Friday, July 20, 2007

For Whom the Church?

Fr. Jake writes of the Church, in reaching out to those beyond our doors, in his most recent post:

Of course, a relationship with the living God is our intended "product." But in this new consumer mentality, such matters seem often to become secondary to rears in the pew.

Does that seem harsh? Maybe it is. Here's my concern; to what degree can we respond to the "felt needs" of those coming through our doors at the expense of "real needs"? As Ehrich puts it; "Religion, while claiming to be in the 'truth' business, seems more concerned with preserving its franchise through selective interpretations of Scripture, resisting science, seeking political allies, and telling congregants what they want to hear."

Let me say it even more radically. I don't think church has much of anything to do with what people think they "want." I think it has everything to do with offering our praise and thanksgivings to God.

Interestingly, this is a sentiment that is not only being expressed in the more liberal wing of "mainline" denominations, but also on the evangelical side of Christianity. Rick Warren opens his bestseller A Purpose Driven Life by discussing this at the very individual level when he tells the story of being approached by a congregant who felt unmoved by a worship service. Rick's reply, in essence, was that it wasn't about how the congregant felt, but about the offering of worship to God.

At the surface, this seems fair enough, but I am left unsatisfied by Rick's response. Is the Church's worship really only about God?

To push the point further into the questions I wrestle with on a regular basis as a parish priest:

Why should anyone remain in a community where their life in Christ is no longer nurtured or deepened? And how can we claim to serve the living God with that which might be dead?

What I forever find arresting is the wonder of God's grace in that it will find other ways to reach others with or without the Church. We are not indispensable. In that sense, then, it's indeed not about us!

Yet it also seems appropriate here to remember Jesus' words to Peter in John:
Do you love me? . . . Feed my sheep.

That is indeed a major piece of what we're about -- feeding the People of God. The sacraments, including the mystery of the Church, are not for feeding God. They are for feeding the human family. We could say that God, outside of the incarnation, has no need for us -- God being God and all that. But the message of Christianity seems to me is that God desires us still, out of love before time. And so we have the incarnation in Jesus Christ. And Christ tells us that we feed him by feeding one another.

So if building vital programs and offering lively, relevant worship, preaching, and service is what it takes to bring others into the life of Christ, to feed God in our neighbor, then that, too, is the work of the Gospel through the sacramental Body of Christ, the Church. We are bread broken and offered just as much as we have broken bread to give to feed those who are hungry. The complaints we might hear about boring worship, an uninspiring sermon, or lackluster program carry weight. We'd best listen to them and discern carefully what the Spirit is telling us in them. We dismiss them at our peril.

At the same time, we must also recognize, in classic Anglican both-and fashion, that ultimately the Church is not about me and my needs, either. That is, in addition to being sure I am nurtured, another major piece of the Church's call is to invite me to offer my gifts -- to empty myself -- for the greater well-being of God's people. I am not merely a consumer of Church, but someone engaged in the life of community. Otherwise, I am not living into my Christian faith, and I am not truly living into being the creature God has made me to be. The whole Church is ultimately about this, too. The Church does not exist for itself, and is called to empty itself for the sake of the Gospel and the world.

So we indeed have an obligation to reach out to others, or -- to use a metaphor found in the gospels -- to throw out a net, and an attractive one at that. It is not enough simply to say, "It's not about you. It's about God." We must recognize that our service to God is inexorably part of our service to others.

Philip Sheldrake writes:
It is vitally important to recover a spirituality of desire.
Befriending Our Desires, p. 7

Another thought came to mind in response to Fr. Jake's reflection: we must be careful when we go out triumphant to slay the beast of consumerism. The culture of consumerism is not problematic because of human desire. The culture of consumerism is problematic because it often fills us up with falsehoods. It responds to real needs with illusory products: with candy rather than solid food, with emptiness rather than substance; and it nurtures greed rather than addressing the authentic desire that can build up and heal the human family.

Yet desire remains, and authenticity to me is the real concern here. "Rears in the pew" is indeed about greed -- the greed of a self-serving institution (a dead Church). Selling a bill of goods merely to bring people in the door is indeed about falsehood. But nurturing authentic relationship with God in Christ is the mission of the Church. And people have a deep desire for that kind of relationship, and the Church should endeavor in every way meet it, advertise for it, appeal to it, and use (and in some ways redeem by God's grace) every good tool that the culture of consumerism offers us to reach others . . . or be made redundant.

The Book of Common Prayer finds the proper balance over this question in the Catechism:
The Church pursues its mission as it prays and worships, proclaims the Gospel, and promotes justice, peace, and love.
p. 855
Prayer and worship for God. Mission -- proclamation, justice, peace, and love -- to meet the true needs and deepest desires of the people around us with God's abundance. Worship nourishes mission. Mission is a form of true worship. We cannot do one without the other.

Indeed, my long circling here boils down to what has already been said:

Our being here as Church for both God and our neighbor is exactly what the Great Commandment tells us!


Jake said...

Ok, maybe I was being too emphatic!

In hindsight, I might say, " I don't think church is primarily about what people think they "want." I think it is first about offering our praise and thanksgivings to God.

The difference? Our focus is on God. Even the summary of the law points to that. First, love God. It is from our relationship rooted in love with God that we grasp what love really is. Our response to that primary relationship then becomes love of neighbor.

So it is in our worship, or so it seems to me. Our primary focus is on God, not on the felt needs of those who gather to offer their praise and thanksgivings to God.

Connect with God, then build community, in that order. Only then can the result be transformed lives.

But, as the mad one would say, of course I could be wrong.

Paul said...

Excellently put, Richard. Thanks to Jake and you for the discussion.

I think Jake is quite right about what we need versus what we want; and Richard is spot on about the whole picture of meeting our needs in order to transform our wants.

Keep up the good work, both of you!

Anonymous said...

Dear Rev. Richard,
I recently joined a parish who's 10 o'clock high worship service is amateurish and 'muscially" pretentious and I sit through it rather bored at best. That said I really have come to love this small group of people and wouldn't want to upset what they have crafted. The solution is to wake up and go to the 8am low service Its simplicity matches the churchs resources and they seem blisssfully unaware of how wonderful a "product" they have in simple recited common prayer.