Does Church Matter?

Photo by Vik Nanda

Photo by Vik Nanda

I preached this sermon on Sunday after taking a DMin course at McCormick Theological Seminary called “Why Church Matters in a Culture of Narcissism” with Lillian Daniel. The text for this sermon was 1 Peter 2:1-10. Some of this repeats things I wrote last week and things I’ve been thinking and writing about for some time. This represents a preliminary answer to the basic question of the course.

Once or twice a year, a pastor colleague of mine in Elmhurst takes a Sunday morning off and does what an increasingly large percentage of our nation does on the first day of the week. He sleeps in, reads the newspaper, watches the morning news shows, and enjoys a simple breakfast. He considers it a reminder of what the church is up against each week in our post-Christendom world.

I did my own version of that today. My wife and I slept in as late as we could with a four year old and a five month old whose biological clocks don’t differentiate between weekday and weekend mornings. We walked down the street to enjoy breakfast together at a local diner. We walked to the park and joined dozens of other families, just like us, enjoying the beautiful morning with their children. It was really nice, the first Sunday morning I’ve taken off since our youngest son was born in December. If I didn’t have to finish this sermon, I would have taken a nap with the rest of my family this afternoon.

It’s convenient, of course, that we have this afternoon service, which allows us to enjoy Sunday morning with the rest of the world and still get in a worship service. But in a city like Chicago, there are plenty of other things we could be doing right now. We’re here because we want to be. There’s no obligation. There’s no longer a cultural expectation to go to church. We’ve made a conscious decision to take an hour out of our Memorial Day weekend to gather together for this strange activity we call worship.

Why? Why do we do this? Why does church matter for us?

In a situation many pastors dread, Lillian Daniel found herself outed as a clergy person while sitting next to someone on an airplane. He proceeded to describe to her why he is “spiritual but not religious.” Instead of going to church, he finds God in sunsets, and mountaintops, and walks on the beach.

Her response? “Stop boring me!”

“Thank you for sharing, spiritual but not religious sunset person. You are now comfortably in the norm for self-centered American culture, right smack in the bland majority of people who find ancient religions dull but find themselves uniquely fascinating.”[1]

Throughout the United States, “spiritual but not religious” is becoming more and more common. Surveys of Americans show that the fasted growing religious group in the country is the group that claims no religious affiliation, people often referred to as the “nones.” In a much quoted study, about 20% of Americans fit this category, the largest this number has always been.[2] It’s even larger for young adults, apparently the least religious generation in the history of the United States.

Why is this the case?

Conservative pundits will have us believe that progressive mainline churches like ours have lost our way theologically. Our non-literal approach to scripture, liberal theology, and embrace of LGBT people has turned off faithful people interested in more traditional beliefs and practices. And while it is true that mainline churches have suffered significant losses in membership over the past several decades, progressive churches like our have actually managed to grow and expand.

At the same time, it is also true that more conservative and evangelical churches are now experiencing similar declines in membership. And research shows that many people now consider these churches too political, hypocritical, judgmental, and homophobic.

A broader and more shared explanation for the so-called “rise of the nones” and the decline of both mainline and evangelical Protestantism is the phenomenon known as post-Christendom. For centuries, Christian religion and culture dominated the Western world. This was especially true in American culture up through the middle of the 20th century. But this is no longer the case. Christianity in general—and, for Americans, Protestantism in particular—is no longer the definitive center and shaper of culture. “Christendom”—the triumphal reign of Christianity in Western culture—is over.

Those who were always on the periphery of the church or those who only came because of a sense of obligation or cultural expectation no longer come at all. As I was reminded this morning, Sunday is no longer sacred time in American culture. There will always be numerous activities and institutions vying for the attention and commitment of church-goers. The church will always need to demonstrate its relevance in a pluralistic and secularizing culture that no longer affords it pride of place. While church used to be taken for granted, now we must have an answer to the question, “why does church matter?”

It seems to me that there are at least two important ways to answer this question. One is internal and the other is external.

The internal response highlights the intrinsic value of community. Back to Lillian Daniel, who has this to say: “Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn’t interest me. There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff or, heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.”[3]

One of the two core creation stories in Genesis indicates that human beings were created in community, and both stories assume that it is better for humans to not be alone. From pre-biblical times, through ancient Israelite religions, through various forms of Second Temple Judaism, through the Jesus movement and early church, all the way through pre-Enlightenment Christianity, religion—indeed, life in general—was always a deeply communal affair. It is only recently in human history that autonomous individuals have become the basic unit of human culture.

