Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Do you believe in the Church?

First, words from a wiser man than I:
The Church is an object of faith. In the Apostles' Creed we pray: "I believe in God, the Father ... in Jesus Christ, his only Son … 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."

We must believe in the Church! The Apostles' Creed does not say that the Church is an organization that helps us to believe in God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. No, we are called to believe in the Church with the same faith we believe in God.

Often it seems harder to believe in the Church than to believe in God. But whenever we separate our belief in God from our belief in the Church, we become unbelievers. God has given us the Church as the place where God becomes God-with-us.

(Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey, daily meditation for October 18th)
In the Henri Nouwen Society's email devotions, there have been several postings recently (including this one) about having faith in "The Church." I'm sure it's no coincidence that they're showing up now, precisely whenI’ve been having some real trouble with that concept.

As I remember it, Mike Housholder, pastor of the Lutheran Church of Hope in West Des Moines (and a man I deeply admire and respect) once said in a sermon that the local congregational church is a broken, often sinful entity – but at the same time, it’s also the very best answer for encountering the living presence of Christ on earth. At the time, I agreed with him – but back then, I was much more hopeful about the power of the Holy Spirit to work in and through the local church.

I’m not so sure about that, any more. I am sure that the Spirit can work in the local church. I’m just not so sure that it does.

The thing that makes me wonder at this particular time is my friend Eric, and his church’s ongoing challenge with battles over styles and times of worship. And while I’d like to tell him to just have faith, and “be strong and courageous while working to change the hearts and minds of the congregation,” I really can’t do that. In the end, I’m not sure I actually think we can change the hearts and minds of established congregations.

I’ve been through this with one congregation – hoping specifically NOT to change the congregation, but to create another entry-way into the congregation through alternative worship in a completely separate service. Despite some support, there was significant resistance to it from a number of older members of the congregation, who felt that the new worship service violated the tradition of the church (which it did) and was therefore un-Lutheran (which it was emphatically not).

The struggle ended with a highly-conservative, traditionally-anchored pastor putting the kibosh on the whole project, with a whole lot of name-calling and extraordinarily questionable actions taken in order to justify his position.

In the end, it was the ethical failures and the autocratic practices of the senior pastor (and not the lack of worship alternatives) that drove a significant chunk of members away from that congregation. The last I heard, the congregation had shrunk by 70% since the exodus began in 2001 – and to combat the numeric slide, they had actually begun another contemporary worship service. (The irony in that still amazes me.)

In Eric’s church, as I understood it, they had voted to change their worship services as part of their move to a new building – and in a very short time after moving into the new building, it was absolutely full to capacity. But once again, a group of folks who had grown up with a specific tradition of worship have put significant pressure on their senior pastor, who (despite earlier assertions to fight rather than switch) seems to have caved-in almost entirely on the subject.

The congregation seems poised to make some fairly illogical choices (like having two differently-styled services at the same time, when they are already fighting issues of parking) in order to preserve the supposed status-quo. I listened – but in the end all I could do is sigh, and wish him luck.

This may sound cynical - if so, I can't help that - but I have come to believe that church dynamics are governed by one very deeply human and very real truism of sociology, and not of spirituality: Birds of a feather flock together.

People naturally gather together based on shared experience and tradition – period. If they came to a church where pipe organs and hymnals and 10-minute sermons are the norm, that’s what they want, and that’s what they expect. And by definition, they will mightily resist any action that seeks to move them away from their expectations – no matter how logically those actions are presented, and no matter what possible spiritual adventures might come from them.

The final answer almost always is, “This is the way in which we choose to experience God. You may not find this uplifting, or stimulating, or even Biblical, to your way of seeing it. But this is how we are – and these modes of worship are the ways in which we define sacredness and holiness in this place. Stay if you like; go if you like. But deal with it.”

To make the point absurdly clear: I wouldn’t ever consider driving up to Willow Creek Community Church, joining there, and then insisting that they install a pipe organ, or that they start using a given liturgy in their weekly services or hang a cross in the front of their worship space. Why should I think that the answer should be any different for the little traditional church that I may be attending?

In retrospect, I'm sore afraid that the answer for me was as simple as “I wanted to have my cake and eat it, too.” I had experienced worship at other congregations which seemed to me to be a much more powerful experience than that to which I’d been accustomed. In my own mind, I wanted the folks I’d grown fond of to have that same experience – and blindly assumed they would want it, too. (Of course, when I found that some of my fellow church members were like-minded, that realization only fueled the fire…)

But after some distance and reflection, I’m coming to believe that the heart of my motivation was simple selfishness and self-centeredness. I wanted to have the same worship experience I’d had elsewhere, without giving up my constellation of church friends, many of whom had become as close as family. I believed that the “either/or” choice was unacceptable.

I now believe that “either/or” is not the only way - but it is the best way.

Interestingly enough, this is exactly how the 12-step/12-tradition folks do it, too. There’s a standing truism in AA – to start a new meeting, all you need is two members, a resentment, and a coffee-pot. As a leader of my original former congregation said to me once, “We simply do not care what you think. If you don’t like how we do things here, there’s the door – don’t let it hit’cha where the Good Lord split’cha!” (And in the end, that’s exactly what a good number of us did.)

