In the course of writing these posts, I’ve been blessed to have contact and feedback from many readers, both through comments here and on Facebook, and through personal emails. Many of the responses I’ve received, at some point, have asked a question in the form of, “Where are you going now?”
Rather than spending time explaining where we are now and why we are there, I thought I would conclude this section of these posts by reflecting for a few minutes on my “ideal” church – characteristics I would want to see in large measure at any community I was a part of.
I start with the obvious recognition that the “ideal” church doesn’t exist, as if it were some Platonic form up in the sky. Church isn’t about ecclesiology detached from practice, but is intimately involved in the things that are happening on the ground in particular places and groups of people. And as such, the life and vitality of particular communities of faith tends to be very local. As one of my mentors once said, “There are churches that are alive, and churches that are dead, and the name on the outside and number of people on the inside don’t tell you anything about which is which.” And so, with the recognition that some communities do a better job of these things than others, here are three things I think are important for any church to embody, or at least be working toward.
A church that speaks rightly for God
“Christian” life consists of my living in the world and like the world,
my not being permitted to be different from it,
but my going occasionally from the sphere of the world to the sphere of the church,
in order to be reassured there of the forgiveness of my sins.
I am liberated from following Jesus by cheap grace.
– Dietrich Bonhoeffer
In their book Soul Searching, Christian Smith and Melina Denton summarize data collected in 2002-2003 by the National Study of Youth and Religion. The survey included in-depth interviews with hundreds of teenagers ranging from age 13-17. Smith and Denton found the “creed” of most teenagers in the study (and one suspects many of their parents as well) was summarized in a belief system they called “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism”. The five key beliefs in this “creed” according to Smith and Denton are as follows (paraphrased): 1) A God exists who created the world. 2) God wants people to be good and nice to each other. 3) The central goal of life is to be happy and feel good about oneself. 4) God does not typically need to be involved in one’s life, unless needed to resolve a problem. 5) Good people go to heaven when they die.
It’s not too surprising, really, that this is what teenagers believe, considering it falls broadly in line with what many churches teach (note: churches may have other teachings alongside this, for instance, “you need to be baptized”, but these are often incidental, functionally, to their core theology). The core teaching at many churches, on a week-in, week-out basis, doesn’t fall too far from what Smith and Denton outline. God wants you to be good. God wants you to be happy. And God doesn’t need to intrude into your life too much, unless he would be helpful to solve your problems. If you are a faithful believer, you’ll go to heaven. As Smith and Denton say:
This is not a religion of repentance from sin, of keeping of the Sabbath, of living as a servant of a sovereign divine, of steadfastly saying one’s prayers, of faithfully observing holy days, of building character through suffering, of basking in God’s love and grace, of spending oneself in gratitude and love for the cause of social justice, etcetera. Rather, what appears to be the actual dominant religion among U.S. teenagers is centrally about feeling good, happy, secure, and at peace. It is about obtaining subjective well-being, being able to resolve problems, and getting along amiably with other people. … It is thus no wonder that so many religious and nonreligious teenagers are so positive about religion, for the faith many of them have in mind effectively helps to achieve a primary goal: to feel happy about oneself and one’s life.
And at many American churches, this is essentially the message you get: God loves you. He wants you to be a good person. And he wants you to be happy. And even if you aren’t happy now, you will be in heaven. Sermons tend to be focused around these pegs. How can you be moral? How can you be happy? How can you feel good about yourself? Aren’t you glad you are going to heaven? Church becomes a stand-in for moral instruction and therapy.
On the other hand, the first announcement we receive about what Jesus is doing in the world is a bold proclamation: “The time has come. The kingdom of Heaven has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15). This first proclamation in the earliest written Gospel presents us with a rather curious pairing – in particular, the pairing of the word “good news” (gospel) with the word “repent”. Which suggests, I think, that it might be difficult, as a member of the WASP demographic, for me to understand the coming of the kingdom of Heaven as “good news”. For me to understand correctly this “good news” that Jesus is talking about, there might need to be some change, some repentance in my heart, and in my life. It means, maybe more to the point, that I might be tempted, strongly, to read and interpret the words and the stories of Jesus in ways that are actually contrary to what God intends. It might be possible, unless I am careful, for me to conform the story of Jesus to my present life, rather than conforming my life through repentance to Christ’s story. It might be possible for me to see the story of Jesus as “good” in ways that are actually unhealthy, spiritually speaking.
It might, for instance, be possible for me to read the story of the rich young ruler in Mark 10 and conclude that Christ’s words: “Go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, then come follow me” mean anything but “Go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, then come and follow me.” It might be possible to read the Sermon on the Mount and conclude that Jesus is being hyperbolic or exaggerating when he says to turn the other cheek, and go the extra mile, or to conclude that when Peter asks Jesus “how many times must I forgive?” Jesus answer implies that there are limits to forgiveness, however large they might be.
