by Berry Friesen (February 9, 2016)
With increasingly regularity, I read accounts from people connected to the church who are unable to explain why it is important. “What’s the point of this church business?” they ask.
Typically, these are individuals who self-identify as Christians, affirm the importance of a spiritual dimension to life and report positive experiences of congregational life. So it isn’t that they feel estranged from church; instead, they doubt whether it merits a substantial investment of time, energy and resources.
Various theories try to explain this.
One puts this trend within the framework of the post-Christendom era. Church affiliation used to be an important part of one’s resume, much like a fraternity membership. Now it doesn’t count for much.
Another theory attributes the decline in church affiliation to the triumph of science. As it explains more and more about the world, the space for religious explanations shrinks ever smaller.
Another perceives the emphasis on grace in Christian theology as driving this trend. God is no longer the severe judge, but has become the loving parent whose compassion is without limit. God isn’t scary, in other words, so we no do not need a church to show us the way to win god’s favor.
A fourth explanation pins the blame on the church’s moralism, its cliquishness and its less-than-welcoming stance toward people who don’t fit the standard template.
Each of these four theories has merit. None is likely to be reversed any time soon.
Yes, churches can become less moralistic and more welcoming toward non-standard fits, but the church’s many value judgments cannot easily be hidden away. The Bible is preoccupied with righteousness and justice; pretending otherwise isn’t very convincing.
What to do?
For starters, let’s acknowledge what is usually hidden by the church: at least some of the time, the people of Israel fused their worship of YHWH with an anti-imperial identity. This story begins with the Exodus, continues through the prophets to the great texts of Genesis and Leviticus, and reaches its apex in the poetry of Isaiah.
For those ancient Israelites, being part of the people of YHWH had nothing to do with an afterlife and everything to do their odd, stateless way of living. It was edgy, vulnerable and scary. Instinctively, they knew they needed one another and the care and protection of their god; otherwise, it was folly.
The Christian assemblies that emerged from Peter’s and Paul’s preaching also fused their worship of YHWH with an anti-imperial identity. Because of Jesus, they understood the world to work differently than the way the Roman Empire described it. Again, because of this dissident stance, they readily understood why it made sense to band together in mutually supportive communities.
A similar frame of mind still exists within groups within the broader church today, especially outside of North America, but also in a few places within. Like biblical communities of faith, such groups believe their worship of YHWH entails a different understanding of human history, both past and future. These Christians are convinced that because YHWH intends it, compassion, forgiveness and nonviolent resistance to evil define how the world works; greed, violence and revenge are distortions foisted on us by the imperial mindset. Because this is a difficult stance to maintain, these Christians are eager to join supportive communities.
Perhaps these groups are best described as faith-based communities of resistance. They know YHWH is a politically subversive god—Jesus made that unmistakably clear—yet they worship YHWH still.
Does this sort of “church” interest you? Have a look at the “alternative political communities” referenced on our “links” page. And find a companion or two who will join you in reading If Not Empire, What?
Why bother with church? Once we grasp the consequences of trusting YHWH and his Anointed with our lives, the question won’t be difficult to answer.