realistic situations can be
    created by performing real talk show discussions with non-Christians,
    perhaps to be sent over an community channel / open channel.
  15. Coaching in approaching people. Getting to know new
    people and approaching people naturally is no wide-spread
    qualification, at least not in some western industrial countries like
    Germany, Great Britain and Switzerland. Wherefore sharing this
    qualification in practical midtown hands-on exercises is a good idea.
  16. Training in pastoring and counselling. Modern management
    sometimes likes agile systems, e.g. training everybody in everything.
    Why not train everybody in church in pastoring?
  17. Being enthusiastic about good. “[Jesus] gave himself for
    us to
    set us free from every wrong and to cleanse us so that we could be his
    special people who are enthusiastic about good works.” [Tit 2:14 ISV].
    Enthusiasm is a typically human attribute, something natural. And as
    such it has its place in church.
  18. Non-religious emotionality. Because supernatural
    encounters with God are the rare case, we should not expect this to
    happen every Sunday morning. Which means for our emotions, to view them
    as natural phenomena. If we do so, we can use them in non-religious
    ways: being exceedingly emotional in a Sunday service is fully
    appropriate for every guy and gal, if its a reaction to what we know
    about Jesus, not to what we think Jesus says to us right now.
    That is, if it does not bear the idea of being effected immediately by
    Jesus (or
    the communion with him) in this very moment.
  19. Non-religious use of religious language. Religious
    is outrageously suggestive of immediate encounters with God, things
    that God said to individual people and stuff. However, a prosaic view
    on the Christian day-to-day life as being essentially natural needs not
    result in prosaic language. To express the greatness of God and our hope
    to see it, we might use religious and lyrical imagery language, if we
    know what we’re getting into: if used with non-religious intention,
    images are just images and must not be understood word-for-word.
  20. Using diverse didactic means. Seeing the huge
    educational aspect of church, I wonder why we think it fit to use
    lecture-style teaching only (in the sermon). Didactics offers so much
    more possibilities, and for most cases at least one better one
    (audio-visual education, computer-aided instruction, hands-on
    experiences, discussion groups etc. etc.). People who are gifted from
    God to be teachers should discover the didactic implied in their task.
    Today, church is perhaps the only place where out-dated ex-cathedra
    teaching is the predominant form of education, and is even widely
    believed to be the ideal!

One word of caution: we’ve seen that it is fully o.k. and “spiritual”
to desire a better
educating church, one that changes, not just teaches people.
But one must keep the focus on deep education that changes character,
not just drills behavior. Though Christian living comes by education,
there is a big difference
between quick and dirty drill of behavior and real transformation of
character. Especially the performance goals of strategic church
planting tend to seduce our focus from transformation to drill, e.g.
when we’re contented with appropriate visitor numbers in the church
services — wherefore it might be advisable to dismiss all goals and
just be the church, everybody with his and her gift; see also my
article [Be
your congregation
]. Then we’ll hopefully be surprised one day by an
“unplanned” deep transformation process in our church.

Answering objections

Here is some possible criticism, and some answers to that. This section is in draft state yet.

  • When character transformation is a natural process, why are
    people obviously unable to transform themselves?
    Perhaps, the
    (religious or humanistic) self-education of people towards truth fails
    because our quality is below a certain threshold. See for example the
    French Revolution, which succeeded and preceded tyranny with
    brotherhood. So we need Jesus to educate us personally, where no man is in place to do it. And because we were not even able to recognize the truth ourselves [citation needed], we needed Jesus to come down from heaven and tell us (that which is now traduced in the Bible). Note however, that education by people is the normal case, and immediate education by Jesus or the Holy Spirit the exceptional case.
  • How to deal with the fact that God educated Israel all the time and they did not get changed in character? There are some possible answers:
    • some individuals only did change in character, which is just
      the same as in Christianity today
      there is one supernatural element implied today: that God gave us his Holy Spirit which wants” to do God’s will in us though another part of us does not; but a basic directedness towards God is there, the basis for effective education
    • they did not have the indwelling Holy Spirit as a continuous educator
  • We need here a good exegesis of Jesus’ words “Nobody can come unto me it be then that the Father draws him.”
  • When being filled with the Holy Spirit, people’s character changed spontaneously, didn’t it? It seems that being “filled with the Spirit” is about short-term empowerment. Peter’s courage at Pentecost towards heathen and in dangerous situations and his lack of courage towards those of James lateron illustrates this. Being “filled” is no change of character: it’s ability that is not our own. While God’s education indeed changed our very character (see Hebrews on that: where is a father who does not discipline his child).






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