There are two books apart from the Bible that have tremendously impacted my thought process regarding Christianity: Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, and That Printer of Udell’s by Harold Bell Wright. Many Christians are aware of Mere Christianity, but few are aware of That Printer of Udell’s. Written in 1903, the book is basically unknown, but its themes are ever so profound. The book even inspired Ronald Reagan to get baptized when he was just eleven years old. It is by no means however a children’s book; it is a book that a child can understand its basic principles, but it is also a book that an adult can find deep knowledge in, especially in regards to the Christian walk, and specifically, the purpose of the local Christian church. It was C. S. Lewis who said, “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.”
I don’t remember how exactly I heard of the book; it was either at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, or through a book about Reagan that I bought at the Reagan Library. But if there was a book that inspired someone to become a Christian, then it definitely had to be put in my radar. Once I picked it up and started reading, I was amazed at the relevance of this book, especially in matters of the purpose of the local Christian church. Harold Bell Wright tackles the problems of complacency and hypocrisy in the church, and advocates a message of “practical Christianity.” This practical Christianity is what impacted me the most about my thoughts regarding the purpose of the Christian Church, especially within its own community.
The plot of That Printer of Udell’s revolves around the character Richard Falkner, who comes to Boyd City with essentially nothing in his pockets. He is starving, and comes across a church and thinks to himself that Christians will surely feed him. The entire plot afterwards focuses on the conversion of Richard Falkner into the Christian faith, and the transformation that takes place for the local church in Boyd City. The story ends with Falkner becoming a great public speaker who is tremendously involved with the church, and he ends up working at the Capital.
The transformation of the church in Boyd City fascinates me the most in this book. Before the transformation took place, the church was inward focused, and they barely cared about the surrounding community. They cared more about fellowship rather than obedience to the Great Commission. There is a scene described in the book where there was a homeless man who was out in the cold, and he was looking for shelter. He ends up freezing and dying in the cold, and the blame is placed on the church for having its doors closed. This is a central theme in the book; Christianity, to be properly lived out, must be practical. If there is a problem in the community that the church can address, then it is the obligation of the church to address it. In this particular case from the book, the church ought to have had their doors opened; there was a problem within this church regarding how Christians viewed those on the “outside,” and this incident of the man dying in the cold is symbolic of this problem. There are a few great lines from the book that depict this mindset, “but what a world this would be if only the Sermon on the Mount were lived, not simply talked about” (50). “Your church members are all right on the believe, trust, hope, pray, and preach, but they’re not so much on the do. And I’ve noticed that it’s the do that counts in this life” (33). “Christianity’s all right, but it aint a goin to do no good less people live it, and there’s a heap more living it too than we think” (45).
That Printer of Udell’s has also captivated me to think about the churches in my community and how we can better reach our neighbors. Here is one example that I heard from a professor at Irvine Valley College a few years ago, and it involves the affluent city of Irvine. The professor mentioned that in the city of Irvine, Irvine cops pick up homeless people, and they send them to neighboring cities such as Tustin and Santa Ana, cities that aren’t affluent. A quick look at Irvine and one will realize that there are no homeless people within the city. The book helped me to ask, “Why don’t the Irvine cops send the homeless to the churches in Irvine? Irvine is known for its affluence; it definitely has the funds to adequately help those who need help…?” A quick trip to a megachurch (which one megachurch in Irvine has been described by my former coach’s son as an amusement park) and one will realize that this church has the resources to help those who are less fortunate. If the churches in Irvine wanted to be a greater salt and light of the community, then the cops should not be sending the least of us to other communities, but to the churches within Irvine. If the church is not helping the least of us, then are we truly living in obedience? “The church is not meeting the problems of the day, and it’s my candid opinion that ninety-nine out of every hundred preachers know it” (Wright, 84). This book helped me realize that it is very easy for Christendom to become inward focused instead of outward focused. We get so caught up with fellowship that we neglect the Great Commission.
