What’s church for, anyway?

I’ve been following along with a really interesting conversation on a couple different blogs lately that feeds into some stuff that’s been floating around in my head lately. Namely:

  • What’s church for?
  • Why do people go to church?
  • What role should churches and religious institutions and communities play in the world?
  • Do people of faith live out their spiritual or religious ideas/beliefs/inclinations in the world? Should they? How? Why? Why not?

United Theological Seminary, New Brighton, MN

These questions HAVE been on my mind lately, but they acquire a completely different feel when voiced in the context of the conversation happening on the blogs I mentioned above. Specifically, the conversation is around whether Solomon’s Porch, an emerging Christian church in Minneapolis, which is also queer-friendly (which, I think it should be said, I only know through following this conversation online), should produce and make public some kind of statement about being something like “open and affirming” (to use my UCC lingo) to queer folks.

The conversation is a lot more complicated than that, but since it’s already there for your reading pleasure, I’m not going to go to any greater lengths to describe it. I will, however, quote part of the comment I posted:

Solomon’s Porch does not exist in a vacuum, and all kinds of -isms are rampant in our world, heterosexism obviously being one of them. My question is this: does Solomon’s Porch exist only to be the church for its insular community, or does it also wish to be a Church for the larger world? Does it want to have a public face, or are its positions only available to the people who attend church there? And perhaps more broadly: is the Church/are Christians called to change the world? And more importantly, how?

Recently I re-read the gospel of Luke, and I was *shocked* to re-remember just how RADICAL Jesus is. He is constantly going against the grain of (Roman, pharisaic) society–standing for the oppressed, etc–and he is PUBLIC about it. Explicitly so. I guess he never issued a hard-copy, political statement, but his followers sure did: that’s how we have the Gospels. So what does that mean for contemporary followers of Jesus? Is it enough to support only the queer people who come through the doors of our congregations? But what about those who never find the Porch?

And does the Porch have a responsibility to be a leader in the progressive evangelical world in not only welcoming queer people into the pews, but actually *saying* something about it too? How else are the rest of us, outside your community, supposed to know what “welcoming everyone” means? Doesn’t almost every Christian church use those same words?

If we lived in a perfect world we wouldn’t need flags or rainbows or parades. Perhaps the community in the Porch doesn’t need to have a “Statement on LGBTQ Issues” — but I would argue that it desperately needs to be Public and Explicit about its position on queer folks. There is power in your church, and staying publicly silent IS making a statement. The Porch community may not need it, but queer people who live outside your community do.

A couple of weeks ago I got into a discussion with a friend about the degree to which people are political actors: does the way we dress, the way we look, the way we act, send out political messages to others, REGARDLESS of our intent? My answer to that is yes. We can’t control the way we are perceived, but we can understand and be conscious that all of us enter into the world each day as political actors, whether we like it or not. People WILL read us a certain way, even if they themselves also have a responsibility to look past the surface. The question at hand is: is that important to you? And if so, what are you going to do about it?

I think the question is the same for religious institutions, religious churches, and spiritual communities alike, and I think it’s where the Emerging Church movement kind of has things backward. I get that it’s about transcending modernist labels and identity politics, but I would argue that an Emerging Church is no less of a political actor than other churches,whether they like it or not.. Transcendence of identities might happen within a community of one or two hundred people, but to anyone else OUTSIDE the emerging movement, the community looks no different than any other. So what should they do about it? Well I would argue, of course, that for this reason, emerging churches, too, need to be intentional and publicly clear about how and where they place themselves in the world.

So, to return to the original set of questions that I asked:

  • What’s church for?
  • Why do people go to church?
  • What role should churches and religious institutions and communities play in the world?
  • Do people of faith live out their spiritual or religious ideas/beliefs/inclinations in the world? Should they? How? Why? Why not?

The way we answer these questions informs how we try to solve the above conversation. My vision of church begins as a place of radical inclusion, so much so that I do not just welcome the Other, but that I am the Other, and where the Other is Me. We do not need to reach out our hands to help our neighbors, because we ARE our neighbors, connected through a common humanity. In this kind of construct, we don’t have the privilege to “struggle” with an “issue”. I am compelled to name the injustice the Other suffers because for that person to suffer means I suffer too.

