Shoehorned into the pew of this modest church in suburban Boston, listening to glorious hymns sung by an incredible choir in a packed nave, and hearing announcements of fantastic outreach, I had never in my life felt less connected to the church.
I showed up one more time before I disappeared as suddenly as I arrived.
Right now, there are thousands of churches all over the country doing things “right”. People making good liturgy together. They are sharing and welcoming and proclaiming. And giving to their communities and working in their neighborhoods to bring the Kin-dom. And they are struggling.
The money seems to be drying up. The excitement is dissipating. And the sense of the crushing weight of success (or lack there of) is pulling the whole thing flat, like Atlas stumbling under the pressure.
There are many ways the church is in trouble. But this isn’t about that. Not only that.
The church is us.
For as much as we are in an anti-institutional mood, it’s deceptive to think of the church as a monolithic other.
She is us. She isn’t a superstructure other composed of many individual people. It’s the same problem we have with corporate personhood. Like the church can be offended or cry at the birth of a daughter or grieve the loss of a dear companion. The church doesn’t have feelings and thoughts and aspirations and dreams.
The church doesn’t feel. We feel. And we are the church.
The death of the church is the death of us.
We are in pain.
I remember the moment I quit. I was a freshman at Alma College. And that Sunday I jsut couldn’t bring myself to get up, put on a nice shirt, maybe a tie, and drag myself down the road to the nice Episcopal Church. They invited me. I had gone several times before.
To go the church which cared for me years earlier when I had passed out one morning when visiting my older sister.
The church which sent me a welcome bag when I started and welcomed me in person whenever I came.
This same church which was served by the Rev. Bill Boli, who preached about social justice and a Jesus I could totally get behind.
It isn’t that I didn’t feel wanted by some social institution. It’s that the whole gambit of church wasn’t enough.
For me, it took Bible Study to get me interested. And to get me back, it took finding a people who were desperate, who needed to be in church. People like me.
It took knowing and acknowledging the pain. And not expecting the church to wave a magic wand to make it go away.
We can find God in other places.
The place I sought God was music. It is the only explanation I have for falling so hard for discordant music. I’d listen to The Jesus and Mary Chain and Sonic Youth in my dorm room as loud as was acceptable and just stared at the homework I was supposed to be doing. It hurt to hand Darklands and Barbed Wire Kisses back to Dave because I was never going to be done with them.
But it was Loveless that was the ballgame. Game, set, match. I had found it. My Bloody Valentine’s opus of sheer whitewall guitar sound, swirling and dominating and reflecting the pain and confusion in my soul. And rising above the heavy churning and thumping, like smoke or balloons, were the gossymer vocals of Bilinda Butcher.
I felt all the feels.
All of them. All my pain and anger and frustration and hope and thanksgiving and love.
Other songs, other band’s brought out the divine in my dorm room. And I found it again with Hooverphonic’s “Eden” which made me sense it all at once. The human condition, the divine struggle, the hope and opportunity.
Maybe music doesn’t do this for you, or maybe it isn’t shoegazing and trip-hop. Classical or jazz might be your bag. Or maybe it’s a Neil Young sing along with friends that does it. Or maybe skanking or moshing or jumping around to the Ramones or Op Ivy.
We talk about finding God in creation. And God is totally there. Finding God in creation and in creative works is essential to our sanity. And our belief. I love it. And if I were to prescribe joy to you, that’s where I’d send you. To find it in creation and inspiration.
And yet Jesus names two parts to our work.
1. Love God. 2. Love Neighbor.
The struggle we have in the West is that we keep talking about matters of faith as oppositional concepts. We take our Platonic dualism to all our junk. Everything is either / or. Always two. And always cast as opposites against each other.
So we talk about church the same way. We shoehorn it into this institutional mindset, monolithic and never changing.
And then we see faith as this personal thing about belief. Singular and unrelated to the institution.
Then we pit them against each other in a cage match until one submits, is KO’d or gets carried away in a bodybag.
Every time I say that Christian faith involves other people; that it requires teamwork and community; I am attacked. Told I don’t know. Or that people are fleeing abuse. Or that they find God in the woods or when they’re fishing.
And I say “Great! I’m glad!”
I also say “But these things aren’t mutually exclusive.”
And “I’m saying you can find the holy in these virtual spaces as well.”
Jesus sent his apostles out in pairs.
Like Moses and Aaron, Jesus sent the apostles to all the nations in pairs so that none would go it alone.
And those apostles, after the death and resurrection of Jesus, followed Jesus’s instruction to get together to eat.
We all need other people and when we come together, we become the church.
It isn’t the building. And a community which gathers every Sunday at a set time and place isn’t the only expression of church.
Church is us.
We are church. When we come together with one another. In love.
You don’t have to go to church to go to church.
But if you’re never the church, it’s hard to follow Jesus. Because you might find him in the woods or the concert hall. Though to follow him, you have to go to where other people are at. In the real world or the virtual. To practice what he preaches requires interacting with other human creatures.
Is Church as we currently define it necessary? That’s debatable.
But church as the followers of Christ gathering in worship, formation, and mission? That’s eternal.
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This is from a series on Choices. We have plenty more choices to make!