Thursday, October 22, 2009

What Would My Perfect Church Look Like?

I’ll be the first to admit that I do not attend church every Sunday. In fact, there are many Sundays when I find greater respite and spiritual renewal as I sip on a cup of coffee and think about life, God, and our place in this world. I know, I know, this is not the ideal situation for a believer, for we are certainly given commands to gather for worship with God’s people on the Lord’s Day.

It’s not that I am against church as a whole, or against certain churches. And I am certainly not against worship, for worship is central to our faith. It’s just that I find many congregations to be either too formal and structured in their worship or too informal and touchy-feely in their worship. Honestly, I do prefer the former to the latter, but worship can become so rigid in these settings that we fail to appreciate the emotional aspect of an encounter with the divine.

Of course, I have my own ideas about what church should be like, and my ideas may differ from many folks. Moreover, my ideas may be too utopian to be realistic; but aren’t we all at least looking for the perfect church?

By perfect church, I am not implying perfection as meaning without problems. I don’t avoid church because of problems. Furthermore, I don’t think I will find a church that meets all my expectations. Churches may have divine missions, and many may carry these out well, but churches are still human institutions, and thus they are imperfect.

But what would my church look like, if I could create one? What would be the characteristics of what I would see as a “perfect” church?

In my mind, there are central characteristics that I find essential for a church that is seeking to be what God intends it to be. This list is not exhaustive, as I could probably make some additions to it. Nevertheless, for me, these attributes are most important.

First, since I am speaking about a Christian church, the church would be one that believes Jesus to be an expression of God to humanity and the life and teachings of Jesus as the model for living as humans created in the image of God. The church would be focused on following Jesus as a way of discovering our common humanity and our relationship to God.

This would not mean that we would have to believe that Christianity is the only true religion, and thus the only true way to know God. Indeed, this church would reject this exclusive mentality and embrace the pluralist idea that all religions, including Christianity, are ways of explaining the divine and how humans relate to the divine, and no one religion is truer than the others.

Second, the church I envision would be progressive. I have already defined in two separate articles what I mean when I say I am a progressive Christian, but to summarize my point, a progressive church would see theology not as a stagnant set of doctrines, but as a practice of engaging with the world. A progressive Christian church would be interested in conversations about God, Jesus, and human existence, and how these conversations serve as transformative for faithful living, rather than focusing on repeating and reinforcing theological doctrines.

And in being a progressive congregation, this church would practice a third vital characteristic: critical reflection. A church that is interested in the conversations about God would reflect and think critically and rationally about faith and practice without resorting to providing preconceived theological answers. It would struggle with the hard questions of life and, though seeking to discover answers to those questions, would be satisfied with living with the mysteries of God.

Yet, this church would also appreciate other ways of knowing and explaining the world. Instead of rejecting such ways of knowing, such as science, this church would incorporate these into the conversations about theology and reflect critically on how the two relate.

The congregation I imagine would be inclusive and welcoming. Accepting the diversity that exists in God’s good creation is a way of recognizing the breadth and depth of God’s love. Welcoming folks from all walks of life, whether they are of a different gender, race, nationality, social class, or sexual orientation is a hallmark to a faithful congregation that values that all have access to a life with God and God’s people.

And, my church would value social justice over spiritual salvation. This does not mean that the gospel is not spiritually transforming, for it certainly is. But the church I hope for would see the rule of God as more than a spiritual presence by returning to the political and social justice message of Jesus.

The church I would like to be a part of would proclaim a message so radical that it would see poverty and simplicity as virtues of faithful living, rather than prosperity as that which is blessed by God. It would see both the value of giving to those in need and also the divine mission to call governments to set policies that are just and fair for the poor. It would be a church that sees the Beatitudes not as high ideals we cannot attain, but as a way of life.

These are the characteristics I believe are vital to the “perfect” church. Perhaps I hope for too much. Perhaps I will not ever see a church like this. Most of the problem lies, however, with my own failures at being what I would hope a church to be. Maybe this is why I often avoid church.


Roger Parks said...

The moment is now. For this new church to emerge then in practice we need to begin being that church. So maybe offering the time for reflective dialogue on the sermon; maybe speaking out in conversations about the desire for a different way to think of ethics. In my 40 years of ministry I discover when I give some evidence that I think differently then the mainline presentation of Christianity I have people say "Oh I wasn't crazy after all--someone else has my concerns." And then the dialogue begins.
so lets not wait for some dramatic earth shaking event, but begin to be that new church.

Roger Parks said...

Lets begin being that church now. Lets begin by conversations after a sermon with those lingering after worship. Lets begin by saying out loud what we think are vital issues for a progressive Christian. Lets not let comments like "They don't believe like me so they can't be Christian" go unchallenged.
The progressive congregation will not become a reality by someone elses action but only when we begin to be that church. And every time we witness to a progressive view of God's grace, or a progressive view of the Spirit Filled life we are paving the road for the transformation of the Church today.

C. Drew Smith, Ph.D. said...

Amen, Roger, Amen.

Snowbelt Parson said...

In theory, many of us pastor (or attend) churches just like the one you described. The two problems I see in my own 'theoretically' progressive congregation are 1)the need to cater as well to those people whose faith is genuine and real, but not at all progressive; and 2) we develop systems that are meant to keep the ethos alive but which end up replacing it.

Malcolm said...

Great post - but do I only say that because it reflects my own attitudes - but, I had to stop and endorse Roger P's comment, here's another loud AMEN!