If you are really serious about finding a new way to express Church, be constructive and go to work. But instead, the simple idea that “I don’t need a pastor or a bishop or a pope or a sermon or a worship set” seemed to be enough for many to be “new” and “different.” My central critique is this: how on earth could it possibly be new in a relentlessly individualistic culture to not want to be told what to do? What could be different about autonomy in a world where that’s what EVERY SINGLE PERSON Christian or not is striving for?
There is first of all not an authority-less group existing in the world. I remember hearing Brian McLaren (himself known for raising many of these questions) at a conference, when somebody was going on and on about hierarchy in the Church, and the problem with having one “leader.” He responded by saying there is no such thing as a group without a leader. Walk into a group gathered at a house and ask who’s in charge. When somebody speaks up to say “there is nobody in charge, we are just an autonomous collective” (I think I just super-imposed Monty Python and the Holy Grail onto Brian’s remark, but it works), THAT person is the leader. I’ve never forgotten that. Ultimately I just don’t think that authority-less community is possible…nor even desirable.
I also think alternative visions for doing church in North America have largely failed due to a lack of diversity. Here is what I mean—and please hear this softly, because I am NOT saying that everybody who tries something new is like this, but some people I have known are: “I dislike all that boring stuff, let’s just be friend and talk about Jesus sometimes.” So what do you talk about? The cool stuff you and your friends always talk about. The movies you all love. The music you all dig. Lost (I know it’s over, but you know what I mean), the NBA, whatever. Entertainment that we like or literature we enjoy. Okay, but where is the shared sense of mission? And where are the sacraments? Most social groupings in North America are oriented around hobbies. But how do you sustain a movement around shared hobbies?
See that is the thing for me: I don’t think you have to go through the institutional church per se to have valid sacraments. And of course there is something deeply sacramental about so many things in our lives that are not religious at all! But at the end of the day, where there is no celebration of the Eucharist—there is no church. Where there is no baptism—there is no church. Where there are no psalms, hymns and spiritual songs—there is no church. That does not mean that these ingredients need to mixed in the way that they are often done to be valid. By no means! But they must be present, and they must be intentional.
Our church is young enough and again, populated with enough reflective young adults (such a gift!), that I will always have people within my local body who are more inclined this way. And people who think a thing has to be small and indie to be pure (another subject for another day). There are various people in my life who have this disposition toward me of, “Pastor Jonathan is a fairly smart guy within his own traditional church box—he just doesn’t get new ways of doing church. A little stuck in the old ways.” Not true though. I get it. And when I see new expressions of Church that are done well that are altogether different from mine, I affirm it gladly. I just maintain that a lot of what I see is ultimately, rather than a fresh expression of church being, frankly a bourgeois reflection of middle class dislike for authority. It’s too often the unique luxury of white people with time on their hands, and is too driven by our common cultural obsession with individual “self” and individual expression to even pull out of the driveway.
So as much as I sympathize with a lot of the critique that drives these conversations, I remain unimpressed with many of the solutions. (To the extent that they are about solutions. Because somebody reading this just said out loud, “It’s all about the journey.” My reply: it’s not a journey if you aren’t actually going somewhere.)
Let me put this in my denominational context. I am part of the Church of God (Cleveland, TN). I love and respect my Church and its leaders. I think our current General Overseer Dr. Raymond Culpepper as well as many of his colleagues are some of the finest we have ever had, and I’m very encouraged. There have been other seasons where I thought some leadership (and for that matter, many of us on the ground) were out of touch and a little bit crazy–heard leaders say and do some scary things. And yet I’ve never wanted to leave. Some of you have heard me give my riff about staying with the people who have marked you. I do take that very seriously, but let me put it another way:
I love the work of the now-deceased Dominican priest Herbert McCabe. A close friend of his (Charles Davis), decided to leave the Catholic church in demonstrative fashion because of “all the corruption.” As editor of a Catholic journal, McCabe wrote a critical editorial in which he said, “Of course its corrupt. But that’s no reason to leave it.” The funny thing is, the Catholic church removed him from his post as editor just for this acknowledgment! After a season away, he was eventually allowed to return to his post. In his first editorial back, he began with the line: “Before I was so strangely interrupted…” (A great story for so many reasons)
I haven’t stayed in the “institutional Church” (or the Church of God) because I don’t think its corrupt. As with any human system, it is part and parcel of life together to get disappointed and do some disappointing on our own. I just don’t think it’s a good reason to leave. If God gives you a fresh vision to be the Church in the world, get to it so I can celebrate that with you. But if your vision doesn’t go beyond critique, then its not really a vision. And I still think the best thing for most of us is to find a Christian community somewhere that is kind of beautiful in all the ways that churches are often beautiful and kind of sucks in all of the ways that churches often suck, and get to work somewhere.
Even when we are flatly and perhaps rightly embarrassed by the behavior or the history of our churches on some level, we still exist in continuity with them. We are forever tethered to our grandmother’s church, and this is as it should be. Our grandmother’s church has given us many good gifts. But even when she’s been very wrong, she still belongs to us. There is no such thing as cutting ourselves off and starting over (even the Protestant Reformation didn’t truly succeed in that). The reality of being the body of Christ leaves us deeply connected even when we try and walk away to do something different. Of course we would love a clean slate from the mistakes and failures of our grandmother’s church, because we could pretend we are without sin. But when we dissociate ourselves from even the negative parts of our respective church traditions, we are no longer conducting our ministry from a starting place of repentance. And How could that ever be a good idea?
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