In my vision of church, participants not only “walk the walk” in their personal lives, but also bind themselves together to create a collective power in order to combat systemic injustice. Jesus didn’t live in a vacuum: the parables he taught, the people he embraced, and the illnesses he healed made social commentaries upon the world around him. He upset people in power, and was killed because of it. If we really live in the model that Jesus set, then we are also called to fight the abuses of power in our world. But first we actually need to NAME what is wrong with the way things are, and envision what a better world might look like, especially if we expect things to change.

This video is an example of a place that I think does a good job at least trying to be a place of radical inclusion, even if not always perfectly: Union Theological Seminary. The video is long, but even watching a few minutes will give you a sense of what I’m thinking about.

I know I’m throwing out some Big Talk, and I can’t profess that either my congregation or my life lives up to my radical vision of what I’d wish for the church to be in this world. But one has to start somewhere. This is the first time I’ve tried to put together something constructive (as opposed to deconstructive) about what I think the church should be, and it does reflect what might be emerging as my personal theology. So please: give me your feedback, your pushback , your questions, your thoughts. But know that I’m not offering these statements in a spirit of ultimate truth. I’m just trying some of this stuff on, and am going to continue to hone and build upon these ideas. Help me figure out if it fits, yah?

10 Comments on “What’s church for, anyway?”

  1. Allison:

    Don’t worry; everyone engages in Big Talk. And here we have some questions worth Talking Big about.

    1) What is church for? Church is the best society can do when it comes time to face the big problems–hunger, deprivation, injustice, prejudice, chronic illness, death. Churches are too comfortable, really, to accommodate the pain and isolation that attend serious problems (just look at the picture of UTC above), but at least they are publicly committed to trying to help, and they take as their role model one of history’s great radicals.

    Sadly, churches have historically sidestepped the toughest questions: slavery, discrimination, homophobia, poverty, political corruption, and the failings of marriage. This may be the price they pay for being permitted to operate publicly, so it is wise to keep some psychological distance when in church.

    2) Why do people go to church? Almost nobody goes to truly imitate jesus, or we would have a lot of churchgoers dead before their 35th birthday. Reassurance, community, politics, hearing a good sermon–I guess these are among the chief reasons. If you want to look for people who are genuinely inspired by what jesus did, look for attenders in tough situations–unemployed, socially crippled w/ personality defects, physically unattractive, sick or physically crippled. Queers by definition are problematic, and if you attend a white church (like most white people do) then black people are rare and isolated departures from the norm. You can almost always bet that the congregation’s expenses are not being borne by such as these.

    3) What should the role of churches be? Well, churches are havens for people who tend to conform…many folks attend because their parents went or because it will help their cause in the world of business and politics. As such, churches are almost always the bedrock of resistance to positive and radical change. Many people believe reflexively, and they are not amused by tough and unexpected questions concerning the denomination’s doctrines or policies.

    Jesus saw all of this at work in his own time, of course. If we have anything at all to lose, we are most likely supremely uninterested in upsetting the boat. Only the outcasts are willing to man the barricades, because only the outcasts will benefit immediately and indisputably from change. But these problems notwithstanding, jesus crisscrossed palestine looking for supporters and building networks.
    (and, dare i say it, learning?)

    4) Should churchgoers live out their beliefs? It’s up to each of us to decide how much we are willing to sacrifice when fighting for a particular cause. Nobody can reasonably expect to receive any direct rewards for doing what’s right but not contenanced. In church, as elsewhere, the struggle for justice and truth are subterreanean, a strong, at times hard to recognize but ultimately unstoppable, current flowing beneath our feet. RT

  2. Chris says:

    I think these are really good questions and this is a debate that is worth having. I also think it’s great to be constructive.

    I can’t say that I have it all figured out because I’m still sorting through these issues as well.

    I, of course, start from a much different place than you do.