I’m coming to believe that “church unity” is not necessarily a good thing. I think that focusing on Christ needs to be the central thing – and questions of liturgy, of music, of decorations, and of doctrine and dogma should all end up being what the AA folks would call “outside issues.”

In the end, it’s Christ that matters – and not whether the bread is made of wheat or rice, leavened or unleavened, or whether the music is plainsong or chant or this song in this hymnal or that praise chorus on that PowerPoint presentation. To me, it’s like sitting around a campfire – there is one fire, but each of us will see the flames differently, depending on where we’re sitting.

While I used to pray for unity in the various mainstream churches over acceptances of gays and lesbians, I no longer pray for that at all. I look forward to the day when those who want to welcome gays go one way, and the rest go the other. Then maybe they’ll stop fighting over this stuff, and get back to doing something about loving their neighbors and feeding the poor and fighting for justice and against war.

And in the process, maybe they’ll spend enough time in the Word to figure out that “those fags” (or "those poor people," or "those cross-towners," or that minority group, or whatever) are their neighbors – and treat ‘em as Christ told them to treat them.

Or maybe they’ll just create a place where resentment, hatred and fear can fester and grow. I don’t know.

I wish Eric well with his congregation - but I’m glad I’m not in it, to be honest. And I’m still looking for someplace I can call home. The old U2 song says it best:
You broke the bonds
You loosened the chains
You carried the cross
And my shame
You know I believed it

But I still haven’t found what I’m lookin’ for…


Poor Mad Peter said...

Believing in the church is like believing in a Honda Civic because you drive the thing so much. Excuse me...

The church is a human organization, a response to God, not a God-made organization. While we should invest in it as sacred space, we should not make the mistake of idolatry of a human institution (and Lord knows, we do that all the time).

If church is the only place of God-with-us (and thank God, it is not), then we are royally cooked, because for so many, the church is nowhere at all.

Michael said...

As you well know, my thoughts about church are complex. I think that God is Triune, One in Three Person(al relationship)s and that somehow is the model for the church, too.

Those of us who pray the creed on Sundays declare that we believe in a church that is one, holy, catholic and apostolic. It seems we may drift into the heresy (choosing only one part of the truth and thinking that is the whole truth) of making Unity (more often, Uniformity) the only mark of the church. We ignore the holiness aspect, or we so spiritualize it that we take no shame in the terrible things we actually do as individuals and as communities to those who are different. We think catholic means orthodox and exclusive, when it really means universal and inclusive. And we think apostolic means preach our opinions as eternal truths or else preach the past as definitive.

It is a puzzlement.

Hans Kung once pointed out that the Latin line in the creed about the church is not exactly "We believe in the church" but rather "We believe the church", that is, we believe the proclamation of the Word.

I like to think that I believe within the church, as part of the body of Christ. I certainly don't equate the church with God or my trust in the church with my trust in God. After all, the church lets me down with some regularity. God has proven true, and will on the Last Day.

Tom Scharbach said...

I grew up without the concept of "church". I grew up born into a "people", who needed no further attachment to each other or God, and who gathered to study, to learn how to live ethically as the "people". So I missed the idea of "church" -- whatever it is that substitutes for being born to a "people" in Christian thinking -- altogether.

I don't have much of a concept -- of "church", univeral or otherwise. I read Kung, Rahner and the others, but at some level the idea escapes me, except as a way of becoming someof of the "people".

I do understand that some sense of "church" -- a means of attachment to and entry into the "people" -- seemst to be essential for Christians, and I continue to listen to, and try learn from, Christians as they struggle with the idea of "church".

Rick said...

You got me thinking, bro.

The Church was and is created by God for it is the Body of Christ.

Jeez, I need to ponder this one. Good stuff.

Keith Brenton said...

Your post has brought my thoughts back to what I call the Great Paradox of Worship.

It's a paradox that defies explanation. God asks us to worship Him - not because He needs it - but because we do. Yet if we concentrate only on what we like and dislike about worship, it loses all of its power to inspire us and praise Him.

It's not for us; it's for Him.

If it's not for Him, it's no good for us.

It doesn't do Him any good; He is good; He is God.

Yet we let it divide us when it doesn't feel like it's doing us any good ... when part of its purpose is to unite us in praising Him.

I certainly can't get my head or heart wrapped around it sufficiently.

I'm convinced that it's more important to believe in Christ than to believe in the church, but it's still important to believe in the church. Because He did. Enough to die for it.

- And to pray for its unity as His dying request (John 17).

I know He can make it happen. I believe He is making it happen, sometimes through blogs just like this one.

tomdg said...


I started writing a comment for this ages ago but never finished it. In the end I posted it here instead.

Short summary: I was brought up a semi-anarchist and became a Christian later in life. Since then I've learned that Church is actually a good or even essential thing. But it's still fallible and no substitute for Biblical authority.