This is especially true in the United States. I think it was President Herbert Hoover who popularized the phrase “rugged individualism,” which became almost synonymous with the American spirit. Over 25 years ago sociologist Robert Bellah described how this individualism was manifesting itself in privatized religion grounded in the unique beliefs and practices of individuals.[4] Nearly 20 years ago Robert Putnam first advanced his ideas about the decline of “social capital” in American society and the rise of the phenomenon he described as “bowling alone.”[5] Civic engagement and participation has sharply declined. Rather than a great community, we are a nation of individuals.

This way of being is sharply different from what we Christians believe about not only the communal nature of humanity but also the communal nature of our triune God. It is a significant departure from the ways in which our communities of faith have organized and understood themselves for millennia. As the apostle Paul once said, the church is like a body. An arm can’t go off and do its own thing as an arm—it won’t live very long on its own and the rest of the body will suffer its loss.

So being together as church in community is a way for us to re-engage this vital element of human nature. Living together in community is a way for us to remember that we are better together, even though community is always more difficult and frustrating than going alone. In fact, even the struggle of being together in the midst difference and conflict is a valuable spiritual exercise that can potentially offer a compelling witness to the promise of community. In our polarized world we 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 who do not agree on even fundamental beliefs to live and work together when gathered around a common cause.

Yet perhaps this is our greatest problem: we don’t know what our common cause is. You see, the second, external reason that church matters has nothing to do with us at all. In fact, endless obsession about ourselves more often than not gets in the way of what God has truly called us to be.

In all honesty, 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.

In the passage of scripture I read earlier, the writer is discussing what it means to be church. “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people who are God’s own possession. … Once you weren’t a people, but now you are God’s people.” It’s beautiful imagery about being chosen by God to be a special people in the world. But it’s not simply for the sake of being together. It’s not to keep us busy. It’s not to build institutions that need maintenance.

Rather, we have been chosen for a purpose: “You have become this people so that you may speak of the wonderful acts of the one who called you out of darkness into his amazing light.” We have a mission: to proclaim in word and deed the good news of God’s redeeming love in Jesus Christ.

In numerous and profound ways Jesus calls us to be a part of God’s emerging kingdom. The world as we know it is being transformed. Each of us as individuals, yes, but collectively as God’s people we are called to participate in this radical transformation.

Church doesn’t exist just so we can practice living together in community. Church doesn’t exist so that we can build big buildings and denominational structures. Church doesn’t exist to simply meet the needs of religious consumers. No, church exists because through us God is doing something remarkable in the world. Church matters because for whatever mysterious reason—and on some days the wisdom of this choice boggles the mind—God has chosen us to help change the world.

Amen.


[1] Lillian Daniel, When “Spiritual but Not Religious” Is Not Enough: Seeing God in Surprising Places, Even the Church (New York: Jericho Books, 2013), 128.

[2] Cary Funk and Greg Smith, “Nones” on the Rise: One-in-Five Adults Have No Religious Affiliation (Pew Research Center, October 9, 2012).

[3] Daniel, When Spiritual but Not Religious Is Not Enough, 128.

[4] Robert N. Bellah et al., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, 3rd ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008).

[5] Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone (Simon & Schuster, 2000).

Comments

  1. Joshua Patty says:

    John,

    Thanks for this. As usual, thoughtful and excellent work. Coincidentally, I’m preaching on a similar issue tomorrow, though I’ve framed the question, “What does a church look like?” (Essentially, I assume a positive answer to the broad question, “Does Church matter?”) I’m drawing two lessons from the first two chapters of Acts in answering the question, where the church is seen alternatively, coming together for prayer and mutual encouragement and then going out in evangelism and service.

    It seems to me that Acts imagines each of these acts influences (or even necessitates) the other. Times of prayer create an impetus to then split up and reach out; successful outreach brings in new people who need to be incorporated into the group the prayer and fellowship, not to mention that outreach — regardless of its effectiveness — likely creates a need for those spreading the Gospel to regroup every so often.

    But I know I’ve been struggling with this question for a couple of years now, so this is likely only another step in facing this issue of why and how our work in the church matters, if it does.

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