Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Perfect Church for Those Who Do Not Like Church

I have often heard the joke about the guy who told the Pastor he did not like organized religion and the Pastor who responded, "Well, then you will love Grace Lutheran Church because it is the most disorganized religion I know..."  At times I think that answer is very true of my own parish -- and sometimes I even long for a little of that German fetish for order and occasionally I would like some of that Scandinavian resesrve.  But that aside, we often hear of congregations that proudly maintain that they are the perfect Church for those who do not like Church.  In other words, if the Church is what is keeping you from becoming Christian, then join our Church because we are less like Church than others...

It strikes me as a bit of a red herring.  The Church is often blamed as the reason why Christians are not in Church or belong to a Church.  The list of reasons is endless.... I don't like the way of worship, I don't like the music, I don't like the unfriendliness (cliquishness, coldness, aloofness, you fill in the blank), I don't like vestments, I don't like the Pastor, I don't like the building, I don't like being around people, I don't like being with hypocritical  people (better head to a one man island there, fella)...  The sins of the Church are many and much as been made about how these sins keep interested folks away from the Church and the faith.  Is that so?

It strikes me that those churches that claim to be less like Church and more like what people want who do not like Church are not only less like Church but less like, well, Christian.  In so many of these Churches the message of Jesus Christ and Him crucified has given way to a here and now faith in which God acts to assist or assure me in my quest for a better today (everything from getting off addictions to getting on the success track and from being a better person to having a better spouse, family, and job.  Did Jesus die so that I might be a better husband or wife, parent or child, worker or employer?  Did Jesus die so that I might be happier, healthier, wealthier, find more pleasure, etc.?

No, Jesus did not die for these... He died for sin that marked us for death and left us without hope to know the God who made us or the life that was His intention in creation.  He died to rescue us -- lost not only to Him but to each other and ourselves.  He died to pay the cost of our redemption with the currency of His body and blood, laid down in the ultimate sacrifice for a people who were content in their misery of sin and death.  He died to inhabit the cold emptiness of death and its tomb so that we would never find death our end but the portal through which we pass with Christ to our own joyful resurrection and life.

Yes, the fruits of this faith do work to transform me so that I become the one God has called me to be (by baptism and faith).  It is the Spirit's work that the manifestation of Christ's gifts and grace, received with the Spirit's help of faith, will assist me in this life but pleasure and self-realization are not mentioned as the goals of Christian life.  In fact Jesus is blunt about the struggles of living a life that is at odds with the life the world holds up and living against the stream of a world set against God and His ways.  The point is not that Jesus says "Follow Me and be miserable" but "Follow Me and you will become like Me..."  That likeness means love for the poor and the burdened, compassion for the hurting, sacrificial love that puts others before self... and it is true these will help us at home, at work, and in the community where we live... but not to ease our way -- no, in many ways Christian faith complicates the way we live.

The sins of the Church are many and some of them create a tension that works against what we are to be as a community of faith gathered around the Word and Sacraments.  But these sins are not the big problem we have in making headway in the world.  It is the faith itself which is so at odds with the values, choices, and desires of the world that is the stumbling block that trips up so many new folks.  Churches may change the faith and change the worship and change the ambiance of the building and its people to make it more American, more mall-like, more trendy, more techno, more user friendly (translate that spectator friendly)... but in the end the result is that those who do not like the Church end up with no real Church at all.  When the Church is defined by cool video, contemporary music, an edgy atmosphere, a relevant preacher, and great spectator value... instead of the Eucharistic assembly in which the Word and Table occupy the central place, where life flows from the font where it was first given, where absolution's voice sets us free to enter this holy place, where the sermon speaks Christ crucified, where music connects us to the Christ of the Gospels and the Church through the ages... then by what measure can this gathering be called Church at all?

The Church may not help but what hinders the success of the Gospel IS the Gospel -- so at odds with the path and values of the world and so different from the pep talks the world desires from religion.  Jesus did not promise the Church an easy task but rather that if the Church faithfully spoke the Gospel, He would work through that proclamation to call, gather, enlighten and sanctify a people unto Himself, the elect of the Lord in whom is His delight.  Because we know nothing of the heart and only a little of the exterior of a person's life, we have no choice but to speak and display Jesus Christ to those in our family, friends, neighborhood, workplace, school, etc... for the one thing we know about God's will is that He wills that all come to faith and be saved through the merits of Jesus Christ.  Our election is our comfort but no excuse for failing to proclaim the Gospel faithfully in every place God has put us.  Proclaiming the Gospel means also bringing those to whom the Gospel has been proclaimed to the Church (remember the old slogan "Bringing Christ to the Nations and that Nations to the Church?"). 

Let us work to correct the sins of the Church that would become the excuses used why some will not become part of her but let us not be deceived -- these sins are not the big problem but the Gospel so radically at odds with the world's values, desires, and expectations.  For what distance is there for one to travel if by the Spirit's prompting they learn to say "Jesus Christ is Lord" and are showed where their Lord is accessible in the Word and Sacraments of the Church?


Rev. Kevin Jennings said...

Well said, Pastor Peters! It is the scandal of the cross that is the big turn off. Why? The scandal of the cross brings the scandal of sin (there's something wrong with me?) and the scandal of grace (I can't do it; God does it for me).

I'm currently finishing up a series on Galatians based on the readings in the Year C Epistles. I'm coming to understand that, even though our western society believes it has changed and people have changed, the truth is that nothing has changed in 2K years! The cross that was the scandal for the Judaizers and the pagans is the same cross that is the same scandal for those who preach whatever it is they preach these days.

Anonymous said...

I so much appreciate your posts. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Thank you. The "We're a Church, but not a Churchy Church" churches are a pet peeve of mine. They seem to think they can bring people in by mimicking pop culture, without realizing that we've already GOT pop culture, and that what we need is the antidote!