I live in that region of the United States that has been dubbed the Bible belt; that southern part of the country where religion is as American as apple pie or as southern as fried chicken. Indeed, I live in a very religious community where there are a plethora of churches, prayers before meals even at non-religious settings, and where you can even go into a local fast food restaurant where they have Bible verses on their receipts, and every to-go bag gets a pamphlet on how to avoid hell and get into heaven.
In the county in which I live, there are over 100 churches of various denominations and various sizes. Although all of them are part of the wider Christian tradition, which is unfortunate for it makes us somewhat monolithic in our religious understanding, this variety of places of Christian worship offers the seeker a selection of Christian theological beliefs, church polity, types of worship, and choices of dress. You really can’t go wrong in finding a house of worship that fits what you want, unless of course you are not Christian. I know there are towns like this all over America.
Yet, despite the plethora of houses of worship in towns across this country, it seems to be that the church is becoming less relevant to the lives of people both within and outside the church. While many stay away from church for various reasons, many do cite the fact that the church is out of touch with their needs, that the church is too dogmatic and strict in its beliefs, and that for the most part it has sided with a particular political agenda. It is probably accurate to say that many folks stay away from church because they just don’t find it worthwhile, and thus they do find excuses to stay away. But the fact of the matter is that these accusations against the church, as well as plenty of others, are often valid.
Moreover, among the folks who faithfully attend church Sunday after Sunday hoping to hear a word from God, are those who leave the place of worship with a great measure of dissatisfaction. Part of this dissatisfaction has to do with the person who comes to worship, whose life is filled with distractions that draw their attention and energy from focusing on God in worship. But much of this disappointment happens because the church has waned in its relevancy to touch people’s lives and to translate the gospel for the needs of today’s world. It is these people that find the church very ineffectual in its proclamation, hiding behind a spiritualism that is based on worship as entertainment and preaching as superficial. At church we are encouraged to allow our emotions to soak in the shallow songs that appear on the screen and the sermons that reinforce our beliefs, but we become uncomfortable when these challenge our status quo existence as people who choose comfort over vulnerability and prosperity over sacrifice.
But more tragically, we are discouraged from asking serious questions about faith and about the issues we face in our world, or we are given pat answers to these questions. In fact, we are encouraged to shut down our minds in church, which leads me to believe that church can often be one of the most intellectually dishonest institutions we can find. As I noted in the previous chapter, church is, as one of my kids said, “The place where you can get an easy “A”.
We cannot equate relevancy with emotional manipulation and easy “A” theology. Folks don’t want to come to church to have their emotions manipulated or to hear rehearsed answers to their questions. People who come to church come there to find meaning for their lives and relationships that are welcoming and embracing, not condescending. And while many churches may claim to be welcoming, the reality is that they are not welcoming those they judge as sinful.
Furthermore, people who come to church don’t seek sermons that are mundane repetitions of outdated theology or unsophisticated platitudes. They want to be challenged by the gospel and how to follow Jesus in faithful discipleship. They want to deal honestly with deep questions about God, humanity, and the issues we face in our world. They want to hear that the gospel can change the world, but not simply through getting people saved, which is far removed from the central message of Jesus. People want to hear, indeed they need to hear, that Jesus’ message is not about heaven or hell, but about living justly and faithfully here in this life.
That being said, there is no doubt that there are faithful and relevant churches all across this nation and this world. Faithfulness and relevance, however, cannot be equated with size. How many members a church has or how many baptisms a church performs is not the measure of faithfulness. In fact, there are many small churches that are probably more faithful to the call of Jesus than those mega-churches who have gone into tremendous debt to build elaborate places of worship and family life centers, but only present a false sense of relevancy.
Is it possible to reframe our understanding of Christian community that is more faithful to the Jesus of the Gospels? I am hopeful that it is. But any move in this direction must call for deep soul searching that deals seriously with the mission to which Jesus called his followers.