Driving on the interstate with my wife tonight, we passed another giant church billboard advertising for a church which, prophetically and almost literally, meets at Six Flags here in Atlanta. In bold letters next to a picture of the preacher in a slick suit, it said something to the effect of, “[name of church] Feels Just Like Home.”
In the darkest recesses of my mind I found myself thinking, “Then why not just stay home?”
As the son of a preacher…who has been a preacher himself as well as a college teacher of theology and Bible, it feels strange to say I no longer have “a church home.” As such I felt instantly guilty when that sarcastic question popped into my mind, as if I were betraying the great cloud of witnesses of Hebrews 11-12 by ignoring the exhortation in 10:25 of the same book to not “forsake the assembling of yourselves together.”
But I have. And, in all honesty, I’m not suffering the awful consequences I always imagined I might. I’m still a believer. And I still believe in the Church. I just think about it very differently now.
The Hebrews 10:25 passage is just too often misunderstood, especially in our time when most people (especially the kind with lots of disposable income and resources—the kind many churches are most interested in “attracting”) realize there are so many more interesting things to do on the weekend, to try to convince people that it is God’s will for them to “attend church.” But, somehow it seems to me that “church attendance” is not really what the author had in mind when penning these words.
Keeping in mind that Hebrews was most likely written to Jewish Christians struggling to maintain faith in a King whose kingdom appeared to have little “power” (save the kind of power available to those willing to bear a cross, as Paul describes in the first chapter of 1 Co) while bearing up under constant Roman persecution and, very likely, being driven from their own families for rejecting “orthodox” Judaism, the command not to forsake assembling seems less about “making sure you get to a service once or twice a week” and seems more about sheer survival. The writer of Hebrews appears to think that being a Christian in a world in love with power, wealth, and violence is going to be pretty hard—that Christians are likely to be hungry, discouraged, and tempted to walk away—exactly because their faith is in direct tension with the values of power, wealth, and violence. In that case, being together (most likely daily) is a necessity of following Jesus. This is something Dietrich Bonhoeffer understood very carefully, I think.
By contrast, most church-goers in our country have little to fear from their own Rome. And, I attest, it has everything to do with the fact that their faith is simply no threat to it. My suspicion is affirmed, I think, by the presence of every American flag near the pulpit, every patriotic service. It is precisely because Christianity in our culture is not understood as a radical alternative to the secular culture of power, wealth, and violence in our world but, instead, is little more than a religious expression of it.
I could tell you stories about why I think so. Stories about being involved in big “Christian” organizations and “churches.” Stories where I was even a fairly “important player” for a while. At one “Christian” institution, my downfall was predicated by my unwillingness to take a job from one deserving person and give it to another because the other was a “strategic connection.” Read: “they have money we want them to donate to our organization.” The truth is, my sense of the Gospel calling us to act justly has left little room for me in any organized religious institution.
I could tell you other stories of friends of mine…and friends of friends of friends. People who have loved the Lord and been capable, hard-working, and beautiful Kingdom workers but whose love for God has been little more than impediment to the “business of running the (organization, school, church, etc.).” I could tell you about my wife’s experience with corruption and cruelty as a children’s minister in a large church. I could tell you about what it was like to listen to the inane “worship music” playing in the background while people treated her with relentless cruelty with the full support of the leadership there. I could tell you about her efforts to help run a non-profit organization devoted to equipping churches to help families of differently-abled children and adults—rich churches which were happy for hundreds of hours of free consulting and training, but which flatly refused to let the organization hold a fundraiser on their premises which would compete with their building programs. I could tell you about my friends Paul and Faith… I could tell you hundreds of stories.
A recent friend of mine, known to me through my wife, was released from her position as a special-needs minister. Their large church simply saw no more need for such a frivolous endeavor. Just as another friend of ours who even offered to stay on at her church in a volunteer basis to continue the ministry to these oft-marginalized families, our friend was informed, “We simply do not want to continue this ministry.” There just wasn’t enough return on investment to justify the resources which could be spent on more valuable investments, such as new worship centers, expensive instruments, smoke-machines, and coffee shops. She and her own special-needs child would have to find a new place to worship.
