I’ve been having a bit of an ecclesiological (Spellcheck, don’t you tell me that’s not a word!) existential crisis. What is the church? How can we define it? What is it supposed to look like? All these questions are kind of driving me maybe just a little bit nuts, so I decided to look at the issue from another perspective.
Considering how church is practiced today, what can I glean of its priorities? As I think through my churchy past, I’ve got to say I’m left amazed. I’ve been to a lot of churches in my life. Conservative ones, more conservative ones, crazy ones, charismatic ones, Lutheran ones, Episcopal ones, Catholic ones, small ones, mega ones, and on and on. And the astonishing thing is, whatever the differences in theology or the racial/ethnic/age breakdown of their congregations, all churches essentially do things the same way. You walk in, sing some songs–it doesn’t matter if they’re hymns or rock anthems–sit down, listen to some guy talk up front for an hour, maybe sing another song, and then, if you have no peoples to greet, you leave. Every church I’ve been to is church in exactly this way.
Yeah, I broke out the gifs for this one just so y’all would take me seriously
Now, it’s true that most churches have weekly Bible studies, the occasional service project, and perhaps a picnic or potluck every few months or so, but let’s be honest. The bread and butter of a church is what happens with it on Sunday morning (or Saturday night if you’re a weirdo :)) And if I were an alien detective from a far away galaxy studying churchgoers and their churchy ways–first of all, how cool would that be?!–and second of all, what would I make of the Sunday morning ritual?
I think I would determine that being a church member is rather like being a student. Christianity is an individual endeavor, and the priority for Christians is to know the sort of stuff the teachers teach. (And to sing terrible songs badly and often. Why? Because that’s the way things are done, dang it!) Perhaps this is why the church, in North America at least, sees salvation as an issue of intellectual assent. Believe the right things, and you’re in! Believe the wrong things, and you’ll burn! This is beginning to make less and less sense to me, but that’s a post for another day. The issue at hand is whether the way we are doing church supports the identity we want the church to have.
In church vision/mission statements all over the internet, you’ll see phrases like, “We are a community of believers..” or “We are a fellowship who…” or, better yet, “We are a family that…” Wait! What? You’re a community? A fellowship? A family? Gee, I’m glad you told me, because were I an alien investigator extraordinaire, I probably would have missed that. I can’t count the number of times I’ve walked into a church, even the church I’ve been attending for over a year now, sung side by side with strangers, sat in the dark with strangers and listened to the sermon, and then walked out at the end still a stranger to the rest of my “community,” and they were all still strangers to me. I know I’m not alone in this. Many Christians have these experiences. Our church practices on Sunday morning are not practices that encourage fellowship or community, and putting the onus on individual members of the congregation to overcome an environment that encourages individualism and separatism in order to meet someone–anyone!–is perhaps a bit naive.
Here’s the truth of it: If I don’t make a connection with someone on Sunday morning, I am not apt to join a small group at the house of someone I don’t know so I can be the new girl. It’s just not going to happen. I’m an introvert and more than a little odd. I have no faith in my ability to break into an established group and make friends. I’m the sort of person who is going to need a friend going in. And I can’t make friends at church when church consists of sitting and listening in silence to the pastor. Do you get where I’m going with this?
If church is first and foremost a community, then let’s…I don’t know…commune? As a way of life, I mean. Instead of sitting in rows in the dark, let’s sit around tables in the light. Instead of listening passively to someone disseminating information for an hour, let’s have a 20-25 minute talk and a built-in time of discussion where we work out the sermon points in small groups. Let’s make meeting new people and inviting them out for lunch a part of church culture. We don’t have to do this every week, but a lot of weeks maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad idea. Sure, there would be difficulties to work around in my church model–we’d need to train discussion leaders, head off clique formation, and try and make the shyer members comfortable–but community is a messy business. The corporate conference-style church service might be a good method of teaching (although any good teacher would advocate for differentiated instruction. Many, many people are not auditory learners) but it’s a crappy mode of getting church attendees to love and care for one another.
Best corporate presentation ever! Better Off Ted shows the church how it’s done.
If real fellowship is to be a priority, then the way we do church needs to reflect that. For my part, I’m ready to break with the cult of pastoral charisma in order to make room for building genuine Christian relationships among the common folk. Don’t get me wrong–pastors are great! I love pastors (at least, I love the non-creepy ones). But a pastor does not make the church. How can we call ourselves a community if we don’t make it a habit to pray with one another, to break bread together, or to listen to each other? It’s about time we sat down and decided what it means to be the body of Christ and what sorts of interactions being a Christian community requires. And then, maybe we could…do them? Just a thought.