Another example of how this book changed my thought process involves the allocation of funds for church ministries. This particular example is based off a real example from my home church, and the numbers in this example are approximations, rounded down to make it simple: there is a high school ministry retreat for one week during the summer, and it costs approximately $500 dollars for an individual student to attend. There are approximately fifty students in the ministry, so the total cost for the entire retreat is about $25,000. Many parents view this week as a great investment in the long run; students encounter Jesus Christ is a radical manner during this week, and they head back home and begin to influence those in their lives. By no means is this retreat a bad idea; in fact, it is a good idea! When we take a step back and look at the total cost however, one must ask, is there a better way to invest this $25,000? Suppose there was a better way for the youth to not only come together, and not only to grow spiritually in a radical manner, but to also influence their local community? The purpose of a retreat is for the youth to come together and grow radically in a spiritual manner, but what seems to be missing is the immediate impact the youth can have on a local community in that specific week, especially when a number like $25,000 is brought up. Why should that money just be used for the purposes of the church in an inward manner, when that money can be used to the purpose of the church AND for the benefit of the local community?
It’s hard to say what would be a better alternative than a retreat, especially one that has been going on for many years. Perhaps the retreat should be a combination of a retreat plus a significant community project; a project that consists of a problem that hasn’t been addressed in a noteworthy manner by the community, and something that the church can help with. What matters however is that we continue to think of ways to better engage with our communities. Maybe my home church has thought of everything, and they realized that this retreat is the best way to go. In that case, I stand corrected. But maybe there are other activities we need to reconsider, and determine if there is a better way at going about doing ministry.
I am also reminded of an example that my former college pastor shared with me; this isn’t from That Printer of Udell’s, but Harold Bell Wright would definitely be in agreement. He brought up the point that the racial demographics of a church ought to match the demographics of its own community. I was reminded of one of my non-believing classmates who stated that the Christian Church is one of the most segregated institutions in the United States. Now, I am not aware of any statistics that back up that claim, but I can speak from my own personal exposure to Christian churches in my area, and I can emphatically declare that Christianity is this region is segregated. It isn’t segregated for the purposes of diving up race however. Most people probably aren’t aware of this, and probably don’t see it as a people. People from different backgrounds have formed their own local churches because they wanted to be a support group for those who have the same struggles. Some of these struggles can include language barriers and cultural preferences, and there isn’t anything wrong with that.
But what needs to be asked is, should we continue in this direction, or should we at least consider other directions? Would it be a better witness to our communities if churches were more multi-racial? I believe it would be. If our communities can encounter a Christianity that is diverse, then they will encounter a Christianity where they see its disciples loving one another. As Jesus said in John 13:35 in the New Living Translation, “Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.” I believe that the future belongs to multi-racial, multi-cultural churches, and any church that fails to meet this criterion will eventually fade away.
That Printer of Udell’s has got me to think more about how the church can change its course for the better. We must dare to expand our horizons, think of better ways to grow spiritually, and we must watch out for the terrible trap of complacency. There’s a quote from John Keats that is very relevant to the traps of complacency that a church can fall into:
“The problems of the world cannot possible be solved by skeptics or cynics whose horizons are limited by the obvious realities. We need men who can dream of things that never were.”
That Printer of Udell’s has made me realize that the Church needs people who can dream of things that never were. The church needs people who can dream radically, but also walk out the faith practically and with simplicity; “I hope that you will some day see that the church with all its shortcomings and mistakes, is of divine origin; and that she needs just such men as yourself to lead her back to the simplicity of Christ’s life and teaching” (Wright 75).
We have the power given by Him to move in a brighter direction for the Church’s future. A great biblical principle is found in Acts 1:8, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Bio: I was born and raised in So Cal to Indian parents and am currently trying to find a balance between staying connected to my heritage and living my life as an American. When I’m not running or reading or running from reading, I attend Cal State Fullerton as a Political Science major.
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