    When I read your post the first thing I thought about was the Anglican Communion and the deep and growing division in that Christian church. Last year Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams gave his take on the situation among the Anglicans. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2009/jul/27/rowan-williams-anglican-communion
    I’m not Anglican, but I recognize the difficulty that Williams has in trying to keep the communion together. His remarks are worth thinking over. He makes it clear that any denigration of the humanity of LGBTQ people is unChristian, but he gives a much more nuanced answer than just that, one that focuses on what a Christian communion is.

    The second thing that came to mind for me was my own experience as a somewhat conservative Christian in an Ivy League humanities department. There the tables were turned. I was the minority, and I was made to feel it. Even though I never expressed hate towards anyone, I was labeled…ostracized even. And even though I was willing to question my beliefs and engage in honest conversation with anyone who would have approached me, only one or two ever did. The rest just judged me and made assumptions about who I was and what I stood for. I was excluded and marginalized. Needless to say, I found this quite hypocritical coming from an almost majority queer department. I assumed queer theory and Christianity shared the embrace of the different–no matter where that difference was to be found. Eventually I needed a break. So I left the department and the country. I still don’t know if I want to go back.

    I don’t think this dynamic is all that different from any other minority-become-majority in history. The Puritans, once a minority in England, persecuted other Christian groups once they were in charge in New England. In Orwell’s “Animal Farm” the pigs became like humans. That was an obvious reference to how the Communist Party just replaced the royal and bourgeois oppressors of time gone by. The oppressed becomes the oppressor. It’s the way humankind works.

    Now, as a Christian, I see Jesus’ message of redemption and reconciliation flying in the face of this logic. And I now know that despite some similarities, contemporary queer theory and Christianity part ways at some point. Somehow Jesus’ death (I still don’t really understand how or why but I trust it in faith) allowed us to be reconciled to God and to our fellow human beings, that means everyone: gay, straight, bi, communist, capitalist, Democat, Republican… Even though I was very hurt by what happened in my case, I must still love those people. In fact, if I continue in academia, I must work with them. And for those who have experienced the hate of homophobia they must also try to love those who have hated them. I don’t diminish their experience. I think theirs is much harder. I have a taste of what it is like, and it’s not pretty.

    A question I have is: Is the church big enough for homophobes and LGBTQ folks?

    Progressives continually tell me that homophobia is rampant in the United States and particularly in conservative churches. Some of them come from such backgrounds. So I guess I trust them. But in the conservative churches I have attended, I have not seen hate. During pastoral care, the message may be different, but at a church service and in a small group, the potluck, I have not seen distinctions made. We are to love all, and the conservative Christians I know believe that whole-heartedly.

    They aren’t homophobes, the way I understand the word. I don’t think any true Christian can be. So rephrasing the question, is the church big enough for LGBTQ folks and those with traditional views of sexual morality?

    Another issue at play here I think is sectarianism. Paul calls us to be one in Christ. We Americans have done an awful job, even before we got to this issue. Just look how many denominations are out there. What happens when people try to throw up barriers to unity in a church? It can happen from a homophobic standpoint, I know. But as I’ve said, I haven’t seen it. I also think it can happen from the other end. Is creating another clique and more sectarian difference what we want? I come from a place where people segregate themselves from other Christians because of silly things like whether or not the King James Bible is used. There are much more serious issues, but which ones are really worth dividing a Christian communion? A lot less than actually have in my opinion. As Christians I think we should be involved in politics, but I have seen first hand what happens when Christians ally themselves too closely with one political party or movement. And I don’t think that is what the church is fundamentally about, even if we should be involved in such issues.

    Beyond that, I’ll only try to answer one of your questions.

    What’s church for?
    I believe the church is a group of individuals who seek reconciliation with God and with all other humans, believing that Jesus’ life provided an example and that his death provided the means. They gather together to encourage one other in their individual struggles and to look forward in hope to the time when all will be set right and justice and reconciliation will come. It won’t be in our lifetimes, and so that makes our own lives tragic in many ways. But we have faith and hope that God will use the way we love others to make things at least a little bit better during our lifetimes and that ultimately all will be set right.

    I believe that is the gospel message, and I believe there is room in there for everyone. I would like to think that what distinguishes me from my queer colleagues is that after what they have done I try to love them back because I am a Christian.

  3. Alison says:

    Wow. You guys are serious folk! Thanks so much for responding so thoughtfully.

