What church is / is not

In the first century in Palestine Christianity was a community of believers.  Then Christianity moved to Greece and became a philosophy.  Then it moved to Rome and became an institution.  Then it moved to Europe and became a culture.  And then it moved to America and became a business.  – Priscilla Shirer

Since 2014 promises to be a year of further activity (read:  probable change) in terms of church practice for my family, I wanted to begin the year by weblogging some related thoughts.  What is church?

Perpetually, inwardly, I deal with questions about what church is, is not, should be, and should not be.  I rarely reach conclusions that have any perceptible results, but that doesn’t mean I am devoid of passion about the topic.  Nor does it mean there won’t be visible results in the near- or mid-term future.  This gnawing feeling inside¹ won’t allow me to stop ruminating, dreaming, working, studying (and sometimes wallowing in depression over the large measure of truth contained in the above quotation).

churchupkeepI do not want to be part of a church that is nothing more than a small-cap Christian business.  I have little more than historical interest in acculturated or institutional Christianity.  While I am sometimes stimulated by Christian philosophizing, such thought is not the end-all of church or of the Kingdom of God.  Being a part of an authentic, believing community, though?  Yes, that much is for me.

We do have a formal “church home” — a nice one, a local one.  Within it we find kindness, love, and seemingly genuine faith.  Although not enough time has transpired for us to develop much relationship or thoroughgoing trust, we have felt cared for, and our son has had some very positive children’s Bible class experiences.  We even experience some camaraderie in non-essentials.  This church is pretty good, in terms of its folks.  Not so much in terms of its assemblies or facilities, but the people are good, and they appear genuinely to love God.²

Time was when “church search,” for me, was partially synonymous with “search for place to ‘exercise my gifts'” — in other words, a church that had, or would make, a place for me to lead publicly in worship, teach Bible, etc.  I think my dad did me a disservice in this respect:  my expectations have long since been unrealistic.  You see, my dad, as a leader of leaders,  would make a beeline for good new people that moved to into the church I grew up in, seeking to get them involved in song leading, making devotional talks, etc.  But I have come to find that pretty much no other church does that.  You have to be around for years before anyone really sees you as anything more than a fill-in teacher or server-at-communion-table.

Selah

As the congregations of my personal history — eight states and a dozen churches — pass into memory, I realize that the likelihood of being used in church in areas of my giftedness is decreasing.  Corporate worship is almost always a source of discouragement, for one reason or another.  Mostly, I look for other things now.  Sermons and Bible classes and most programs come and go, and a few have impact, but rarely is there a lasting result.  More than any hope of finding a good set of programs or a good public teacher or energetic singing or heavenly hospitality or awe-filled worship, my concept of what church should be illuminates my search.

housechurch

For the past 4+ academic years, our home was a site for weekly “church.”  Of course, the church’s identity is not defined by gatherings, nor do I set up our own gatherings as particularly exemplary.  We excelled in our commitment to exegetical, excavationary Bible study and regularity of “attendance,” but there was a lot of room for improvement in the activities and flow when we were together.  Essentially, a group of growing-closer friends gathered in our living room and dining room every Sunday night for talk, a lot of serious study of the scriptures, some prayer and worship, food and drink, and communion.  The picture here is not us, by the way, but its scene looks much like ours.

I miss those gatherings, not having had them since we moved in the summer.  So far, we haven’t found any such group to invite ourselves to, and I think it’s time to do something about it.  We are going to try to find a few interested souls to invite to our place again.  We may now employ real-time video technology — not the same as being there, but nonetheless an opportunity to reach to and from distant dear ones.  We’re also looking into other possibilities.

Selah

Last night I sat at length in a discussion with my father, and it was good time spent.  While he and I experience here-and-now church somewhat differently, we share many values.  He sees the positive, although he is certainly aware of many shortcomings.  I identify more negatives and wonder why.

I have become what my wife labels a “pessimistic idealist.”  There is more than an ounce of irony in this pairing of words . . . and a pound of yearning. . . .

