A few weeks ago I was in Southern California for a “church tour.” Together with a few professors and about 20 ministry students, I visited nine church services in a weekend. It was a bit of a marathon, but I survived.
The goal for the students was to gain an appreciation for the way “church” was done in a few different contexts, make observations that might serve to benefit their future ministries, and analyze a variety of sermons.
My experience of the weekend was similarly organized, but at some point it also turned a bit pessimistic. Observing so many church services in one weekend, while supposedly meant to be an “uplifting” experience, actually caused me to wonder why in the world we do all of the things in we feel that we have to do. If Christianity is a matter of the spirit, both individually and as gathered with others in communion with Christ, then why does so much of “church” feel so…artificial? Strange songs, standing and sitting, listening to someone talk for an hour, varying dress codes, Christian clichés. Even that portion where we’re all forced to shake each others’ hands. Really? What is it all about? It is an interesting question.
Some of our discomfort with the “strangeness” with church life might simply have to do with the “strangeness” or other-ness of God. This I accept wholeheartedly. God’s ways are not our ways, and as a good Pentecostal I recognize that the presence of the Almighty can manifest itself in diverse and unexpected ways.
Some of the reason that church services seem artificial might simply be because our world can tend to be rather secularized, or antagonistic to such organized religious faith. Because we live in a world that doesn’t like to talk about or reflect upon religious faith, places where we do so naturally feel weird.
All the same, neither of these two things really get at some of the ways in which church as “church” can become rather a thing unto itself. An institution not serving the world or its Lord, but rather itself.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not one of these “Jesus hates the Church/religion” people. I think that’s a little overblown. As it is the Body of Christ, I love and cherish the Church Universal throughout all space and time. Yes, Christianity is about relationship, but as relationship is organized it naturally takes form and structure. When it comes to human relations with God, that structure is called religion. That’s simply the way it is. But I’ll tell you what…I do think that some of the ways we act and organize ourselves when we as the gathered community join together for church services can be strange (at best).
Ultimately, I believe we keep doing things in certain ways because a) we think we have to by the bonds of tradition or sometimes misunderstood Scripture, b) we’re not creative enough to think of any other way, and c) we are more comfortable with it than we are changing. I’m not sure that any of these is sufficient reason to keep doing what we’re doing. If the goal in all of this is a matter of the Spirit, in our predictable churchy ways I’m not sure we’re following where the Spirit’s blowing.
I’ve been vague about which practices, habits, and forms I’m critiquing here. Perhaps intentionally so. I think that all of us, if we think about it, could come up with ways in which our churches and local congregations are focused so much on peculiar side-quests and the maintenance of non-essential and (from an outside point of view) bizarre practices we don’t even realize that we’re propping up what amounts to nothing but our own preferences or lethargic momentum writ large.
It is times like this that I think about Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his thoughts about “religionless Christianity.” His use of the term is debated, so I’ll just quote him:
Our whole nineteen-hundred-year-old Christian preaching and theology rest on the “religious a priori” of mankind. “Christianity” has always been a form–perhaps the true form–of “religion.” But if one day it becomes clear that this a priori does not exist at all, but was a historically conditioned and transient form of human self-expression, and if therefore man becomes radically religionless–and I think that that is already more or less the case…what does that mean for “Christianity”? It means that the foundation is taken away from the whole of what has up to now been our “Christianity,” and that there remain only a few “last survivors of the age of chivalry,” or a few intellectually dishonest people that we are to pounce in fervor, pique, or indignation, in order to sell them goods? Are we to fall upon a few unfortunate people in their hour of need and exercise a sort of religious compulsion on them?
If we don’t want to do all that, if our final judgment must be that the Western form of Christianity, too, was only a preliminary stage to a complete absence of religion, what kind of situation emerges for us, for the church? How can Christ become the Lord of the religionless as well? Are there religionless Christians? If religion is only a garment of Christianity–and even this garment has looked very different at different times–then what is a religionless Christianity?