Why Church?

This post is a response to a recent post titled Why Church? at Preaching Peace, written by Nancy Hitt, and to the comments on it. I was going to add this to the comments there but it seemed too lengthy!

It’d be best to check out what she and the other commenters have said before reading my response (and also Scott Hutchinson’s post on Church As Faith Community, which is how we refer to the local church I’m part of, too), but in case you don’t, here are a few excerpts from Nancy’s post:

“If church, as a religious institution, is designed to contain violence in our culture, why do we continue to go there and do that once we are aware of this?  It’s easy to see how the institutional church does this, both in regard to doctrine and liturgy and the interpersonal interactions structured under its auspices.

“Ultimately, I am convinced that the church is a lot of great things in addition to its role as a container of violence. I don’t want to give up the chance to build a community that is based on the teachings of Jesus.  That doesn’t mean that all churches are created equal; some excel at keeping their awareness on him, and others replicate the fabric of the culture to such an extent that Jesus is on the fringe instead of the foundation.

“Mimetic theory has shown me new dimensions of meaning in the Bible, in my relationship with Jesus, and in the culture/world I live in. I would not want to have to discard or dismiss them; I find them invaluable. At the same time, I do not want to discard or dismiss the church, the primary site of the struggle to transform my world.”

This is my response:

I appreciate the serious thought given to these posts and comments on the topic of staying “in the church.” Thank you for taking up the issue and struggling with it on paper/screen.
Nancy, in the comments here, you say, “My experience [when not part of church] is that I was freed from a lot of particular forms that are peculiar to the church, but I also was without a lot of support in challenging those same forms.”
I read this wrong at first and through you were saying that you were without much support for your “Christian walk” when away from church and I was going to say I felt the same during my 8-year hiatus, and it’s the primary reason I returned.

But you are saying here that you lacked support for challenging and working to change what it is about church or religion that seems counter to Jesus/God, right? I don’t seem to have an interest in changing the church as it exists, or in starting another one, because I imagine, people being what we are :-), that it will eventually look much the same as most any church in existence now. Which is to say, and echoing you, a rather mixed bag. But again, it goes back, for me, to what Church was instituted to be, a container for violence. It’s not that the Church falls short of its intentions or doesn’t work perfectly; it’s that this is its intention.

For you, the fact that “the full gospel of Jesus has yet to be heard or lived out by me or anyone else” is a motivating factor for staying in the church. It also very much motivates me, to continue to “be” (or wanna be) a Christian, to study Girard and others, to read the Bible, to be in conversation with others about what this ‘living out’ looks like, to reflect on my own experience in the light of … Light. It doesn’t motivate me to change the church, though, or to supplant it —  except that, as I change, and as you change, the Church does change, organically, because we are the Church invisible, whether we belong to a church or not.

Almost undoubtedly, some of this transformation in the Church from ‘violence container’ to ‘the peace of Christ’ comes via weekly worship and rituals, in these selfsame ‘bound’ religious faith communities, through pastors whose lives and views are radically transformed and who live and speak the truth, through small groups whose members openly share their experiences of ‘living out’ with each other, through the tangible and/or psychic support of each other as we live every minute. Of course the Church has a role in transforming itself.

We’re talking a lot about attraction here, thinking about what “draws us” to church. I’m not sure about that concept, because it feels like a marketing issue, catering to our preferences (what I like, what I don’t like), but maybe it also speaks to a deep calling by God. My dilemma is that I’m not attracted enough by what church offers to overlook or overcome the meta-message of Church.

My particular local church has flaws (from my perspective) but I don’t have any substantive quarrel with it. I think people are in-spired, challenged, renewed, transformed, and are in the process of discovery because they’re part of this particular community of faith. I think this church seeks God/Jesus, and I also think we find lots of ways to avoid God/Jesus and to substitute what’s false for what’s true. C’est la vie (la mort?).

My quarrel, as I said, is with the meta-message of Church. It’s CHURCH. The rest isn’t. We are seen as insiders to those who locate themselves, or are located by others, as “outside” the Church. We are set apart. We are different from non-Church people, and often perceived, by both ourselves and those non-Church people, as better because we are affiliated with Jesus. The pastor of the local church I’m part of recently commented that rarely a week goes by that someone doesn’t come into the church — a plumber, AA participant, delivery person, someone involved with a wedding or memorial service, etc. —  and make a gesture as if to avoid being struck by lightening, confessing at the same time how long it’s been since they were “in a church.” If this isn’t a set-up for rivalry, what is?

I don’t locate spiritual pride in the Church as institution so much as in the church as faith community (i.e., in we who are humans, interdividuals), but it’s the institution, I think, that codifies spiritual pride, as excluders who are proud of our inclusion, as if we have merit.