It might be my tendency, in other words, to construct a message of “good news” that doesn’t require much, if any repentance from me or my church – a message where I’m already “good enough” that there doesn’t need to be a change in the attitudes and postures of my heart. I might be naturally inclined to pre-filter the stories of Jesus such that the Christ I encounter demands very little of me beyond getting a job, paying my taxes, and attending church on Sunday mornings. It might be my preference that what it means to “be a good Christian” looks a lot like “being a good American citizen”. There might be a strong temptation to water down “good Christian behavior” to the sort of behavior that can be expected of everyone.
Which is why it is critical, really, to live among a community that speaks rightly for God.
A community that speaks rightly for God engages the full narrative of scripture, not just the bits that make it feel good, or that it finds “useful” for moral instruction and therapeutic purposes. It is a community that recognizes God’s special concern in Scripture for the poor, the outcast, the outsider, and the stranger. It is a community engaged in remembering that Christ’s words call us not to be good citizens, but to love our neighbors as ourselves; a community that takes seriously Christ’s admonition that “whatever you did not do for the least of these, you did not do for me.”
A community that speaks rightly for God is concerned as much or more about what Paul calls the “powers and principalities” – systems which divide and oppress people – as it is about trying to post the Ten Commandments in schools. It is a community that recognizes and takes seriously injustice in the world, and seeks through its words and actions to bring about restoration. It points out when systems and organizations – whether they be economic, political, or religious – are complicit in the continued suffering of the poor, violence against other humans, or wanton destruction of God’s creation.
A community that speaks rightly for God is always open to the possibility that it might be wrong, that it might still need to repent. It is open to this possibility because it recognizes its heavy burden of being not only God’s hands and feet, but also his voice in a broken world.
It’s easy to be a church that preaches a message people want to hear. It’s easy to be a church that preaches a message that attracts people. It is easy to preach, in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “cheap grace”. “Grace as bargain-basement goods, cut-rate forgiveness, cut-rate comfort, cut-rate sacrament; grace as the church’s inexhaustible pantry, from which it is doled out by careless hands without hesitation or limit.” It is easy, Bonhoeffer says, to “[preach] forgiveness without repentance; baptism without the discipline of community; the Lord’s supper without the confession of sin; absolution without personal confession.”
It is a challenge, maybe more so than ever, to speak rightly for God.
A church that faithfully represents God to the world
You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession.
As a result, you can show others the goodness of God,
for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light.
Once you had no identity as a people;
now you are God’s people.
-1 Peter 2:9-10
Thankfully, many churches today have gotten the message that they need to actually go beyond the walls of their building, and engage the community around them. But in practice, this doesn’t always play out in terribly Godly ways. Let me explain.
There are a couple of traps that I think churches fall into here. First, many churches take “getting involved with the community” to be another form of simple citizenship. Let me caveat what I’m about to say by noting that I think God has the capacity to work powerfully anytime we serve our neighbors. At the same time, many of the activities that churches choose to be involved with in the community (outside of monetary donations) tend to be very civic affairs. Using church property to host soccer tournaments or community yard sales. Using church auditoriums for hosting concerts. Offering low-cost Christian-based financial seminars. Passing out water in the local marathon. Etc.
To be clear, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with any of these activities. I would certainly rather attend a church that participated in things like this than one that didn’t. But when you look at the community outreach programs of many churches, it would be hard to conclude that they are really focusing on “the least of these”. And I think that’s a problem. Anticipating my next characteristic a bit, I would say that most churches’ community outreach programs tend to reach out to people in their own socioeconomic demographic – which I think can often hinder us from following God into places where he is working in powerful ways. If our involvement in the community never extends beyond the comfortable circles of our friends and jobs – in other words, if we never serve anyone who doesn’t look basically like us, then we might question whether we are serving faithfully as a mediator between God and the world, or simply representing God to people who already believe, more or less, the same things we do.
The second trap I think churches have a tendency to fall into is what we might call “taking credit.” A church that is intent on taking credit is one that asks its volunteers to wear their church t-shirt to “easily identify” them as a volunteer when they are running the concession stand or cleaning up the trash after a local sporting event. Or, perhaps, insists on letting you know that they are giving you this bottle of water “in the name of Jesus” on a hot summer afternoon.
Churches which feel like they have to take the credit miss the point of service altogether. The point of service isn’t who gets the credit – even if you are trying to ascribe the credit to God. The point is the service itself. It’s not that you give a bottle of water “in the name of Jesus” – but that you give the bottle of water. Authentic service doesn’t seek credit for its own actions, or try to ascribe the credit to a lifestyle (“We wanted to let you know that we’re doing this for you because we believe in Jesus!”). It simply says, “You are thirsty. I have water. Have a drink.”