As I survey churches out there — and I suppose I’ve been in 60 or 70 different church buildings in the past 10 years — I am incessantly impressed with the inadequacy (at best) and lunacy (at worst) of what is going on in the name of church.  Meaningless weekly rituals, multiple high salaries, huge edifices, jargon and marketing, copy-catting and kowtowing.  It’s enough to drive one mad.  OK, maybe that was a trifle over-dramatic.  But it is enough to send one packing.

I think of people from my past who have fallen away — and in some cases, “the church” (whatever the particular iteration or facade) is to blame.  One friend’s son is no longer a person of faith, and it is said that the latter “does not suffer fools” very well.  He sees the lunacy, the ludicrousness of certain practices and verbiage — and will have none of it.

Even the best churches are weak in bona fide ministry, while the playing of the church “game” is alive and well.  Sure, many good things are being done — food pantries and clothing giveaways, “friendship evangelism,” financial planning workshops, marriage seminars, etc.  Some must have inspiring, God-directed, participatory corporate worship, although I haven’t regularly experienced it in years.  Some congregations sponsor personal work in prisons and free counseling.  Let’s say there is some relatively solid, biblical teaching to be heard in, say, up to 20% of the protestant churches.  There are good things, and these are to be affirmed and reappropriated.  A soul-trickle moves toward the Christ, here and there.  Still, if we gaze intently at today’s churchianity opposite biblical principles and injunctions, common practice is found wanting.  Church must not be a thought-maze, an institutional monument, or a social club.

In spite of the dismal portrait I view through gray lenses, I am also fueled by my sense of the ideal, as I read of the original Intent.  This ideal tethers me to an oscillating, now-clear, now-wispy vision of something better, something more closely tied to the incipient Christian community.  The fiery will of God and the blood-bought souls that He loves demand species of word, work, and worship that glorify His dominion.  He rules in the here and now, and that rule must affect how we worship and live and serve.  Both the vertical and the horizontal must be constantly affected — no, directed — by God Himself.  I must not float in the vacuousness of the status quo.

This will not be the last blogpost of 2014 that deals with what church should be, although I should spend more time being church in my spheres than blogging about it.  Shouldn’t we?

For the present, below are links to some concise reading — food for thought and possible action.

Roger Thoman:  What Church Is Not

Pat Sipperly:  Christian Home Church

==================

¹ I’ll not label this feeling “the Holy Spirit,” but I’d be at least as justified in attributing such a “calling” to God as so many churchpeople are in attributing — from the microphones of many church stages — various things to God.

² Aside:  in six months, we have had only two couples over for dinner, and no one has invited us into another home.  Time was when a church as nice as this one would have been chompin’ at the bit to welcome a new family like ours by having them over for dinner.  This church is more than a little depressed, though — due largely to corporate downsizing, its size is 25% of what it was 30 years ago.  I surmise that these fine folks are a tad reluctant to invest in people who move in, for fear that they’re going to move away.  This fear is understandable.

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5 thoughts on “What church is / is not

  1. Bill Mcgee 01/01/2014 / 8:50 pm

    I would prefer to read the words of a “change agent” rather than a critic. I want to rally with you to help the body of Christ. An idea dialogue would really be useful to so many who feel like you. You have the talent as a thinker and writer to help move us along. I believe progress can be made especially when there are folks like you out there expecting it. However, so many are just tired, giving up and running. You, my friend, can be a catalyst to something great. I hope you can find a way to jump in and help move the story along. I pray for folks like you to come and join our little tribe. I am afraid that your words may sting some of those in your new congregation and cause them to be “cautious” around you. The body needs you!

    I heard that you moved but where?