As Thomas Merton, a Girardian before his time, says so well in New Seeds of Contemplation:

“I have what you have not. I am what you are not. I have taken what you have failed to take. … I am all the more something because you are nothing. And thus I spend my life admiring the distance between you and me. … The man who lives in division is living in death. … Who can escape the secret desire to breathe a different atmosphere from the rest of men? … This sickness is most dangerous when it succeeds in looking like humility. … Before he realizes it, the clean peace of a will united to God becomes the complacency of a will that loves its own excellence.”  …

“At the same time, others seem to recognize him as different from themselves. They admire him, or perhaps avoid him — a sweet homage of sinners! … When someone opposes his desires, he folds his hands humbly and seems to accept it for the time being, but in his heart he is saying, ‘I am persecuted by worldly men. They are incapable of understanding one who is led by the Spirit of God. With the saints it has always been so.” !

This easy, subtle slide from identity with God, from the ‘clean peace’ of a will united with God’s, to self-righteous complacency and self-admiration, is human, I think, and I think it is fomented — even as it is stridently warned against — by the Church, which, generally, accounts some as saved and some as not.  (And in the Buddhist tradition, some as bodhisattvas and some as not).

What attracts me (i.e., what feels good) about the church is the possibility for communion with smart, articulate, compassionate humans who are struggling to live out a life with Jesus/God/the transcendent/love as the center, and who will share their experiences of it with me and let me share mine with them. Now I am in conversation and relationship with people like that (I met some of them in church!), and I am less and less interested in being part of a larger faith community.
I’m playing devil’s advocate a bit (a slight bit) here, but if it’s all about attraction, then the situation is that my social and theological (talking about God) needs are met and so I have little perceived need for the church now. I feel open to new “spiritual” relationships, and continue to seek them to some extent, but finding new relationships doesn’t motivate me anymore to be part of a separate faith community.
I would say that perhaps a deep sense of community (authentic community, where we don’t share the same interests or social or educational backgrounds, and we don’t always play nice and get along, and we survive that together) and a strong missional vision might draw me to church, but really, I think I am like a lot of people who (a) find more meaningful, authentic and mutual community in relationships with their families, friends, neighbours, bookgroup members, volunteer cadre, parents of kids’ friends, colleagues, etc. — many of whom are people I might not choose to hang out with in every moment, but whom I’m committed to by history, spoken or unspoken social contract, geography, etc. — and who (b) don’t have time, energy or interest in ‘mission’ as a separate project in life.

The 21st-century North American faith community (and maybe true for European, too?), as you point out, Nancy, is much different from the Christian community in Acts, not only because the Christian church is now being used to contain violence, but also because we can be so much more deluded that it doesn’t matter. Church seems to be an extra for many, another weekly, or twice- or thrice-weekly, activity whose goal seems to be our nurturing, our entertainment, our benefit. Maybe we attend worship, serve on church committees, or are part of small groups partly from guilt or a sense of duty (the idea that Christians have to be in community with other Christians or they’re not really Christians) or because someone makes us feel we have to. Maybe we are there because we desperately (or even mildly) want to belong. Maybe we are there because the idea of “Body of Christ” and corporate worship truly enlivens our imaginations. Maybe we are there because our family or friends are there and it’s socially fulfilling.

Still, being part of a local church is not life or death, it’s not a matter of survival for the vast majority of us. We don’t pool all our tangible resources and we usually don’t live with each other. (Some Amish or Mennonites or others perhaps excepted?).  Relationships in many a faith community seem about as fragmented as in the rest of culture, and the lives of people in faith communities seem about as isolated. If coffee hour conversation is any guide, a lot of relationship-building at church is based on talking about favourite TV shows!

We might have work friends, families, neighbours, and other friends and acquaintances, and being part of those relationships takes energy and time, too. For many of us, I suspect, “church friends” are a separate and extra class of relationship, not the mainstay of our lives. I’m not decrying this, just noting that Christian community now is not the same as Christian community 20 centuries ago. (Perhaps the community in “The Vicar of Dibley” TV series comes closest to an idealised authentic modern-day Christian community, depicting a full array of emotions among people who are pretty disparate, folks always dropping in at one’s house unannounced, the church seemingly at the center of everyone’s lives.)

Another traditional facet of church, “mission,” also seems to be optional, because we have government, non-profits, corporate foundations, and a plethora of other community organisations to do what is commonly called mission. Sure, the church can help, even lead, but sometimes I wonder if a mission project is really what Jesus had in mind for us, and I even wonder (blasphemy!) if “mission” is sometimes a codeword for “church marketing,” a way to make the church more visible in the community so that more people will want to be part of that church. I guess some people call that evangelism :-)  Why not just knock down the physical and virtual church walls and live with?

I’d go further, though, and suggest that perhaps, as the Buddhists say, there is so much material to work with in each of us, in terms of ego, false self, reactivity, urge to violent mimesis, rivalry, struggles with compassion, judging, and so on, that even a modern-day hermit or agoraphobe will be regularly challenged in peacemaking and non-violence.

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