Monday, January 16, 2006

Why Church?

When I began this blog in November of 2004 I posted an e-mail from a friend who was asking, essentially, "why bother with church at all?" Martin Luther King Day is a perfect opportunity to grapple again with that essential question.
Why consider the necessity of the church on King Day? After all, King was often extremely critical of the church. In his Letter from the Brimingham Jail King wrote that "the judgement of God is upon the church as never before. If the church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an errelevent social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. I am meeting young people every day whose disappointment with the church has risen to outright disgust."
On the other hand, I have always suspected that the Civil Rights Movement, at its best moments, was, precisely, the church at its best. King suggested as much in ending his famous letter when he prophesied that "One day the South will recognize its real heroes. ... They will be the young high school and college students, young ministers of the gospel and a host of their elders courageously and nonviolently sitting-in at lunch counters and willingly going to jail for conscience's sake. One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters they were in reality standing up for the best in the American dream and the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage" -- in other words, they were being the church.
Indeed, as Douglas John Hall notes in Why Christian?, "The first Christians were not thinking in institutional terms at all, they were thinking in terms of a movement" (page 127). Of course, as both the early church and the Civil Rights movment learned, if any movement is to be sustained over time various institutional forms become necessary. The movement gave birth to, among other institutions, the NAACP, the Congress on Racial Equality, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The first Christians, and all of the rest of us for 2,000 years, have built, reformed, reshaped and rebuilt the church in thousands of institutional incarnations.
This King Day comparison is not without incongruencies, of course. The Civil Rights movement was not an entirely faith-based enterprise. It did not requiring creedal statements or confessions, (although it issued manifestos, including many of King's speeches, that are confessional statements). Nevertheless, I think it is a useful comparison because it can help us ask central questions about the church: in what way is it a movement? to the extent that it is a movement, toward what is it moving? what institutional forms, liturgies and traditions serve the direction of the movement? which ones distract from that direction?
Ultimately, these questions help refine our approach to the central question my friend's e-mail raised: is the church necessary and, putting my own, self-interested cards on the table, why does it remain necessary?


Anonymous said...

I think we have to be clear about what we consider "the church." There are many different visions of the church and the correct direction it should take. The vision of Clarendon would not be the vision of many of our sister Presbyterian congregations. We all consider ourselves devoted Christians, yet we have many different visions. As a matter of fact, there probably are different visions of the direction the church should take within our own congregation.

Anonymous said...

I would agree, and I think that, to the extent the church represents "a movement," that is also in the mind of the individual. Each of us has his or her own view of what that movement should be and where it should be moving to.

Brian said...

Forgive me seeming simplistic, or at least naive, (and I am aware that volumes of ecclesiology could could be written -- I've read many myself) but is seems to me that the church is necessary because God's actions in Christ and in the Holy Spirit have made it so.

Bryan said...

After reading this blog, the first thought that came to me was, "what do the words the church mean"? I haven't been able to decide whether it was speaking of a movement of the collective, i.e. the followers of Christ, or discussing the movement of the church as an institution. Perhaps I am way off base by questioning the difference between the two...I'm not sure.
Although each individual church is different in that they have different missions such as feeding the homeless or clothing their community, as a collective they are all working toward the same goal. And that goal seems to be creating a positive force in this world; adding to the light rather than the dark that often times seems so pervasive. They are trying to live as examples to others in a community, a country or a world. Maybe that is one way the church is likened to a movement. It is a collective effort toward some destination and that destination for the church is light in the world.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure why the name donald came up...but it wasn't's Bryan.