Thursday, May 01, 2008

what is church for, anyway?

Lots of people have written about this already, but I am still fuming so I'll write about it myself. Maybe that will help.

Church is a thing with many different purposes. As a Presbyterian, I affirm that there are six main purposes, beginning with proclaiming the good news and ending with exhibiting the kingdom of heaven to the world. In between are things like "the promotion of social righteousness" and "the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the people of God" and "the maintenance of divine worship" and "the preservation of the truth."

I would be willing to bet that most Presbyterians don't know about the Six Great Ends of the Church, and that even if they did they would say "but what does that mean, anyway?"

Well, I'll tell you what it means to me: that we are a community, a true community, that does both hard and easy things, that is challenging as well as comforting, that nurtures and shelters and also tells the truth. Sometimes that is hard--to stay together through thick and thin. Most importantly, we proclaim the good news of God's grace in Jesus Christ and we make every attempt to form our church community to reflect God's kingdom as we see it in Scripture. A lot of the time, that means that we say and do offensive things, things that obstruct natural selection, things that obstruct blind patriotism (show me a prophet, Old or New Testament, who was a patriot by today's pop culture standards, and then I might be willing to talk nicely about civil religion), and things that make it hard to be a community. But we stick it out. The body isn't the body if we're missing a part. The eye cannot say to the hand "I have no need of you." When one part suffers, we all suffer. The parts we don't like to talk about in polite company are clothed with greater honor. etc etc etc. No wonder our "family values" are in such disarray--we are so used to consuming that the instant someone displeases us, we run off to find someone who agrees with us and will feed us what we want to hear, one soundbite at a time. (this would be interesting research--divorce rates and divorcing-my-congregation-or-pastor rates.)

This is why it's so offensive to me that this whole business with Jeremiah Wright is such a big deal. Not because, as a pastor, I shudder to think that my congregation members might one day be held accountable for my words and actions (though that is disturbing). Not even because of the basic misconception that pastors and congregation members are friends (that happens so rarely--generally, the member thinks they are friends with the pastor, but in reality the pastor is "on" with that 'friend' and also has a strange pseudo-power, making the relationship never a real friendship...though of course there are exceptions, and they are almost always so because the pastor has decided to make it that way)--I actually saw a comment in a news article that said "he was your best friend???" Well, no. Wright is right about this--he was a member of the church. That's different than being really friends.

But none of this is what makes me so furious. What makes me furious is the idea that if one disagrees with another member of the body, one should just get up and leave. That is NOT what church is about. Church is not about the pastor, not about the sermon. It's about being a community that shows God's love and justice to the world, that acts like the kingdom. And you know what? You can disagree deeply with someone and still work together for justice. You can learn and grow spiritually with people whose political stances are different than yours. Church is not a place where you go to be told everything you already know, to have your own ideas reinforced. Church is for growing, walking together a hard journey, being challenged. It's for praying and praising and being filled up, and it's for serving and loving and changing the world. If it's not about changing the world to look more like the kingdom of God ("your kingdom come...") then it's just about making ourselves feel good and righteous. We have enough of that in our culture.

As I'm constantly telling my confirmation class and youth groups: life is about choices. Will you choose to preach the gospel with your life, to exhibit the kingdom of God? Or will you choose to sit back and find yourself preaching and exhibiting....something else? I'm a little afraid of the choices of our country and the people who would be its leaders. When the fact that a man has been faithful to the body of Christ, through thick and thin, is a liability to his leadership, I'm afraid for our country. When where you go to church is a bigger deal than your foreign policy ideas, I'm afraid. When church is a front (yes, a FRONT, a facade) or a foil (a distraction from) for racism and elitism and all those other isms that we pretend don't exist, I'm reminded of earlier times in our religious history, none of which went well, and I'm afraid. All of God's messengers showed up and started their spiel with "do not be afraid." Well, we could use that message right about now.


  1. Very well said. Thank you for this.

  2. Preach on...I can just hear - and see you - as you would say this. Full of energy and conviction - thank you as always.

  3. Thank you for putting this out there, Teri. I think this is one of those moments when the mainstream media's ignorance about church is really showing. They just don't get it. And neither does Hillary if she really means it when she says she would have left that church. Someone needs to be saying loud and clear that the way this story is being treated is teaching the wrong things about being part of a church. Thank you for starting it!