What is church all about?
That’s a question I’ve been asking for some time. It kicked into overdrive when I read the Interim Regional Minister’s monthly column. Churches in my region were worried. Would they continue? What can they do turn things around?
My denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) describes the local congregation in our Design of the Christian Church. It states:
Congregations constitute the primary expression of the community of faith within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Through congregations, individuals are brought to the saving grace of Christ, baptized into the Body of Christ, nurtured in their faith, and gather at the Lord’s Table. Joined in discipleship, congregations partner with their regions and the general ministries of the church to share the good news from their doorsteps to the ends of the earth.Design of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
The statement is pretty clear. The local church is physical place where people are “brought into the saving grace of Christ.” It is the place where people are baptized, nurtured and receiving communion.
The words seem clear, but at times it feels at least in our denomination that we are all confused why the local congregation exists. Why are we here? Why do we matter? Do we matter? Those congregations in Iowa wonder, how long will they be around. They are dealing with a changing culture and are unsure where to turn next.
I don’t pretend to know the answer. I’m not a Regional Minister, I’m just a pastor in a small suburban church that is wondering how it will survive in a changing world.
And how the times are changing! We live in a time when the church is not so central in our culture. We also live in a time when anti-institutionalism is rampant in our culture and that way of thinking has crept into the church. How many of us have heard how Jesus didn’t care about the institutional church? It’s the belief that as long as we do good in the world, why do we need church?
So mainline/progressive churches need to ask what are churches for, and it is a question that has to be answered if congregations are going to have any future.
I think we need churches as places where people are formed as followers of Jesus. It is a communal experience where we learn from each other. We need places that are places where forgiveness is possible, there are people who long to be forgiven. That need for forgiveness is important, but mainline churches are not as comfortable of talking about sin. What they are comfortable doing is focusing on justice issues. Issues like the environment or racial justice are issues where the church need to give voice, but as Christians we understand these issues belie the fact that we are in bondage to sin. Heidi Havercamp looks back to her great-grandfather to relearn the Calvinist belief in total depravity. She writes:
In recent years, the doctrine of total depravity has caught my imagination. It’s the first tenet of the notorious “TULIP” acronym, which came into popular use among Calvinists around the time of my great-grandfather’s retirement as a way to summarize the five main points of the faith. If you’ve never heard the term before, “total depravity” might sound like a joke or the name of a high school metal band. It is, in fact, an astoundingly dire theology. Total depravity frames humans not as good people who sometimes mess up but as messed-up people who, with God’s help, can do some good things—but nothing completely free of selfishness or error. We are unable to make a choice that is unquestionably, entirely good. None of our actions, loves, or thoughts can be truly without sin…
Total depravity speaks to sin in our personal lives. More importantly for me, it also gives theological definition to corporate and societal sins. It’s not just that I am unable to love everyone I meet or to live a life that is plastics-free. I have also found it impossible to untangle my individual life from systems of injustice—institutionalized racism, pollution of the air and land and water, cheap clothing and food supplies that depend on the exploitation of laborers, banks and corporations that bend the economy toward their profit. A contemporary Episcopal prayer of confession includes this line: “We repent of . . . the evil we have done, and the evil done on our behalf.” There is a lot of suffering and a lot of evil in this world, and I find I cannot consider myself entirely innocent of it.
Eric Thorson, who was a classmate of mine at Luther Seminary, understands that people are hungry for a place where they can experience forgiveness:
My work as a pastor came at a pivotal time in American Christianity. Inclusion was the most pressing thing to be talking about. The ideas and words we had spoken about people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender were not adequate to the reality of these people’s lives. The ministry of the church had driven these people into hiding, hurt them, divided their families, and provided cover for the selfish hatreds people have toward those who are different. I fought and preached and agonized over how to get the church to recognize the full equality of these beloved children of God.
My church, the ELCA, is trying to prove its relevance at a time of great unrest in society. So many things have gone wrong. So many wrongs have been championed in the name of religion. How can we show we are not part of the problem? How can we resist the tide of loveless brutality that sweeps through our society?
And yet, coming to church as a stranger, as a person merely seeking mercy and forgiveness, sometimes I have seen the basic message of the Christian faith drowned out by the struggles of the moment. Yes, it is important to know the difference between good and evil, sin and righteousness, and yet, we should not forget that we are not good or righteous. We need grace and mercy and life from One greater than ourselves.
I have met so many people these past years who are afraid of the church not because it fails to be inclusive, but because they believe their sins cannot be forgiven.
There is a truth in coming to the table as a beggar, to eat and drink life unearned and undeserved. This truth should not be lost.
I think if I were to talk to those congregations, it is to tell them that there isn’t a special program that will turn their church around. Instead, I would tell them that they recover the lost lessons found in the Design. They need to be a places where people are formed into becoming followers of Jesus. They need to be places where they know that they are forgiven by God and experience the grace that has been denied to them for so long.
Finally, they need to be places where they are willing to take a risk for the Kingdom of God. The cover story in a recent edition of the City Pages focuses on Peace Lutheran church. A small congregation found on the edge of St. Paul. The church dwindled down to about 20 members and there was maybe about a year of finances left. It was then the church decided that if they were going to close they would at least do it with a bang. They opened the doors to the community and death was postponed:
“Parishioners decided if they were to die, they would die well. So they took loving thy neighbor to a practical extreme. Peace leafleted Lauderdale with 700 fliers, offering to roof houses, fix plumbing, repair anything in need, free of charge.”
A church that wasn’t open much through the week was now the first place people looked to if something went wrong. Strangers decided to donate to the congregation keeping it afloat. The little church kept going out being servants to their community. The church is growing because the people decided to risk, to serve.
Local churches in big cities, small towns and suburbs are places that are a local example of the wider church. If people are going to see real live followers of Jesus in action, it’s going to be at the church. It’s a place where they can see God in action through the lives of everyday people. If they are going to experience grace in a world where that is in short supply, it’s going to be at the local church.
That’s why churches exist. In a time where we think it’s all about me, the church says you are you because of community. In a time where the stranger is shunned, the church opens its door. In a culture where the meritocracy pushes people to be perfect, the church says we aren’t perfect but we are forgiven.
This is the message mainline churches need to recover. We need churches. Not because we love institutions, but because 2000 years ago, small churches in the dusty corner of an empire were able to turn the world upside down. We did it then and with God’s help, we can do it again.