The ‘failed experiment’ called the church still looks better than the alternatives.
Katie Galli | posted 4/21/2008 08:45AM
If you’ve talked to 20-somethings lately, you’ve probably noticed we’re disillusioned about almost everything—government, war, the economy, and most things having to do with The Man. We’re especially disillusioned with church. Somewhere between the Crusades, the Inquisition, and fundamentalists bombing abortion clinics, we lost our appetite for institutionalized Christianity. A slew of recent books addresses this growing disenchantment.
An oft-disillusioned (and hopelessly idealistic) 20-something myself, I picked up Life After Church: God’s Call to Disillusioned Christians (InterVarsity), and Dear Church: Letters from a Disillusioned Generation (Zondervan). I figured that I’d find writers who share my frustrations. But I was also hoping they would push me toward a deeper and richer relationship with the church—and in this, I was left unsatisfied.
In Life After Church, Brian Sanders writes specifically for “leavers”—people who are committed to Jesus Christ but often view church as a “failed experiment.” They feel that following Jesus and staying in a local congregation have become mutually exclusive. Likewise, Sarah Cunningham in Dear Church writes for those who “question whether attending a local church has anything to do with a person’s faith.”
Both authors focus on local congregations as the primary source of disappointment. Sanders says leavers find Sunday morning services irrelevant—they’re repetitive, they don’t address issues that really matter to them, and they fail to provide meaningful outlets for service. Leavers often feel that they’ve outgrown what they perceive as simplistic, seeker-oriented messages; nor do they find churches conducive to deep community. Cunningham says 20-somethings are uncomfortable with overly cool, overly polished churches “whose onstage dress code seems to keep designer clothing stores in business.” She also wrestles with the socioeconomic and racial homogeneity of local congregations.
Both authors identify a variety of complaints with the church. But naming a problem isn’t the same thing as addressing it.
Sanders and Cunningham suggest drawing on a “clean canvas” what it means to do church. Sanders looks to Acts 9, which describes the apostle Paul’s calling following his conversion, in order to propose an “ecclesial minimum” of worship, community, and mission. He writes, “As easily as we have formed churches around cathedrals and buildings with steeples and stained glass, we can form churches around pubs and laundromats, parks and coffee shops. … Simply inviting believers and nonbelievers into our homes for the purpose of worshiping and sharing Jesus transforms our homes into churches.”
Obviously it is essential that we as Christians intentionally build relationships with nonbelievers in pubs and laundromats, because that is where they are. But that isn’t church. Church is much more complex than “worshiping and sharing Jesus.”
Cunningham cites various New Testament passages that deal with early Christian communities. She mentions Matthew 16 a few times—where Jesus appoints Peter to be the rock on which the church will be built—as the biblical grounds for her understanding of church. Ultimately, though, she shies away from any notion of the church as an institution (the closest she comes is saying that the church should be “a permanent fixture in society”). Jesus, she says, “did away with institutionalized religion and instead championed a real-life faith where he hung out with his followers in a way that was perhaps reminiscent of Eden.”
I’m unclear on how one can create a “permanent fixture in society” and not create an institution. Cunningham seems to suggest that “real-life faith” is stifled by institutions, so we should avoid them at all costs. I’m not sure it’s possible to sustain real-life faith without institutions.
For those who leave the institutional church, the focus seems to be on alternative communities. In “A Leaver’s Manifesto” at the end of his book, Sanders says that the foundation of this new movement is the home church. He is so committed to this idea that he writes, “We can affirm the larger gathering for worship and celebration, but we can’t call it church.”
There is no question that home churches can facilitate powerful, deep community. Indeed, worship, community, and mission are all part of what it means to be the church. But I suspect there is a reason the institutional church has incorporated from its beginning liturgy, catechesis, creeds, and ordained offices—not to mention the sacraments. Over time, we discovered these were vital elements of church. As much as these things can sometimes feel rote, it would be naïve to wave them off as unessential.
In trying to make church relevant again, the authors focus on rethinking the Sunday morning service. In the process, they suggest how culturally trapped many in my generation are. “Too often,” Sanders writes, “churches have failed to create an experience that serves and nurtures people at each point on that journey.” Cunningham quotes a 20-something who declared, “I’m really tired of the pulpit-pew congregation style because it doesn’t transform lives in the same way as one-to-one communication does.” She quotes one pastor whose rule of thumb is, “If it doesn’t help someone live out their faith Monday through Friday, it’s not worth saying.”
Of course, local congregations should encourage and disciple their members, help them to serve one another in practical ways, and offer opportunities for meaningful community. But just because those things don’t happen on Sunday morning doesn’t mean we’re not being the church when we gather for worship.
Yes, we’re Americans. We multitask all day long. Efficiency is one of our top cultural values. I, too, am pragmatic. I’d like to use Sunday morning to worship God, to get a few pointers on how to improve my relationship with Jesus, and to reconnect with community. But every Sunday, the first words heard at my institutional church are, “Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” And I’m reminded that we gather weekly not to hear a practical talk on how to better live out our faith or to provide a venue to tell our friends about Jesus. We gather corporately to worship God, to celebrate the redeeming work of Christ on the cross, and to remember that our lives are not about us.
Sanders and Cunningham don’t completely disagree. Each spends some time giving a kick in the pants to the disillusioned, and Cunningham’s warning hits home: “This kind of unexpected idolatry—the obsession with living in despair over what is wrong with the institutionalized church—creeps up on you (like most shifty little idols do). … Criticism becomes what we end up worshiping.” She encourages 20-somethings to have a little more grace and patience with the failures of the church and ends her book with a love letter to the church.
The church can indeed be bureaucratic, inefficient, and, at times, hopelessly outdated. It remains one of the most embarrassing institutions to which one can belong. But it has also given us a 2,000-year legacy of saints and social reformers, and a rich liturgy and theology—the very gift 20-somethings need to grow into the full stature of Christ.
Katie Galli, a barista and a member of an Anglican congregation in Glen Ellyn, Illinois
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Life after Church: God’s Call to Disillusioned Christians and Dear Church: Letters from a Disillusioned Generation are available from ChristianBook.com and other retailers.