The number of blog posts that exist on the topic of the changing nature of the church, or the demise of the church, or the church in post-Christendom or the mass exodus of millennials from our pews can be overwhelming. I stopped reading them quite some time ago because, honestly, I find them depressing. And I've been very reluctant to write such a post. In large part because there are tons of them and I don't really think I have much to say on the topic and to a lesser degree, because I'm just not all that worried. The church is changing, sure. But I figure that God pretty much has things under control and freaking out about stuff rarely helps. But today, I got to thinking about idolatry, and more specifically whether or not we have made an idol out of a particular vision of the church.
Idolatry is a subject that enters into my mind rather infrequently. Probably less than it should. But it popped into my mind today and I can't even really explain why. I think a whole bunch of experiences, readings, messages, and ponderings combined with all the fear and complaining I've heard about the church in the past two decades and it all just came together into a messy little bundle of thoughts in my brain and the result was the word idolatry. Let me tell you a short story to explain.
A number of years ago, I was looking for a church and so I walked through the front doors of a lovely little Mennonite congregation and began to meet folks there. They were very friendly and worship was well-crafted and meaningful and yet on the way home, my roommate and I gave each other a look that said, what the heck just happened there? In the midst of all of our conversations we heard apologies. One after another. I'm so sorry we're not...I'm so sorry we don't have...I'm so sorry we are...I'm so sorry we haven't...
I'm not kidding. Every single person we talked to apologized to us because they weren't meeting some magical standard of what a church 'should' be. You name it, they were sorry about it. And I was left wondering how they could possibly have missed all the beauty that was among them, all the richness of their gathered community.
Clearly that congregation had an image of what church 'should' look like and it wasn't who they were. I come across this a lot it seems. Congregations have changed a great deal over the past few decades and they bemoan the fact that there are not enough young people in the pews (even when there are young people sitting right in front of them), that the church is too homogeneous, or the music is too traditional, or too lackluster or they aren't missional enough etc. All of these churches seem to have a particular image of what our churches 'should' look like. But how do we actually know? How can we know? Have we begun to worship a particular vision of the church, rather than paying attention to God's activity around us and listening for the Spirit's invitation to participate, to continually become God's reconciling people?
Now I do believe that The Church is a church for all people. It is intergenerational, it is intercultural, but does that mean that all churches in all moments will fully inhabit those ideals? And can we even fully imagine what the ideal church would be, what God has in mind in terms of the vast and inclusive embrace that is the Kingdom of God? The biblical story gives us some impressions and images, but those too are interpretations we are given by humans, struggling to find ways to articulate what they have seen and heard. Maybe in the midst of our 'idol worship', as we bemoan what we are not, we are completely missing an invitation to something that is right in front of us.
And I wonder if our 'worship' of an ideal church is really a convenient distraction. It allows us to focus on solutions to problems, rather than true relationship building, prayer, meditation, study, Spirit-led listening, and release of our own agenda, all of which take a tremendous amount of patience and work. Rather we worry ourselves in circles and create plans to seek out demographics, building a church that welcomes for the purpose of appearing in the image of an ideal, rather than living into the calling that is unique for each congregation in a particular time and space.
Yes, we do know some things about what the Church is called to be in this world. But we don't have a full and complete blueprint. What we have is a dynamic, every changing, growing, shrinking, body that is constantly in the process of becoming. We have a body of people who are different every day. We have a context that is different every day. And I can't help but think that bemoaning what we are not distracts us from paying attention to who we are and who are are being called to be in each new moment.
Let us not worship an idol/ideal of what we think the church 'should' be, because surely our imaginations will fall hopelessly short of the glorious vision that God is revealing to us in each and every moment. Let us instead embrace our congregations as they are, listening deeply to the Spirit's call, whether that appears to lead us directly toward the ideal or not. Because, perhaps, the journey of our congregations is like walking a Labyrinth, as long as we follow the path that opens before us, we will move ever closer to the center, even in those moments when we feel most distant.