Monday, 21 June 2010

Would Jesus Go to Church?

Once a month we hold an event at Holy Innocents named QT (Question Time). The event is exactly that: speakers, questions from the audience, great live music, wine from Belair Fine Wines, and delicious snacks from Foods From the Edge. Last night the question was whether God/Jesus/you/me/anybody would/should come to church? I was the speaker for the affirmative, and not just the affirmative, but that if Jesus were going to go to church (rather than synagogue) he would go to a traditional church. I made three broad points:

First, many people find church such a disappointment. We love to point the finger or regale a good conspiracy story about the church, the Vatican, bishops, priest, monks and nuns, or the generally hypocritical group of human beings known as church-going Christians. Well, I think the church is a disappointment. We are sinners. (See here for more on this point.)  But remember, Jesus quite liked sinners. When the church forgets it is a company of sinners, Jesus would disapprove. But sinners who seem to be getting it wrong and know it? He'd hang around with us.  What is the alternative anyway? Are those who say they don't come to church because the people who go to church aren't perfect saying that they would come if we were perfect? (Like them?) If you are one of those then I am glad we aren't perfect because you'd be a bigger pain in the arse than we are already.

Furthermore, a number of years ago I suddenly realised that my disappointment in the church's failure was really just a projection of my own disappointment in my own failure. The realisation came through a hard lesson, but the lesson is simply that I'm not the messiah, the church is not the messiah, and Jesus is the messiah. Get over it people.

My second point was that many people protest against the institutionalization of Jesus and his gospel in the church. When we separate out my first point above from this protest there isn't much left except a bit of contemporary institution-bashing. The truth is that without the institution there would be no memory of Jesus left after all this time. No means for the eyewitness accounts to be carried faithfully through the generations. It would have all been lost. A dangerous memory needs an institution. The problem is not the institution as such. The problem is when the institution prevents people from seeing the gospel. The mismatch between institution and gospel is the problem. (Although remember the point about failure I made above.)

My third and final point picked up what I think is perhaps the most common complaint about church: church is boring. Indeed the local baptist church advertises with the catchy, "Do you find church boring?" The idea is that they aren't I think. Well, there are greater sins for a church than being boring. Superficiality is the greater danger, I think. Indeed, following James Alison, I think the liturgy has hit the mark when it feels a little anti-climactic. Alison contrasts what he styles 'Nuremberg' worship (Nuremberg was a preferred site of the Nazis for their mass rallies/liturgies) with 'un-Nuremberg' worship. Nuremberg worship, through building up a sense of victimization, righteous anger and the formal identification of the 'sinners' leads to the great climax of the appearance of the messiah who will save the people. Alison contrasts this with the climax of Christian worship (particularly traditional Eucharist) with the appearance of the true messiah who is 'just there', having already achieved all there is to achieve. No mass hysteria, no invitation to the congregation to feel victimised, rather the congregation knows itself to be forgiven by the victim. No need to whip the crowd into a frenzy. An anti-climax really. This fits nicely with the thesis of James K. A. Smith in his Desiring the Kingdom, where he points out that worship is all about reorienting our desire to God. The reorientation is for our benefit, redirecting our love away from the idols of our times. And worship that shifts our gaze from the shopping plaza, the AFL/Olympics/World Cup theatrics, internet games, etc., will necessarily appear boring. Otherwise it becomes the religious version of bread and circuses. Boring is good. Jesus would approve, and come to church because it is boring. It's meant to be. (At times at least.)


  1. Gwilym Henry-EdwardsTuesday, June 22, 2010

    I think it needs to be pointed out that many soi-disant Christians are not necessarily followers of Christ.
    And church doesn't have to be boring, it simply has to be alive (which may be boring, but it may not, also)

  2. I don't worry about "boring" church, I worry about "badly done and irrelevant" church.

  3. ...and "alienating theology" church...

  4. Hi Chris and Gwilym,

    Badly done is bad. Well done with horrible theology is still bad. Alive, well done, horrible theology is bad. Alive, well done, horrible theology and boring is bad. (because of the 'horrible' bit)

    I think that the adjective 'boring' is worth considering a bit longer. In our current culture, and given the human propensity to amuse ourselves to death, it really sorts out to what or whom our hearts are ordered. I used the word 'boring'to pick this up, but I like 'anti-climax' perhaps better.

    I have in the past tried to use the word 'engaging' when talking about worship. And we would probably all agree. But it doesn't sift out what we really think well enough because we all agree.

    A local revivalist minister was present at QT and clearly disliked what was said. If I had said 'alive' or 'engaging'he could say we were on the same page. We are not on the same page, and he knew it, as I do.


  5. May be a bit off track but
    Following Christ is not about following Christ but a condition of the heart which from observation many christians do not have (the condition of the heart).

  6. Hi Cecil,

    Not off track. I think going to church is crucial in following Jesus. I haven't met anyone who stays on course without being part of the church in some real way.

    But only a state of the heart? If it is a state of heart how do you know that someone isn't living up to it? And what is the 'it' anyway? We might define it as 'love', but how does one love without action? That is, following Jesus?

    A good Anglican principle is that we don't have a window into the souls of other people. But we make the judgement from externals don't we? Which is dangerous, but perhaps has some validity in a narrow set of circumstances. But if it is a matter of judging the inner by the outer (you will know a tree by its fruit, like Jesus said) then following Jesus becomes essential. He gives commands, he shows us how to act, at least in his time and day from which we can extrapolate. So we can't jettison the outer. Even if we don't want to judge others, we still can't jettison the outer because it is one way we can see ourselves and whether we are fooling ourselves about the state of our own heart.


  7. "I think going to church is crucial" It would be to you as you are a minister ....... .

    “I haven't met anyone who stays on course without being part of the church in some real way.” You need new glasses.
    “But only a state of the heart?” boy I would like to say something about that but will hold my piece

    "how do you know that someone isn't living up to it" As I do my very best for people I see people as doing there very best however it may be. It is not for me to judge for as you judge so shall you be judged. We are already the love, light, grace and the truth it is that we just do not live up to out true being, too worried about this or that or being a so called sinner. You can only see in another that which is within your self (there is a poem in my book called FACE YOUR SELF . Creation is just a reflection of your bias and predjuces.

    "A good Anglican principle" Why Anglican principle, does it make an Anglican better than any another religion, why not use Christian principle or is Christianity that stuffed.

    “He gives commands” sorry!, a being of love does not give commands, just makes requests.

    I see people following Jesus being bastards during the week where as I see other people who do not go to church placing their lives on the line for their fellow beings. Now who is the true christian??

    Glasses have started to fog up so must leave it there.