Church is a Tool, But For What Purpose?

Photo by zzpza

Photo by zzpza

I’m past the half way mark of the DMin class I’m taking with Lillian Daniel this week on “Why Church Matters in a Culture of Narcissism.” While I’m still not sure that we’ve articulated an answer to the question of why church should matter to those who would prefer “spiritual but not religious,” some thoughts are gelling for me.

I can’t help thinking that justifications for or defenses of church as important are essentially still Christendom conversations that assume the existence of the church. Lillian and others provide numerous examples of the goods we experience in church, but you have to be there first in order to experience them. Community is vitally important, but church is not the only place people can experience community. In fact, the reality is that people may find better and more healthy experiences of community elsewhere.

I’m growing weary of church navel gazing and conversations about how to build a better church. Jesus didn’t give us the church in order to give us something to do. (In fact, you could argue that Jesus never intended to start “church” at all.) I think we have long forgotten that church is a means, not an end. Church is a tool or an instrument that enables us to accomplish the sharing and enacting of Jesus’ good news and participate in the emergence of God’s kingdom.

I believe that community is central to God’s nature and the nature of humanity as the image of God. When we’re stuck in the muck of church, we come to appreciate it as an opportunity to work in community and be together. These are all important ways of being. But are these endeavors worth the amount of time and energy it takes? Do we need to create complex systems—maybe I’m mostly thinking about denominations and denominational structures here—in order to practice being in community? Is this God’s mission in the world?

Now, I struggle with this because I think that in our polarized world we do indeed need experiments and models of healthy community. If churches got their acts together, we could in fact help the world see that it is possible for diverse people that do not agree on even fundamental beliefs to live and work together when gathered around a common cause. (Yet in our post-Christendom context, perhaps we should be more interested in how we will live in the wider world of diversity, rather than how we live in our own faith communities.)

Maybe this is the problem: we don’t know what our common cause is. For centuries it was sacraments and salvation—the church was the place where people had access to God’s grace. For many conservative evangelicals, the common cause seems to be right belief and behavior. For many liberal mainliners, the common cause seems to be social justice, which may or may not be articulated with rich theological language. For a variety of reasons, these are no longer compelling for growing numbers of people.

Perhaps if we had better clarity about our mission—what it is that Jesus calls us to do and be in the world—we would have a better understanding of what church is and how it functions as a tool toward that end.

Comments

  1. Martha Brown says:

    WAIT! You stole one of my speeches!

  2. Dennis Maher says:

    Great post. I am currently in the middle of a dispute in a UU congregation between spirituality and substance in worship. There isn’t enough commitment to social justice in any denomination and few congregations to make that central (I spent many years trying to build it). Worship leads people to love neighbors or it doesn’t. Worship helps people feel good about having been there with others or not. Worship feeds people or not. Spirituality is what we used to call at McCormick a “weasel word.” I still have read nothing that breaks it down for me. My own personal “spirituality” is built around jazz and poetry. There aren’t many congregations that can provide that for me.

  3. I think you’re off to a good start with a key question at the end, “What is church?” And “what is it ‘to do’ church?” Google it on Amazon and you’ll see a plethora of books on it and no clarity. You want to get a conversation started? Ask “what is church” in a small group.
    Second, we have an impoverished Ecclesiology–that is the church isn’t a response to individual needs–though it may address many of them directly and tacitly. The seminary I attended had zero classes on ecclesiology–some mission history yes, but no direct discussion on the Body of Christ. Third, I want to push you to consider that “the church”–“those called out”– is not just a body politic (a volunteer organization) but is The Very Body of Christ on Earth. Now how do you live with yourself, others and the God Triune?!

    Luke Timothy Johnson once said in a lecture on Hebrews, “Hey I lived through the charismatic renewal of the late 60’s. You can only stay in a charismatic fog for so long, say 3-6 months, then you need to get organized.”
    Organized how–both structurally and behaviorally (conduct) and For what ends?

    “Defenses of church as important are essentially still Christendom conversations that assume the existence of the church.” In reply, I offer Lady Julia Flight of whom Waugh wrote, “I am so evil, I shall always need the church.”

  4. Susan Schaefer says:

    John: As always, your blogs are provocative, deep, and well written. My sadness about the issue is that most of my friends choose “spirituality over religion” and will not attend a church service. Most have been badly hurt by the church.

    There is at least one community that I know of that is not a church but where there is emphasis on a relationship with God and each other. In my opinion, it doesn’t provide an opportunity for deepening a relationship with God, but it does provide a forum for honesty and it is life-saving. Given that, why would any of it’s members consider going to a church? Even if the church did change, it wouldn’t attract the interest of people who are already “fed.”

    It’s a complex situation and it saddens me. I’m thankful that there are people like you who are seeking to address it.

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