Yesterday, I posted a piece on the nature and purpose of the church, thinking it to be a fairly safe (but important) topic. I received this email today, and share it (eliminating names and any reference to the specific congregation, and framing it as dialog — with the author’s permission).
I am the chair of <our> church council and I saw your article and thought it would make an interesting devotion for our meeting last night. All I can say is that you need to be careful what you recommend. Our friendly discussion turned into an ugly argument, and our leaders are now angry with each other. This little exercise stirred up a hornet’s nest — one that may take us year’s to quiet down.
Things began friendly enough. I read a passage from Acts 2 then asked, “So, what is the church?” I got a flurry of quick answers: “The place we worship God.” “The people.” “My family.” “Where we learn to be Christian.” “We are the church.” “We’re an organization that can’t pay its bills… which is why we are meeting and I think we need to get down to business.” Then, after a bit more of the same, <one man> said, “But these are all passive. What does the church do?” I used this to ask, “What is the church for?” Immediately, <one woman> said, “It feeds us and strengthens our spirit.”
“But for what purpose?” <the man> asked.
“What do you mean?” <she> replied. “The church is where I come to be fed.”
“But is that all it is?” <he> asked.
“That’s enough for me,” <she> replied. “I’m no saint. I need my own needs met.”
I tried to intervene and ask how others would answer the question. Our pastor spoke up and said, “…to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world…”
The first woman spoke up, “That’s what the church is for, but it is not why I am here. I can’t make disciples. That’s the church’s job.”
“I don’t agree,” another woman chimed in. “We are here to honor God and to worship and praise Him. That is why the church exists. I think the church has lost its focus. We are too political. We are meddling in things like health care and immigration and politics and we aren’t learning the Bible or praying. The church exists to help us focus on God.”
“But wait a minute,” said <a man>, “What about caring for the poor and needy? That’s why the church is involved in health care and immigration — to help the poor.”
“No sir!” snapped the second woman. “We should be doing those things, not selling our soul to Caesar Obama to do it! The church should care for the poor, not the government.”
The first woman piped up, “Whoa, that’s not why I am here. I can barely make ends meet myself. I’m not here to take care of the poor. I’m here so someone can take care of me!”
Another voice joined the discussion, <a man> who thinks he is our voice of reason, but usually just wants to disagree with and correct everyone. “This is all a royal waste of time. We can’t make disciples and we can’t change the world. What we can do is worship on Sunday, have a program for our kids, and take care of our own when they’re sick or need us. That’s what we’re for. And the sad reality is that we’re not doing these things very well. If we don’t get some new families in the door soon, we won’t even be able to have pointless conversations like this one. I think we need to get to the real issues and leave these philosophical questions alone.”
<A recent addition to the council> said, “These aren’t ‘philosophical questions.’ This is at the very heart of why we are here. If church is all about us, that makes a big difference. The Acts scripture does make it sound like church is all about us — that we should escape the evil generation and just care for each other — but that doesn’t track with the command of Jesus to make disciples of all nations. It doesn’t track with feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and housing the homeless — all things Jesus said we should do.
<Another man> responded, “That is imposing a liberal agenda on the gospel. Being a Christian isn’t about ‘social justice,’ it is about accepting Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior.”
“Oh, come on. That’s Glenn Beck talking. You can’t read the Bible and not know that ‘social justice’ is part of what we’re all about,” <the young man> answered.
“I don’t come to church for this!” shouted <one woman>. “I hate this! I hate this! None of this matters! We need to be nice to each other. I won’t stay in a church where people argue.”
I could go on and on — the argument did for over an hour until people were so mad at each other that some got up and left. Now the leaders of our church are at odds over what it means for us to be a church and I am sorry I ever brought it up. I do not recommend using your “two simple questions.” They cause a lot of harm. We were getting along just fine until we called into question what we do. You can’t push people too hard, and I keep learning that the less I rock the boat the better off we are.
I generally like what you write, but I think you have an unrealistic image of what the church is and what it is for. I think most people want something a lot simpler than what you suppose.
I would make just a few observations (which I have already shared with this gentleman):
- I don’t believe this exercise “caused” anything — it simply revealed something already in place, but hidden. These differences didn’t arise within the meeting. This group has been meeting for some time with all these differences of opinion and expectation firmly in place. This exercise merely brought them to the surface, which,
- I don’t think conflict is necessarily a bad thing. Often, health and healing cannot occur until the boil is lanced and the infection released. Yes, now there is great need for healing — listening and compassion and open dialog, and yes, it will be challenging — but that’s not a bad thing.
- The two questions are FUNDAMENTAL. I think they must be discussed. They strike at the “very heart” of our understanding of our identity and purpose. It is hard to imagine a church being very effective without such understanding. The Vital Signs research I did revealed an incredibly strong correlation between “clarity of shared identity and purpose” and congregational vitality and effectiveness.
- I don’t think a church in decline, struggling with finances, offering just the minimum of ministry and program is “getting along just fine.” I believe that this is part of our problem — allowing “good enough” to be good enough.
- I am not sure that asking such basic questions as “what is the church?” and “what is the church for?” is “pushing people too hard.” If we have lowered the bar so low that we cannot engage in the most basic, simple questions of identity and purpose, we are in BIG trouble. Just because conversations are difficult doesn’t mean they are not exactly the conversations we should be having.
I think this experience perfectly illustrates the “bell curve” I spoke of in A Time For Every Purpose Under Heaven. The challenge to congregational leadership is to create an environment that can meet every person where they are, provide a stable and meaningful relationship with them, and nurture them to continue to grow in their faithfulness and Christian formation.