Saturday, August 6, 2011

Watch out! This is a church!

One of the incidental consequences of this fool's errand I'm on is a heightened sensitivity to the appearance of the church in society.  Now this includes all manner of aspects of the church in the world: how it proclaims the gospel (or what it thinks is the gospel); how it does (or doesn't do) Christ's work in God's world; how it welcomes (or doesn't welcome) folk who might not resemble its current demographic, etc.  But sometimes, what catches my attention really is as simple as the church's physical appearance--what the building looks like, where it is situated, and in some cases, what the church chooses to put on its exterior sign.

Not far from where we live in the south Richmond suburbs of northern Chesterfield County is a church building.  At least as far as I can see, it's just one church building, although in various positions in front of it there appear to be signs for three or four different churches.  I don't know if it's four different assemblies sharing the building; I suppose it's possible.  I don't know if there's another building a little further back, on the side street that runs alongside the building I see--again, it's possible.  But the one thing that has now caught my eye and dragged me back to the blog is the tagline on one of the signs--in this case, a canvas sign stretched between two wooden stakes.  Underneath the name of the assembly and the times at which it meets (none of which has stuck in my memory) is this one line, near the bottom of the canvas:

"Relax, it's just church!"

Amongst the homicidal idiots that make up suburban Richmond traffic I have to be careful not to get wrecked when I see that; it would be easy to end up off the road or across the median at the sight of that one.

"Relax, it's just church!"

OK, I'm not stupid.  I get that one of the big things that worries the church these days is how to get more people inside its walls, above all people younger than me.  People of a particular demographic.  People with disposable income.  It's a matter of survival: the church is graying.  It's getting old.  We need more young people.  We need more kids.  We've got to get more young people involved.  Anyone who's ever been involved with the church in more than a casual way has probably heard some variation of the above theme.

And churches are often quite willing to go to great lengths to reach out to the desired group in question.  The particular slogan above seems to suggest that the key is making the church into a comfort zone, a place that won't be particularly demanding and certainly not threatening.  Of course, then those churches somehow end up surprised that the folks thus enticed into the building don't contribute all that much to the survival of the institution.  The church as an institution, in this day and age, eventually needs money to survive, for example, but folks lured on the premise of church being non-threatening and non-demanding aren't really very good candidates to give much at all (this seems a fairly obvious conclusion to me, and yet the result somehow ends up surprising people.  Am I missing something?) and therefore the church as an institution ends up possibly worse off financially because of the expense laid out to lure all those folks into this comfort zone.

Of course the financial angle is but one part of the equation, and frankly a lesser part in the long run.  Part of my worry with the slogan is that the daily lectionary has been traversing Paul's missionary steps in Acts, lately meandering through chapters seventeen through twenty.  Among the frequently recurring themes in this general sweep of Acts is some sort of uprising against Paul and/or those local folk who embrace The Way.  To be succinct, they keep getting beat up.  Just yesterday the reading from Acts 19 described the uproar among the silversmiths of Ephesus, riled up into a fervor over the notion that The Way represented a threat to Ephesian commerce (the business of making little silver statues of Artemis, the favored "Ephesian Idol" if you will) and tourism (since folk from all over Asia Minor came to worship these little statues of Artemis, or Diana if you prefer).

It would be shooting fish in a barrel to draw parallels to modern life and commercial attitudes.  Just how revolutionary would the impact on the American economy be if all these folk who called themselves "Christian" actually put their money where their professed faith was, so to speak?  The mind boggles.  But business really has no fear of this happening, does it?  No matter how much the loudly public segment of Christianity that gets all the ink these days may rattle sabers or threaten boycotts or whatever, no matter how much Rev. Gov. Perry (aided by, among others, Gov. Voldemort of Kansas) may blather on about a "Response" at his revival meeting/campaign rally in Houston today, Wall Street doesn't really feel it has a lot to fear from the church as it appears in American culture right now.  And Wall Street absolutely has to love the "prosperity gospel" types--now there's a "theology" that fits in oh-so-neatly with the American gospel of conspicuous consumption if ever there was one.  So no, aside from the occasional TV or movie boycott, not much to fear there (and anymore, those boycotts mostly serve to draw lavish attention to entertainment mediocrity, and producing a spike in ratings or box office, so again, not so much to fear).

