Recently, there was an interesting discussion being held by some clergy leaders in the Wisconsin Annual Conference about the “ideal congregation.” This brings to mind old conversations we used to have in New Jersey about “the perfect church.” In both cases, most of the answers revolve around faithful commitment on the part of all people in the congregation to love God, love each other, and serve in the world in Jesus’ name (my own very brief summarization…). There is nothing deeply profound or surprising in the responses — but they do raise a question. If this isn’t what’s happening in our churches, why not? This is the heart and soul of such recent books as “Simple Church” and the 101 other books just like it. Keep it simple. Get back to basics. Strip off all the extraneous layers of crust and crud we have heaped on the church to make it exciting and interesting and get back to what makes it real and meaningful. Help people love God, love each other, and get busy doing God’s will in the world.
God doesn’t much care about the color of our carpets, the quality of our copies, and the dpi resolution of our projectors — yet these (and other equally earth-shattering disagreements) occupy an incredible amount of our time and energy in the church. What Jesus said about care for the poor and marginalized is nowhere near as important as what Mrs. Taylor said about Aunt Edna’s meatloaf. Sharing the grace and peace of God with the lost and lonely takes a back seat to whether God approves of drums in the sanctuary. Stained glass and commemorative plates garner a larger response than the homeless and hungry. We pour money into bricks and mortar while our culture continues to decay. All too often, we let church become all about us.
This actually makes a lot of sense. We like to dwell in the realm of the tangible. Our buildings are substantial. Our sanctuaries are real. We spend time in our churches and we like them to be nice — a testimony to our love of God. God’s house should be beautiful. (And God’s parking lot should be spacious, well-paved, with ample visitor and handicap-accessible spaces…) Our church is our church. The world’s problems are the world’s problems. They are too big, too overwhelming, too far-reaching for us to address. I spend a buck to buy a brick and I see the brick help build the church; I give a buck to feed the hungry and in a short time they are hungry again and my buck is gone. We can only do so much.
But when we have discussions about the ideal congregation or the perfect church, rarely do the comments turn to bricks and mortar, the sanctuary, what curriculum we choose, copier contracts, custodians, or technology. When we talk about the perfect church, we talk about identity and purpose, relationships and engagement. It is all about who we want to be and who we think God wants us to be. It cuts through all the superficial clutter to get down to the core. It takes us to the scary place, where we move from talking about changing to real transformation. And it confronts us with the BIG question: do people really want to change? Do we truly want to be the people God wants us to be, or do we wish God would back off a bit and just let us be who we are?
I realize that for me, church by definition is a place for change. My Christian journey is a journey of learning (change), challenge (change), moving me out of my comfort zones (change), seeking and doing God’s will (change), and personal and spiritual growth (change). Comfort, security, having things my own way — these things fly out the window when I truly give myself over to Christ. That’s the basic, entry-level adjustment (change) we make — not my will but thine be done. However, I wonder how many other people agree with me? I see an awful lost of personal preference turf-battles going on in the church today. I see many people putting their personal “Me” agenda ahead of any shared “We” agenda. I see church less as a community of believers striving for unity and more as a social service institution where people enter in with grand expectations about how they should be treated and served.
In such a time and such a culture, the simple message — love God, love each other, love and serve God’s creation — seems immensely appropriate (even profound). We can spend a huge amount of time and energy discovering all the things we disagree about. We can frame our personal outrages as theological issues and debate until all of God’s creation lies in ruin, if we so choose. Or we can begin to be the perfect church we so hope to obtain. Love is not something that we can merely teach. Love is caught as much as it is taught. We need to become the light in the darkness, the salt in the realm of blandness and decay, the city shining brightly on the hill — by living the love of God and giving people a model of a different way to live in the world.