Recently she responded to something I posted on social media about my wife. She asked if Vangie had ever told me her story. She had. This was an excerpt from my letter to her:
For what it’s worth, I count what happened to you as evil. There’s a lot of it out there. And as much as it’s tempting for folks to defend it and say, “Well, don’t say bad things about the church because that’s Jesus’ bride and you don’t want to stop all the good things she does by focusing on the bad things,” I like to respond by saying, in the words of my good friend Frederick Robinson:
“There are two definitions of theology that give me life. The first is James Cone’s view of theology as ‘loving God with your mind.’ That’s imagination. The second is Theodore Jennings’ assertion that theology is best understood as ‘a critique of the church.’ That keeps the church from falling into crippling complacency. And Lord knows the church in America—compromised as it is by its idolatrous relationship with wealth and power—needs both IMAGINATION and CRITIQUE. Imagination about how to create a more just, loving and beautiful world, and critique about its inherent tendency toward self-preservation in a way that makes it settle into MEEK CONFORMITY to the world.”
I suppose, between the two, I like the second best. My friend Paul Axton always says that assuming that the church must do a little evil in order to do good is to deny that the apostle Paul said we should NOT “sin all the more so that grace may abound.”
That what passes as “church” today is willing to live with such disregard for the least of these in our culture means that it is no more than just a religious expression of our culture, rather than the radical alternative to the culture that it was designed to be. That it sees little ‘return on investment’ in continuing a ministry to those with needs more difficult than our own means that it has whored itself (as the prophets called it) to the consumer idols of our culture.
I wish I had words to offer you that weren’t filled with my own anger and bitter disappointment with “the church.” My father was a preacher and I was a preacher and a teacher of theology and biblical interpretation at a Christian college. I currently do not have a church and recently told someone I don’t anticipate finding one. I’ve concluded that as soon as the “church” is a brick-and-mortar institution it is no longer the church. Because now it must participate in the power-structures necessary to support such institutions and resources. It’s ministers cannot be both like Jesus washing the feet of his disciples and Trump-like CEOs marketing a gaudy and self-indulgent image to greedy, self-absorbed consumers of a religious product, desperately trying to feel safe, secure, and powerful.
That said, take heart. There are those out there whose hearts belong to the Lord. He is present here, though there may be only one or two of us here and there present with him. Vangie said to me today, “I’m just sad because I had always hoped that the church would be Noah’s solution when I’m gone.” [Noah is her son, who is autistic.] I said, “I still think it is. I’m just not sure it’s going to look like what I’ve always called ‘church.'” I suppose there’s “Church” and there’s “church.” I’m just still looking for the former, having had my fill of the latter.
Recently a friend told me that he thought I was simply too judgmental, that I was too willing to decide “who is in and who is out.” This is simply not my intent. I am, instead, at the point in my life where I am trying to decide “what is Church and what is not.” The simple truth is, when what is supposed to be an alternative to the culture and its values (the church) becomes co-opted (or volunteers to be co-opted) by the culture and its values, then it is no longer that alternative at all. When Christianity becomes paganism, then forsaking assembling with it is survival, precisely because the heart of the command not to forsake the assembly is about surviving as a Christian in a pagan world.
I still hope to find a place I can be. My guess is, however, it will not be a place, but a group of people with whom I can share and worship. A group who will challenge me to love and forgive. A group who will be less interested in power and comfort than in seeking peace and reconciliation with one another and with God. I hope, for me and for my wife.
The closest I have found is my friends at Forging Ploughshares—though distance separates us from meeting with them. I keep hoping we’ll find a few kindred spirits who are no longer seduced by a “powerful song set” or a “traditional atmosphere” or a “dynamic youth experience” or a dream of “having a huge footprint in the community,” who will be willing to start meeting and trying to find ways to enact the Kingdom in our homes and neighborhoods, apart from buildings and power-structures and attractions.
Maybe it will happen.
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