I guess my point is that there is an inevitable loss when the church chooses the appearance of safety and comfort, a loss I fear the church can no longer afford.  There is too much to do.  Merely getting rid of the comfort zone of one demographic in favor of the comfort zone of another demographic will accomplish nothing and will be of no use in getting Christ's work done in God's world.

As I think I've noted in an earlier blog entry, one can hardly get very far into the business of preparing for a ministerial vocation without getting clubbed over the head with the mantra of "change."  My seminary is not exempt; one of my first freebies is a t-shirt with the Union logo and current public slogan: "Forming Lives, Transforming the Church."  (And yes, every other seminary I even peeked at operated with some similar focus or theme in its presentation of itself.)  Never mind the semantic quibble about whether the church needs to be transformed or reformed (Calvin would suggest the latter--semper reformanda and all that), but . . . on second thought, let's not "never mind" that.  "Transform" and "reform" really do carry different force, do they not?  Doesn't "transform" suggest a radical alteration of the basic substance of the thing being transformed?  "Reform" defines often as "amending" or correcting flaws or abuses or corruption in the object of reformation.  It does not (and Luther and Calvin would I suspect buy this) suggest altering the core or substance of the object being changed.

So exactly how much of the substance of the Christian church generally are you wishing to transform away?  Just how far can a church be altered without losing its rationale, its core mission, its core identity as the Body of Christ?  How far can we go to encourage people to relax because it's "just church" before it isn't church anymore?

One of these days, provided the Spirit continues to lead me this way and I don't screw it up too much, I will hopefully end up as a church pastor -- 'scuse me, "teaching elder" -- somewhere.  Clearly at this point I have not much idea of what specific kind of church it will be.  I'll be almost fifty by the time I graduate here, and I'm nobody's idea of a handsome, photogenic, youthful leader.  But if God truly blesses me (and I don't screw it up too much), maybe -- just maybe -- one day I'll end up as the pastor of a church that deserves to have a sign out front saying:

"Watch out!  This is a church!"

It probably wouldn't be very big, though I suppose it could be decent-sized, who knows?  It wouldn't have a slick rock band or a polished mini-orchestra, and would probably struggle to keep the pipe organ maintained.  The mayor and leading members of the city council probably won't attend.  The folks who do come might well be a pretty scruffy lot (appropriate, considering the scruffiness of their pastor), not terribly wealthy, not terribly powerful individually.  Keeping up whatever building it has might well be a challenge, not that the church won't do its best.  But, for all its scruffiness and lack of gleam, it will be a place where the doors stay open metaphorically as well as physically.  There may or may not be coffee available, though it will probably be useful on cold mornings, but a cup of cold water will always be available.  There will be music; not necessarily all that contemporary, not necessarily always very professional, but it will be substantial and will matter.  You won't necessarily be invited to relax, though you're certainly welcome to (or to try).

The only thing the church will promise is that you will hear scripture, you will have every opportunity to pray, and if the preacher doesn't screw up and get in the way too much you might hear a word from God.  You might run into Christ at the communion table (which will stay busy).  You might get wet from the baptismal font.  And if you're not careful you might get visited by the Holy Spirit.  You might get comforted.  You might get bugged.  You might get enlightened.  You might get shaken to your very core.  Whatever happens, someone will hear you, and care, and walk with you.

Christ's work will get done in God's world, no matter how inconvenient or upsetting or financially injurious or embarrassing it might be to The Powers That Be.  Injustice will be called injustice, not necessarily for the sake of confrontation, but certainly for the sake of truth.  But because it insists on doing these things, no matter how uncool or untrendy or threatening they might be to seekers of comfort and defenders of the status quo, it would be the kind of church that passers-by might point to and say:

"Watch out!  This is a church!"

Oh, God, I could only hope and pray to be worthy of such a church.  Semper reformanda.

1 comment:

  1. Charles, you will make a wonderful teaching elder. Somewhere God is preparing a church to call a nearly 50 year old pastor whom the Spirit has gifted appropriately to speak truth with arms wide open to lead and hand out cups of cold water and wildly splash around in the baptismal font. Watch out!

    Good semester ahead to you, Charles, as you pursue your calling. Thank you for being willing to be used by God...for using your gifts for the common good.