Virtual Voices

The church Jesus left

Religion

Churches tend to be perfectly nice places avoided by a good many people. This can be problematic when some of those people are Christians. I have a love-hate relationship with churches. When I was little I sometimes got dragged to them. I didn't fit in, the lectures didn't make sense, and all the talk about hell was scary. When I got older I went to a different church, where hell never came up, but where you could barely feel your pulse. Then I was free and didn't set foot in church again for a dozen years. So I understand, just a little, why people stay away.

This is hard to hear for the people who like their churches. There's a sense that if people are disconnected, it's because of something defective in them. Even though I've been harsher than most on the let-my-preacher-do-my-spiritual-heavy-lifting-for-me school of modern churchgoing, I think a person can practice spiritual disciplines and still remain disconnected from church. I'm not alone in believing that something has gone amiss in how many of us "do" church.

This is why I've been reading with interest my friend Ed Chinn's book Footprints in the Sea, in which he considers what he calls "the disappearance of Jesus" from the modern church. He believes many modern institutions called churches are more man-made than God-made, more man-oriented than God-oriented. "When religion looks up," he writes, "it is helpful in translating the mysteries of Heaven for those on earth. However, when it only looks around on a horizontal plane, it stops being a response to Heaven and inexorably degenerates into a self-centered, self-serving arrangement."

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The argument I would have once made is that all assemblages of believers are the Church, thus making all their organizations by definition God-made things. It's the logic that turns the worst of lectures into worship, and labels as praise the reading of announcements before the service. (Though I'm not sure if I buy Ed's argument completely, that phraseology---"service"---certainly lends itself to the notion of a consumer-oriented institution.)

Ed is certainly a believer in church, but his damning argument is that "the institutional church works feverishly to borrow legitimacy from the timeless church." And so he stopped going. So have many other Christians. I have trouble mustering sympathy for church shoppers and church quitters whose view is that the Church exists to serve them, but I have considerable empathy for those who yearn, as Chinn does, for a church that is deeply relational, community-oriented, and that facilitates the drawing near to God.

But then, I suspect most people who like their churches believe they do just that. It's a dilemma, and I want to believe there's an answer for alienation other than grin and bear it, go shopping for a church that's more "you," or reshape churches until they are spiritual equivalents of McDonalds. I find myself in this unstable space, believing more than ever that the Church is something far greater than all of us, yet increasingly convinced that too many churches have become far less than the Church.

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