    @Music&Meaning. Because you kept with my structure, I think it’s easiest for me to reply to you in kind:

    Regarding your response to #1) You’ve said that churches have historically sidestepped the toughest problems, but I would be careful about using such inclusive language there. MANY churches may have sidestepped the toughest problems, but I think when you look for them, you can find churches at the forefront of those issues, such as the Quakers working toward the abolition of slavery. Similarly, the UCC has been ordaining GLBT folks for 38 years–no small feat when compared to the other mainstream Protestant denominations. But, at the same time, I agree with you. Institutions are often slow to act, and churches themselves have traditions to preserve. This makes them more often than not conservative, which can really be challenging for me sometimes.

    And to # 3) Yikes, churches as havens for people who conform? I have to disagree with you there, but my argument is similar to my response above. YES in many churches people go with the flow. But we’re selling humanity short if we think that people don’t consciously think about their own reasons for attending church. As for what I think the role of church should be… I don’t think I’ve landed on that one yet. Still working it out.

    Thanks for reading and responding!

    @Chris. Thanks for your comments! I want to give them full thought and have time and energy to respond, but it’s getting too close to bedtime, I fear. I’ll have more energy tomorrow–check back. :)

  4. Alison:

    Thank you for steering me back to a more balanced view about the church; it was late at night when I wrote, too late to have tried to express myself on such a complex topic.

    I agree with you that some folks with the churches have always been at the forefront of society’s efforts to solve intractable problems. I’ve been a Quaker now for some years and, yes, we’re proud of the work we did with the underground railroad and the early opposition to slavery offered by Quakers such as Benjamin Lay. I recently finished a fine book on John Brown, however, “Patriotic Treason,” which pointed out that the purpose of the underground railroad was to move blacks out of the country; slaves got their freedom, but not in the United States, and most people who opposed slavery also believed that blacks were their social inferiors. As a final note on the topic, I’ll add that in the last year, my meeting has acquired its first black attender.

    And certainly you are right about conformity: we are all conformers, that’s why we have culture. Maxine Kumin, a favorite poet of mine, titled one of her books, “Swimming Out of the Collective Unconscious.” Maybe the role of churches should be to encourage people in this endeavor.

    Thanks for asking such difficult questions, and good luck in your search for understanding. RT

  5. Chris:

    Thank you for your comments. As someone who is bisexual, I’ve encountered some fierce opposition, even in the liberal churches that I’ve belonged to. But some of that opposition is just the result of those people’s discomfort with the issues I raised, issues that affect their own lives (and relationships). Admitting the truth and changing in response to it is one of the hardest things an adult can do.

    And I’m sorry to hear about the marginalization you endured in the humanities department. Once again, as someone who is bi, I’ve run into a lot of “fish or cut bait” from the queer community generally, and as a result, in recent years I’ve kept a very low profile about my sexuality. Maybe it’s time to be more open.

    I should also say that I’m impressed by your own openness and struggle to love everyone; I have been too quick to judge folks who are more conservative than I am on religious issues. Good luck! RT

  6. Alison says:

    @RT: Thanks again for your comments. I’m happy to have a new Quaker friend!

    @Chris: Okay, so much to address here, and I’m glad I didn’t try to to do it right before bed last night.

    Thanks for sharing your story about grad school. It helps to know where you’re coming from, and I think the left often does have a huge plank in our eye, unwilling to listen to the wisdom the other side(s) has to share. We all need to be reminded of the call toward right relationship and reconciliation. You might be interested in my pastor’s recent blog post on the subject: http://firstchurchmn.wordpress.com/2010/10/21/reconciliation/

    First of all, I don’t think that it is said often enough in Christian churches/communities that ALL individuals at some point or another are victims of oppression, and we are ALL at some point or another oppressors. Certainly there’s a continuum upon which we all fall somewhere, but to reference my Lutheran upbringing, I like Martin Luther’s construct that we are all sinners and all saints. In general, the emerging movement seems afraid of engaging in politics–and I understand why they are–but I think what’s being overlooked is the fact that we all engage in politics all the time. To NOT have a political statement IS a political statement. (And, being publicly political doesn’t have to mean being partisan.)