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    • Brian Casey 01/01/2014 / 9:29 pm

      Thanks, friend, for your concern expressed in the last couple of your lines. Please know that I am in regular dialogue with the speaking/teaching minister, and we have a good understanding; he might see my blog, but there is no chance that anyone else in the congregation would. Most of my probingly critical thoughts had to do with generalities observed and not specifics in our current church. I didn’t see anything specifically said about them that would be hurtful. Most of it was positive, I thought. Or maybe I’m naive! 🙂

      So, did you view the import of this long post as more “change agenty” or critical? I don’t apologize for critiques and hope they are helpful, although I know they are less likely to be received with fondness. Anyway, since I ended with links to important readings about a “simple church” movement, I felt I was advocating change, not merely criticizing what I experience as largely off the mark much of the time.

      Fact is, there simply is no place for jumping in currently. You’d have to know more of the scenario. We’ll see what happens next!

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    • Brian Casey 01/02/2014 / 11:07 am

      What ideas do you have? Although I’m not too enthused over technology very often, I use it as well as the next guy, and I wouldn’t be opposed to some real-time chatting with like-minded souls.

      I don’t really think progress is in the offing within any established “fellowship” (ours or any other — and please know that my general observations are about churches of several different stripes — large and small CofC groups, Baptists, Wesleyan, and non-denom/Gen-X/Gen-Y groups, mostly), but I could be wrong about anything. I hope I am, in this case.

      I want to say here that, although Bible study has even begun to get a bad rap sheet among us Restorationists, it has taken on new importance in my life. There has never been a time in which it is more important to be tied closely, deeply to the beautiful, wonderfull wrought, God-intended messages of scripture. In God I must trust; in Jesus I am given eternal life; through scripture I will maintain or regain focus on what is real.

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  2. Bill Mcgee 01/03/2014 / 1:21 am

    I did feel that your thoughts were more on the critical side and offered little to rescue the flailing. It was as if you were pointing at the sinking ship. The two articles that you provided links to are worthy of a look but I could not tell what parts of them you favored. You have spent your life in the traditional CofC model and you have rightly discerned some real weaknesses. That is why your ideas have merit. But, I want to help congregations change. I don’t want to throw in the towel. I am too in love with what we started out as… a unity movement… Though we took a hard turn in the wrong direction I don’t want to give up on the noble cause. The problem is its definition… the church IS people… and they are referred to as sheep! (weak, vulnerable and easily stray) So, the church must have leaders… (Hebrews 13 makes that very clear and I don’t think the articles promote this truth) We must raise up some people to move the church forward. Leaders evolve out of ideas that fill their soul and ooze out onto others. I guess a good religious word would be revival. We need ideas for revival! This is why i flip over to your blog as well as many others…. looking for ideas…looking for those leaders. I have always seen you as being one of them.

    (Can you turn off the snow? It really drives my eyes crazy! HA!)

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    • Brian Casey 01/08/2014 / 4:27 pm

      Well, it took me 10 min. to find the “snow” option that I’d turned on in 2012; turned it off, a couple days before it would have been turned off by WordPress, anyway. Sorry ’bout dat.

      I can see why it seemed, from another perspective, that I was just “pointing at the sinking ship.” I guess I can’t deny that, but I do want to reaffirm that I was offering some life vests and maybe an island (newfound mainland?) to be “rescued” on. In saying this, I’m neither foolish enough or arrogant enough to think that I know what represents “salvation.” (Those much more learned and observant than I have tried, and we still have more or less the same scenario, both within “us” and without. For instance, 20 or 30 years ago, Leroy Garrett (now in his mid-90s) wrote a series entitled, “What Must the Church of Christ Do To Be Saved?”) God’s people are His, regardless of how discouraging their group activities may be, from my perspective.

      I agree that we took a hard turn in the wrong direction. Church leaders in various eras/decades/centuries (who might or might not be in view in Heb. 13) are to blame for a lot of it, but not all. Leaders come in many types, don’t they? I didn’t realize that there was nothing in particular about leadership in those particular articles, but that doesn’t mean the authors or I don’t believe leaders are important. In fact, as I drove yesterday, I was considering a lot of things that could be said to be “leader-y.” “Moving the church forward” might not look just like I think it does, or like you think it does, or like those in the city I recently visited think it does. Yes, let’s keep dialogue open!

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