by Pastor Doug Kings

In my sermon last Sunday I introduced an image of the church that I haven’t use before, that of a training camp. I contrasted it with a pair of images from a popular saying: Is the church a hotel for saints or a hospital for sinners?

Behind that question is the assumption that the church has often had the self-righteous image of itself as the place where “the good people” were to be found, not infrequently in buildings of hotel-like splendor. Instead, the question implies, the church should be understood as a place where sinners come to be “made well.”

In both the Old and New Testaments, healing is an important metaphor for salvation and the restoration of the world. But when used in the Bible, healing has real consequences. In the gospels the lame walk, the blind see, lepers are cleansed. Even when understood metaphorically, it’s still clear that people “healed” by God are changed for the better in specific ways and freed to become the persons God intended them to be.

The meaning of “hospital” as a metaphor for the church is not nearly so clear. What “healing” actually happens in this hospital? The classic Lutheran answer is that people receive forgiveness and salvation by hearing the gospel and receiving the sacraments. That has been meaningful for many people and even life-changing for some. In practice, however, it has a vagueness that often results in “Christian” being little more than an identity label. And that identity is what gets you into the church, which then does resemble more a hotel than a hospital: a place to relax and be comforted, rather than be challenged and transformed.

Throughout my time in the ministry, the church has been wrestling with the question: What are we doing wrong? As I have said before, overall church participation in the US has been in a steady decline for a half-century with no change in sight. I believe the failure of these metaphors and the self-image they convey is one way to understand what the church is “doing wrong.”

In contrast to the ancient and medieval worlds, the church-as-hotel does not provide a comfort many need or want today. Nor do many need the church-as-hospital, since they don’t think of themselves as sick or broken. Yet our world is hardly overflowing with personal satisfaction. Everyone acknowledges that they could use at least some help with this thing called “being human.”

People don’t go to college to read books. People don’t join a gym to watch TV. People don’t attend AA meetings for the coffee. People do these things because in some way they want to change, they want to improve themselves, they want to become people different than they are. What if people were to have the same expectation of becoming Christian or belonging to a church?

Through rituals and instruction, one of ancient religion’s most important functions was to guide people into full selfhood. In the modern world that model has broken down. And while parents, teachers, and friends are a big help, as we journey into adulthood we often feel like we’ve been tossed into the pool without knowing how to swim, or set loose in a strange city without a map.

Personal freedom and opportunity are the great rewards of modern living, but they also give our lives a level of challenge our ancestors never knew. How do we choose? How do we evaluate the opportunities before us? How do we know what will fulfill us and make us happy? Life as a journey is a popular metaphor today. How do I know where I should go and how do I get there?

This is the church’s challenge today. The people identifying as “spiritual but not religious” are not interested in the church as hotel or hospital. They aren’t looking for religion to provide them with an identifying label. They don’t need salvation from their sins but from lives than can easily become confused, lost, meaningless, shallow, and boring.

In that sense I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that they are looking for Jesus, and the two-thousand-year tradition of wisdom and spirituality that has grown from him. This tradition puts the emphasis on following Jesus, rather than belonging to a church. And it understands faith to be a journey of commitment, discipline, and spiritual practice.

To which many in the church today might respond, “Hey, that sounds like work!” Their understandable shock arises from having been told that church was mostly about just showing up. A trainer whose videos I watch is fond of saying that if you want to look like an athlete, you have to train like one. Who knew? You mean watching the video isn’t enough? Or drinking a protein shake?

I’m afraid the church has fallen into the trap of believing you can look like a Christian without training like one. Yet the training the Christian tradition has taught isn’t about looking good, even to God, but about experiencing the full “abundant life” that Jesus says he came to give. It is about engaging in a journey that is paradoxically both to and with God.

While the church tends to keep things easy, ironically there is awareness today, especially among young people, that achieving personal goals and finding a fulfilling life takes commitment, effort, training, and discipline. And so, while it may come as a shock to those in the church, those outside might understand and actually welcome the challenge in Hebrews to “run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” Church as training camp? It might be an image—and experience—whose time has come.

Blessings in your life and ministry, Pastor Doug