by Pastor Doug Kings
I have said many times that Gloria Dei has a coffee hour preceded by a worship service. And I’m only half-joking. Churches (with or without a building) have always been places for community and friendship.
Paul makes clear that the early church’s celebration of the Eucharist was a social meal as well as a worship event (a practice being revived in some places). Writing in Christianity’s second century, the theologian Tertullian says that pagans said of Christians, “See how much they love one another!” A statement that could be taken as sincere, mocking, or perhaps a little of both.
As I have noted before, there has been a steady stream of articles reporting and commenting on the church’s decline. Among those expressing dismay at this trend, few (in fact, I’m not sure I’ve read any) deplore the decline of Christianity per se. Rather, they express concern and sadness at the loss of the church as a cultural institution. And the most commented upon aspect of this is the loss of the church as a place that creates and provides friendship and community.
An earlier version of me would have dismissed such talk. Church is essentially about Christ and the gospel, I would have said. Coffee hour, potlucks, softball leagues, etc. are very nice but they’re just frosting on the cake. But I’ve changed my tune.
The growing numbers of the “spiritual, not religious” are sending a message which the church is unwilling or unable to hear. And that message, to put it simply, is that Christianity as a religion is failing. It is not doing what religion is supposed to do. The word “religion” comes from the Latin religare, which mean to (re-) “bind together.” We also get the word “ligament”, which attaches bones to bone.
In the case of the church, that binding refers both to joining people together and joining people to God. But today institutional Christianity is not doing either of those things very well. Religion has become a source of division more than community. And neither the church’s message nor its practices are leading to meaningful encounters with God, our transcendent source and ground of being. The ancient notion of a fatherly king in the sky is nonsensical to most people today, yet churches still cling to such language and images.
The reason for this decline, I believe, is that the church’s checkered past has finally caught up with it. As I’ve said before, New Testament scholars and church historians have longe been aware that the Christianity that developed after Jesus’ death was a far cry from Jesus’ own message. “Jesus came preaching the good news of the Kingdom but what we got was the church,” has been one way to summarize it.
The year 313 CE and the so-called Edict of Milan is often cited as the moment when the church “turned to the dark side.” Regardless of the date or document, it is true that during this period the Roman Emperor Constantine and the church achieved an understanding. Gradually Christianity would be viewed as the religion of the empire and the church would become an institution of the state.
Uniform practices and beliefs became the rule. Any resemblance of the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth with the church was essentially lost. And, despite many sincere efforts, it’s never returned.
In a recent blog post titled “If the Church Dies,” Marshall Davis comments on a new book I’ve mentioned before, The Great Dechurching. The authors write both about the church’s decline and how to reverse it. But Davis has a different perspective.
What if the Great Dechurching is not a bad thing? What if it is a good thing? What if it is a God thing? What if God is pruning the church back to the root? … Jesus said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” What if the church needs to die? … Maybe the dying of the church is not a problem, any more than Jesus’ death was a problem. Maybe the Great Dechurching is God’s solution to a more serious problem.
Davis notes that destruction and renewal is a common theme in both the Old and New Testaments. In their stories, it is the way for the sacred vision of creation to be restored.
I do not know for sure, but I think God may be doing the same sort of thing in our time…. The church does not have a problem; the church is the problem. The church thinks the problem is in the culture outside the church, but the real problem is in the church culture. The church does not see that, and therefore it has no motivation to change…. Like a gardener or farmer, God is turning over the soil, in order to prepare for a new season.
It’s been more than thirty years since Rodney King asked, “Can’t we all get along?” The answer, as we all know, is of course we can. And we often do, despite forces that try to interfere. It’s what we experience every week in our coffee hour. That’s what makes it sacred, like all our important personal interactions, when our Spirit recognizes the same Spirit in our neighbor.
But there has been a growing disconnect between what happens in churches’ fellowship halls and what happens in their worship spaces. It’s harder and harder to see what the traditional hymns, prayers and creeds used in the latter have to do with the community found in the former. That connection needs to be reestablished.
We have no account of Jesus worshiping yet we have countless stories of him interacting with strangers on the street, meeting people’s needs, and enjoying people’s company around a table. He taught no rules or doctrines except to love God with our whole being and love our neighbor as ourselves. And to have faith that God is at work within and all around us.
Jesus’ early followers lived by these simple principles, but the church soon established other priorities. Today the Spirit is trying to reawaken us to that original simplicity and to the life and love it creates.
Blessings in your life and ministry.