Maybe it’s the skeptic in me, but why does community have to be found in churches as we know them? Can’t they, or shouldn’t they, be found in any group of believers? What makes Sunday morning church attendance different? I also wonder if focusing on getting people into churches as we know them really does the message of the Bible justice. Where in the Bible does it say to go to church on Sunday mornings? I know we’re supposed to be disciples of Jesus, we’re supposed to walk humbly, seek justice, and love mercy, but what are the actual directives placed on gatherings of Christians?
When my life was imploding several years ago, when I was deep in the middle of my faith crisis and my depression and my loneliness, the thing that I wanted most a church home.
I couldn’t tell you why.
After all, I had friends that I could talk to about faith-y things, and I did, over coffee in St. Paul. Over margaritas in the Wisconsin Dells. Over tears and swearing, over laughter and Bible verses. And yet, when I think about that time in my life, it felt to me intensely nomadic.
Those faith conversations – as essential and healing as they were, as vital as they became to my own faith journey – felt a little like rest stops on a road trip that kept winding and winding. I felt tired. I wanted to go home, but I didn’t know where that was anymore.
On Sundays, my husband and I would get into our green Honda and visit churches all around the metro. Small churches. Mega churches. Churches across denominations and traditions. All those Sunday mornings, all that wooden ritual, all those empty smiles.
For a while we attended a house church that met in living rooms on Sunday nights over potluck dinner. It felt, for a time, like we’d cracked the code. That by getting away from the normal way of doing church and embarking on this little experimental community, we’d figured it out.
But that little church eventually began to self-destruct, and we crumbled within it. And then we were wandering again, looking again.
I couldn’t have told you at the time why – only that I felt raw and that what I needed was to be folded into some imperfect but honest community. A church. I needed to be carried by the group until I could figure out, again, how to walk on my own.
I asked my pastor-uncle about your question, Drew, as my grasp on “biblical directives” is wobbly at best. He outlined for me the actual, clear guidelines that he sees in Scripture around the point of church, beginning with Hebrews 10:24-25 which instructs Christians to “not forsake assembling together.” The Bible, my uncle said, “just doesn’t have any category for Christians who aren’t in a body. The only example I can think of is Paul in prison, and even there he was acutely aware of and connected to other believers.”
It doesn’t have to be on Sundays (though my pastor-uncle wrote that it’s not an accident that most do. Christians historically have met on the first day of the week in recognition of Christ’s resurrection). It doesn’t have to follow the traditional format. But there do seem to be four guidelines that define the church as the New Testament authors illustrated it. They are as follows:
- Christians are told to regularly observe the Lord’s Supper (or Eucharist) and baptisms – rich sacraments that are meant to connect our hearts to the mystery of Christ through communal experience.
- Christians are instructed to gather for worship, exercise their spiritual gifts for the good of all, and bear witness to the community in the process.
- Preaching is to be part of the rhythm of the local church, in which a speaker who knows the Word of God faithfully feeds it to God’s people.
- There must be a structure of oversight and authority – a safety net of elders who act as shepherds to a particular group of believers.
I don’t know why these particular four things are so important; I don’t know why the Biblical writers used these strokes when they drew the outline of what would eventually become “the local church.”
What I do know is that we were never meant to carry this work of justice and mercy by ourselves, and that “walk humbly” is impossible to do alone. Life is hard and broken and messy, and there is strength in numbers and in that good, hard work of community-making.
That’s what I was feeling, I think, as my husband and I moved from one disappointing church to another, looking for something that I couldn’t name but felt sure must exist somewhere, if only I could find it.
It helps for me to think of the local church as an art form. Like the novel or the sonata, the painting or sonnet. The form itself is conventionally established, traditional, as old as time. It has parameters; guidelines…but that doesn’t mean it’s flat or constrictive. Instead, the limits of the form should provide a kind of grounding mechanism for creative expression.
Where that life and movement and creativity is not present, it’s a failure of the artist…not the form. We don’t blame the artistic form of architecture for soulless strip malls or blame fiction itself for 50 Shades of Grey. Flat art is happens when we allow marketing and popular opinion to drive us rather than that deep well of creativity within us.
And so when you ask if “focusing on getting people into churches as we know them really does the message of the Bible justice,” I know what you’re saying. You’re saying that there has to be more than the “fellowship” time in the foyer, more than the “greet your neighbor” between worship songs, more than sit-stand-sit-listen-leave. I know exactly what you mean. I too, know what it is to crave something real and profound and meaningful…and to walk into a giant church that’s a flat outline with no story to fill it in.
But the problem, I think, with American churches is not the form itself. The problem is a lack of imagination. It’s a failure of each of us to bring our creative best to these places where we gather. It’s an obsession with popular opinion and with marketing. It’s trying to recreate what the church around the corner is doing…instead of allowing the specific gifts and passions of this particular community to well up into art.
We are a generation leaving the local church in droves in search of a “better way” to do community. I get that impulse; I have been on the end of all the leaving.
And yet, I wonder what would happen if we brought our own holy imaginations back to the local church format. What would happen if we chose to pursue justice and mercy here, together, in ways that are creative and authentic to our souls?
What if we allowed ourselves to be formed and shaped by these communities of people who are both beautiful and difficult? Communities made up not just of our friends, but also of those who rub us the wrong way – and in doing so, shape us and sharpen us and teach us how to walk humbly and love more fully?
Of course, community is not just found in churches as we know them. It’s found over coffee and over margaritas; over beer and hymns; at concerts and marathons and spin classes and camping trips and Fantasy Football leagues.
But there is a uniqueness to this particular art form called the local church that I don’t think should be dismissed just because it has been done badly.
Come. Stay. Bring your creative best to a church in your city, your neighborhood, your burb, and let it be the home that you come back to again and again.
Dare to imagine something both old and new, something full of justice and mercy, creativity and beauty. And then help to make it, day after ordinary day.