“When Paul is doing what we call theology, the exploration of God…this is what The Church has to be doing, if that central symbol–the united people of God–is going to stand up. And if you imagine a church that has stopped doing theology, then you are imagining a church which is about to split.”
–NT Wright on The Homebrewed Christianity Podcast
“There are times when we are absolutely nowhere.” –Sam Seaborn on The West Wing
The last week has proven to be a huge one for theology in popular conversation. That is, if you’re me, looking at American websites, news casts, podcasts, and TV Shows. My week started with news of the completely tragic shooting death of a young woman and her son in Mattapan, a neighborhood in Boston. At their funeral, Baptist Church Bishop John Borders said, “God has had enough. We have to take our city back. Our preachers have to stop preaching irrelevant messages.” The recent suicides and violent attacks against young members of the GLBT community should be constant reminders that our faith has been, and is currently being, used to legitimize and empower the exclusion and elimination of God’s Beloved Children. Even the TV seemed to blow up with theological challenges last week as Glee, Modern Family, and Community ALL simultaneously went crunchy peanut butter thick into God talk. Well, I shouldn’t say that, actually, because none of them had particularly advanced perspectives on the matter, it all boiled down to, “People believe whatever they want.” And that’s fine for TV. Not OK for people of faith, though.
We know we have work to do in the American Christian churches, but I can’t help but think we have yet to make that work about Theology, which–as NT Wright points out, and as Bishop Borders laments, and as TV reveals–is THE thing that makes the church, The Church. We seem to be focused on…something else.
I saw this video over at the UCC Southwest Conference website. I found it humerous and informative.
This is the issue for American churches, and I think this video captures it really beautifully. Instead of living counter culturally, instead of putting faith and God at the center of our communal lives, we have adopted the values and attitude of the wider capitalist culture. So instead of centering our identity around our faith, our theological understanding, we have centered it around capitalist concerns; how many members do we have, and how much money can we make, and how many fancy, flashy things can we do and have with that money?
I am convinced that if we focus more of our attention on our theological work, rather than preserving the buildings and institutions that are in decline, then we wouldn’t just be BETTER people of faith, I think we would be happier as well. But what does this look like? The Starbucks video makes the point, but it doesn’t offer alternatives. What is the alternative to doing church the way we do it?
German churches offer an interesting dynamic for reflection, as an in to this alternative thinking. German churches are primarily funded by the government. When you move somewhere in Germany, you fill out a bunch of things, and one of the things you fill out is what denomination you belong to (Catholic, Lutheran, United). Whatever box you tick, the church nearest you gets a portion of your taxes. So German Christians are not called upon to financially support their church really; they pay taxes, and those go towards paying for the building and the pastor. They take up special collections for Youth work and major projects like renovating the sanctuary, things like that. But churches don’t depend on their members to meet their financial needs. How much this really influences the life and times of modern German Christians, and their Church, is impossible for me to say right now. BUT, I have already noticed some attractive qualities of the German Church that I think American churches would have a better handle on if we took money and capitalist thought out of the equation. What if we put theology at the heart of our work?
*What if the church building was, first and foremost, a sanctuary for any and all who need it? What if our buildings were open to folks so they could walk in from the street, and sit in quiet meditation for as long as they wanted, without anyone from the church trying to sell them something? What if our doors were truly open to all?
I recently visited Pauluskirche, which is a beautiful church in the city center of Hamm, Germany. There’s a rule that no building can be taller than the church, so you can see Pauluskirche’s green steeple from a good way off. You just keep walking towards the steeple, and you, eventually find the church. When you do find it, there is a sign outside that says the church is open and you are welcome to come in.
When you walk in, your breath is slightly taken away by the simple, powerful aesthetic of the place, and by the organ music that seems to be playing only for you (I’ve been there multiple times now, and what I discovered is that Thursday is the organist’s rehearsal day, so if you go from 11-1 on Thursdays you get a free concert…awesome!). I have sat in this church for a couple hours now, walking around, reading, reflecting, listening to the music. Not once has anyone from the church shown up to interrupt or engage me.
*What if we provided art and visuals for guests to enjoy, instead of forcing them mission statements and words, allowing them to go on a spiritual journey with a piece of art? What if sanctuaries became known as places to explore the inner life through art and beauty? What if we stop selling and allow God some room to work with and breathe on our questioning brothers and sisters?
The window in front was simple, captivating. The stained-glass windows I have seen in German churches have made an impact on me. They have introduced me to this whole other level of education and exploration of faith and tradition. And along with the window in Pauluskirche, there is also this…I don’t know, banner or tapestry, that interacts with the cross. It offers an image that says what this church believes, what is at the center of their faith and their worship, but it also allows me to take responsibility for my own journey, to make sense of what I am seeing, to challenge and question in ways that I don’t think I could if I were having a conversation with a pastor or member of the church. I have lost track of time sitting with this image and feeling it shape and move me.
*What if we provided spaces that indicate who and what we value?
Just to the left of the front door is an area with coloring books and quiet toys, telling me immediately that, this isn’t simply a place I can bring kids, but it is a place where Children are provided a place to worship. It is a cozy corner of the sanctuary that feels like it’s “just for kids,” but it is clear by the things available in this space that kids are invited into worship in fun, age-appropriate ways.
And, similarly, there is a sacred space set up just to the right of the alter, reserved for silent prayer and scripture reflection. It is an area that remains set up during worship. So if you go there on a weekday, it is a space for you and a small group to converse, reflect, and pray together; and if you are there on a Sunday, you see that more is required for the life of prayer than one hour a week. Even as you collectively gather for worship, you are reminded that faith is a journey towards personal responsibility within community. And the church is providing A space, but not the ONLY space where that work is done.
*What if 100 percent of the money we collect in worship went to people and causes outside of the church?
When I went back to Pauluskirche for worship, my first worship experience in Germany, I discovered that every week the church designates an organization to support and they take up an offering. Because the church does not rely on its members for financial support, 100% of the offering goes toward the designated organization. There is something powerful about entering into such a magnificent space, enjoying gorgeous music, reaching new places inside my own heart…and experiencing the act of offering something of myself to the world OUTSIDE this space. I would not have guessed that would matter to me, as offering is offering; but it really does feel magical. Come in, commune, pray, sing, be still, and leave us nothing but a lit candle and a happy heart.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “The church is only the church when it exists for others.” If we worry too much with sustaining our buildings and infrastructures, at the cost of doing justice, speaking for the voiceless, and living in service of others, then we cease to be the church. Maybe there is something not just poetic, but also instructive in the idea that the harder we try to market ourselves, the more the church falls into decline. When we talk about saving the church…what are we talking about? When we talk about God…what are we talking about? When we talk about justice…what are we talking about? What if we answered these questions for ourselves and lived out of those answers? Sometimes we just don’t want to go there because to honestly answer them would mean…changing everything about how we live. So…what if we did?