A few thoughts on the state of the church as I have experienced it. Lots of people are frustrated and turned off by the church. Witness even the response of faithful church-goers to the phrase, "organized religion" or simply "religion." These frustrations are well-founded and reflect the systemic problems which are just now beginning to be addressed. Indeed, one thing I have begun to realize is that many of the problems which seem to beset every church are actually particular manifestations born of the cultural situation of the church, and - larger even - religious belief, as anything else.
Here are two examples. First, what does it mean to be the church when the church is not longer the political religion of a country? The church has largely been the “religion of power” in the west since 321 CE. Thus, it has defined its emphases as much along the path of “what is good for the culture” as “what does Jesus call us to do?” This is no longer the situation, and is increasingly less so – a paradigmatic change that is only 30-50 years old in the US (more than that in Europe.) The second manifestation of this cultural problematic has to do with evangelism. Isn't it obvious to everyone whenever the subject of evangelism is broached that some “paradigmatic rift” has occured deep into things? Churches, and especially evangelical & fundamentalist churches, are always talking-up evangelism, but it is quite plain to everyone with a brain that the vocabulary of evangelism is dead. There is simply no real forum for evangelistic conversation in our culture. We do not even know how to talk about religious faith, ourselves or that of others, much less enter into serious dialogue that considers the claim of this or that religion. Still, I have never met a church leader that even gave a nod to this difficulty. Instead, they just crack the whip: Christians should evangelize. May as well be saying, “Christians should jimp the jibber” for all the understanding that this imperative is met with – at least in my mind.
What I am getting at is that most church-goers don’t realize that the issues they have with their local church are the result of rifts that go so far down that it is going to take some really innovative and exhaustive thinking to begin to address them. Few understand the situation and fewer still are beginning to construct any sort of effective response (other than circle-the-wagons fundamentalism.) The emergent church, to think of one, is an example of the contemporary struggle to meet these problems. Before that, there were the explosive rise of para-church ministries (though everyone has come to see that the solution cannot grow outside of the church itself.)
So where can one go to make a beginning at an answer? To repeat, we have this question: church. The church is put in question because we live in a time where the question, “What is the church?” is as much up in the air as it ever was. It is put in question on every side: from its being asked in the context of the post-Christianity of the West, to the liberation theologies of the third world, and the immanent collapse of the Anglican church over the ordination of a New Hampshire homosexual to the bishopric.
As friends and I have debated and pondered this bottomless pit of uncertainty, it has become clear to some that, whatever the answer is, it is going to be found within a bounded area. Think of an infinite plane suddenly being inscribed by circles, each within the other, thereby reducing the surface-area to be considered within their narrowing diameters. The broadest circle is labeled, “the Kingdom of God.” The circle just within that is labeled “community.”
And lately I have begun to think another circle can be drawn which will narrow further the area in question. This circle I label “the flesh and the poor.” Whatever “church” is, it is going to find itself in relationship to these two poles: flesh (the application and continuation of the process of the new birth; the putting down of sin and enervating of the image of God; the “first tablet” of the law) and poor (mission and the ethical call to neighbor; the “second tablet” of the law).
Finally, we must continue to live in the present situation. I can’t get around the fact that the New Testament addresses people corporately far more than it addresses them individually. The Reformers said that the marks of a true church are the Word properly preached and the sacraments properly administered. I can’t see how either of these can be accomplished without the Other of other people (and the addition of my Otherness to them.) “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” You can't simply pull out of the community in the name of radicalism or the pursuit of purity. One must throw the hat of commitment into fellowship. Otherwise, there is the risk of doing your “good works” with and for people whom you deem appropriate or worthy, who don’t offend or confront or challenge you. Doesn’t ethical living require a certain amount of vulnerability to a community, or a certain amount of risk? This is where I am – I don’t always want this kind of bumping-shoulders community living, but I can’t see how the answer to the problem called “church” can be located in any other place. Whatever the answer is to this question called “the church” it is going to be found in the pursuit of community.
ecclesiology; social justice; evangelism; modernity.