Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Why Church? The Fading Uniqueness in a Post-Christian World

The other day I read a Facebook post by fellow Presby, Bruce Reyes-Chow:
"If a church denomination, association, or organization took their website offline as part of the SOPA Strike, would anyone notice?"
In my 10 years of youth ministry, I would venture to guess that unless there was an upcoming event that required folks to sign-up via said website, not many would notice.

This playful, although quite serious inquiry, also leads to a much larger question: if the church ceased to exist in a particular community would anyone notice?  Still more, would anyone miss it?

Over the course of my young ministry career I have discovered that, at least in the 'burbs, church is no longer central to the vast majority of professing Christians. Yes, it is true that we live in a post-Christian context whereby the church is no longer central to the dominant culture. However, when it can be assessed that we not only live in a post-Christian "secular" society, but also permit a post-church Christian worldview, questions need to be asked.

My question: Is it even possible to profess to be Christian aside from a commitment to and covenanted relationship with a local church?  

I think some believe the affirmative.  If you ask your average pew sitter to describe what it means to be Christian you will often hear responses like, "to be a good person,"  "to love others," "to serve the less fortunate," and a whole host of musings related to deep-seeded twenty-first century altruism also confessed by organizations like the United Way and your local Rotary Club.  These statements are not completely void of truth; rather, they are sure elements of Christian discipleship.  Yet rarely are they followed by any reference to the person and work of Jesus Christ.  Youth Ministry guru, Kenda Creasy-Dean, refers to this phenomenon as "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,"[1] a cultural doctrine that has infiltrated the Christian church and robbed God's people of its unique confession and related mission in and for the world. In other words, if Christianity is what many Christians "confess" it to be, the uniqueness of the church has abruptly faded only to be absorbed by the plethora of other communities, organizations, not-for-profit agencies, and therapeutic spirituality  promoted by pop-psychology and cultural trend.

Said differently, why church when you can love your neighbors through Boy Scouts of America?  Why church when you can participate in charity and community service through your local philanthropy club? Why church when you can be embraced by a community of like-minded people with a common goal through local athletics?  Why church when you can find healing, strength, and spirituality through "leadership" retreats organized by the public school? [2] Why church when you can exercise your unique gifts for the benefit of others through school choirs, bands, and tutoring programs?  Why church when there are as many religious options in your community as there are cereals in your grocer's breakfast aisle?

Why church?  

Again, if the local church ceased to exist would we miss it?  Would we struggle to revive it?  Or would we be relieved that we have one less organization to fund?  Would we feel as though our evenings are finally liberated because we now have one less social activity to drive our kids to on the weekends?  Would we relish the death of a committee and related responsibilities we never really liked in the first place? Would we be energized because Sunday mornings would actually become a time for rest? Would all that we "confess" as markers of the church simply be absorbed in the vast array of service organizations and clubs that lobby for and already claim our allegiances?

My question: Has a shallow and faulty understanding of church made the Body of Christ just one more entity we feel obligated to join so to keep pace with the Joneses?  

That said, I pray for resurrected understandings of the uniqueness of church confession and mission whereby faith language and action are reunited.  I pray for an ecclesial identity revival whereby we speak against injustice, exercise radical hospitality, quest to alleviate poverty and homelessness, practice peace and enemy love, speak for those whose voices go unheard, intervene in the midst of heinous crimes against humanity, tell stories of grace, and entertain strange guests in our home not because we want to be good people, although we do, but because these are the marks of Jesus' disciples who make up the church near and far.  I pray that our present patterns and ways of being in the world would be pursued in light of our future anticipations- dreams of the day to come when God will make all things new and right because of God's work in and through Jesus. I pray that when asked about our hope, our love, and our life lived to the full, we would have the courage to confess Jesus as reason and motivation.

Why church? Because the object and subject of our faith is a crucified and resurrected Jesus from Nazareth, the world's Messiah, who is in process of resurrecting a crucified world.  And yes, this cruciform resurrection is the vocation of the Christian's what makes us unique.

I have a fondness for the rich language of the reformed tradition.  I believe that just when you feel you have had enough of the G-1.whatever and the endless hoops and hurdles blindly prescribed, protected, and preserved, the Spirit unexpectedly shows up and, as Jesus promised, bears witness to all Jesus said, did, and called the church to be:
"Membership in the Church of Jesus Christ is a joy and a privilege. It is also a commitment to participate in Christ’s mission. [3] A faithful member bears witness to God’s love and grace and promises to be involved responsibly in the ministry of Christ’s Church. Such involvement includes: proclaiming the good news in word and deed, taking part in the common life and worship of a congregation, lifting one another up in prayer, mutual concern, and active support, studying Scripture and the issues of Christian faith and life, supporting the ministry of the church through the giving of money, time, and talents, demonstrating a new quality of life within and through the church, responding to God’s activity in the world through service to others, living responsibly in the personal, family, vocational, political, cultural, and social relationships of life, working in the world for peace, justice, freedom, and human fulfillment, participating in the governing responsibilities of the church, and reviewing and evaluating regularly the integrity of one’s membership, and considering ways in which one’s participation in the worship and service of the church may be increased and made more meaningful." (G- 1.0304, PCUSA Book of Order) [4]
I wonder what would happen if God's people indeed "reviewed and evaluated regularly" the above ecclesial identity?  The strong declaration that the church is the means by which God's people "participate in Christ's mission" and whose vocation begins with vocalized and incarnated proclamations of the gospel, reminds us that the church is unique.  We follow Jesus.  It's all about Jesus and Jesus' mission. Even more, if we choose to live into this unique identity with creativity and risk the church would not only be missed if its presence were removed from a particular context, but also Christians situated there would be filled with the Spirit to birth new communities, or resurrect old ones, of gathered and scattered disciples.  And the world would be grateful if and when they did.

This past Sunday, as with every Sunday, we professed our faith through the Apostle's Creed.  In the final stanza it declares, "I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting."

Why Church? 

Because I believe in the church and all the Holy Spirit does in and through it as God's people participate in Christ's mission in and for the whole world.  And if the church were not here, not only would I notice, but also I would deeply miss it.

[1] A great book where she illustrates this is, Almost Christian (Oxford 2010).
[2] Many of my high school students have recently participated in a program called "Link." I would love to learn more about it, which is hard to do, but it appears to reflect a new age spirituality guised in leadership development.  It is quite secretive in its programmatic structure, which leaves me skeptical, and has pulled kids away from several church related events.
[3] Another great statement From BOO: "The Church bears witness in word and work that in Christ the new creation has begun, and that God who creates life also frees those in bondage, forgives sin, reconciles brokenness, makes all things new, and is still at work in the world. To be members of the body of Christ is to be sent out to pursue the mission of God and to participate in God's new creation, God's kingdom drawing the present into itself." (F-1.0302, d).  See related post, "Refreshing Revisions."
[4] I am grateful for the recent conversations with members of Westminster Presbyterian Church whereby we have explored in depth this citation and related understandings of membership as  "general ordination" to participation in the reign of God.
[5] A great article, written by Adam Copeland, was in recent edition of Christian Century: "No Need for Church."