A church that faithfully represents God in the community remembers the words of Jesus: “When you give to the needy, don’t announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.” A church that faithfully represents God in the community remembers and strives to emulate the criticism leveled at Jesus: that he was a friend to tax-collectors and sinners. A church that faithfully represents God in the community remembers that God’s love does not trickle down from the best and the brightest and most deserving, but rather begins at the bottom, offering full acceptance for the last, and the lost, and the least, and the worst. And the church that faithfully represents God begins there, opening its doors and its hearts to those who held a special place in the heart of Christ.
A church that reflects the diversity of the body of Christ
The stranger in Scripture is often the one who sees the story for what it is,
sometimes better than those who are devoted followers of God.
Congregational conversations in which all voices are heard and welcomed,
even the minority or odd voices,
indicates whether or not you are capable of listening for the voice of the stranger.
In the book of Ephesians, Paul’s lays out a magisterial vision for the purpose of the church, which he calls “the mystery of Christ”. “This mystery”, he says, “is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.” Dr. Luke Timothy Johnson says:
For Paul, the church does not exist, at least primarily, to convince people that Jesus is Lord, but rather as a laboratory of the world’s possibilities. It is to be a test case as to how humans can live together as diverse, but unified – neither slave nor free, Jew nor Greek, male nor female. If we live according to this vision, God can reform the world. The corollary of this is that if the church doesn’t do that, then it has no reason to exist. If the church itself becomes an instrument of division, then it has failed its mission. If the church itself is segregated, divisive, suppressive of diversity in the name of uniformity, then it loses its mission.
I touched on this in my third post as a major reason several of my friends have left churches – specifically that they feel like many churches are simply too focused on a particular demographic of people (e.g. young families with kids), to the exclusion of people who are even a little bit away from that template. Shortly after that post, Dr. Mark Love, who I’ve quoted at some length in previous posts, began a series on his blog outlining “new metrics for a post-Christendom church”. Not surprisingly, Love’s first metric involves how good of a job congregations do welcoming a diverse range of individuals. Love:
Homogeneous congregations should be suspicious that they haven’t learned to welcome others in the way of Christ. This may indicate that the congregation is more about honoring their own cultural values than participating in the broad welcome of God’s life. And it very well may be the case that homogeneous congregations grow faster than diverse groups. This is what the church growth people have been telling us for decades. The decision to be a community that functions as a sign of the coming Kingdom of God will prioritize diversity over numbers.
There are a couple of things I’d like to add to this. First, our tendency as churches is to counter the call to a diverse membership by appealing to market specialization – in other words, “Our church does a great job of connecting with X group, and therefore our congregation tends to be composed of people who are in X group. If we were to try to reach out to Y group, we wouldn’t connect as well with X group, so we’ll let another church connect to group Y, and we’ll continue to connect to group X. That way, both group X and group Y can have their needs met.” There is a certain capitalistic logic to this, perhaps, but it isn’t anything close to Paul’s vision of what the church is to be in Ephesians.
For Paul, the church is a sign of what God is doing on earth precisely because it is composed of people who, traditionally, were divided by a wall of hostility. Paul states that the purpose of Christ’s death and resurrection, “was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God”. As Johnson says, the church is to be “the place where the world can see reconciliation as a reality.” It is easier to be Jews separated from gentiles, but it is that process of working out reconciliation which serves both as a sign and a realization of what God is doing in the world.
Second, diversity can come in a lot of forms. In the south, it can be easy to think that, for example, because we have black or Latino members, we are somehow diverse. But when we think of diversity in the church, we need to be a lot broader than that. How many people in your church are below the poverty line? On food stamps? Mentally ill? Is your church a place that opens its doors to the homeless? Drug addicts? And moreover, are these individuals truly welcomed, or merely tolerated? Welcome goes way beyond being friendly – people are friendly at the grocery store. What kind of seat do diverse members get at the table? Are they listened to, or involved in the congregation’s life in the same ways as the members who look like, think like, and live in the same circles as the church’s leadership?
This type of church and community is messy. It’s much easier to do church when everyone basically looks and thinks like you. It is difficult to fight the temptation to “join with other like-minded believers” and sequester ourselves from those with whom we don’t see eye to eye. But the call to follow Jesus leaves us with no other alternative.
In my next post, I want to bring in some other voices to the conversation – people who have responded in various ways, whose perspective is slightly different than mine, and can, hopefully, serve to keep me honest. Thanks for your responses and comments. I’ve been humbled by your words and your hearts, and pray that we may all help our churches become a reflection and embodiment of Christ in the world.