    I also think a big tension that’s emerging here is the appeal toward unity versus the “doing what’s right” argument (not to purport at ALL that the two are mutually exclusive). You referenced the Anglican bishop’s statement above; this also reminds me of the ELCA’s struggle in the summer of 2009 over whether or not to ordain GLBTQ clergy who were also not celibate. Eventually, they decided that individual congregations/synods can make that decision for themselves–so, they went halfway. Some churches left the ELCA because they thought ordaining any queer person at all would be wrong. Others in the denomination didn’t think it went far enough.

    Ultimately, here’s the thing I think I see: The folks who ask for unity are often the folks who have privilege, and that’s why it makes me suspicious. For a straight person in the ELCA, s/he might be worried about the unity of the church because s/he want the ELCA to remain the ELCA. But for the queer person, the difference is whether or not s/he is allowed to participate as a full member in the community, so it makes sense that her/his appeal for unity is secondary. Full belonging matters more.

    Is the church big enough for LGBTQ folks AND for those with traditional views of sexual morality? That depends. Your experience of Conservative Christian churches not being homophobic is probably not the same as how a queer person would experience the same church. It’s just not enough to say “we love gays” and try to treat them with respect. It’s about affirmation and full inclusion in all parts of the life of the church; and, it’s about the absence of conversation on whether or not “their lifestyle” is a “sin.” Without full inclusion, it might not necessarily be homophobia, but it is a heterosexist construct. Queer folks might recognize the church people’s good intentions. But it’s still not justice.

    You also spoke about the shift of power, which makes the oppressed the oppressor, and how Jesus’ message of redemption and reconciliation flies in the face of systems of power and oppression. Yes, that’s true. But that’s exactly why I’m just not convinced that Jesus would appeal to unity at the cost of justice.

    So, to return to the question: What’s church for? Your answer to the question rings true. But of course, I would add to it: then what does that group of individuals DO in the world? Is there a larger call for them to work together toward the kin-dom in the here and now? If so, what does that look like?

  7. Chris says:

    So I thought I had signed up for email notification, but apparently I didn’t. My apologies for the late reply.

    Thanks to both Rachel and Alison for your thoughts and encouragement.

    Before I start I just want to share a little conversation I had with my pastor at my church in West Philadelphia. If you don’t know, West Philadelphia is home to both the rich, elite University of Pennsylvania and also a fairly impoverished African-American population. Each year gentrification pushes further west out from the university. And this…well you know the dynamic; it exists in many American cities.

    I really like my church in Philly, but I couldn’t help but notice that it attracted almost exclusively the well-educated, mainly white and Asian West Philadelphians associated in some way with the university and not with the older African-American population. So I raised the issue with my pastor. His answer troubled me a little bit. He said that when you choose a worship style, a form of liturgy and all the other trappings of worship and community, you automatically make yourself more attractive for some and less attractive for others. You make a determination of who you are primarily going to serve. Then you have to partner with other churches and organizations if you want to go beyond that. I didn’t like this answer and I still don’t. I’d like to see everyone in West Philly come together in real community, and the church seems like the place where that should happen. Just like you don’t seem to like the answers you’re getting, Alison. However, all I can say is that it is realistic.

    In the Catholic tradition, there is still a community that cuts across class and racial divisions, but in most other churches, things are pretty segregated. Pentecostals and charismatics appeal more to lower classes and ethnic minorities, not so much to the well-educated, whiter crowd. That’s how modernity (post-modernity) is. It’s fragmented. Just like music. Back in the day everyone listened to the Beatles–they were THE group. Now there’s a “category for every song” (if you didn’t catch the Blue October reference, then that just further goes to prove my point).

    Alison, your concern seems to be mainly that those arguing for tradition and unity are often (almost always?) on the side of the oppressor. You want to take a stand. You want to remake the world into a new society of peace and love. And you would like to do it now if at all possible.

    I won’t argue that those standing for tradition and unity have been beyond reproach. Because they’re not. But I think my viewpoint differs from yours in at least two main points: the importance of tradition and the danger of utopian thinking.

    The first is the importance of tradition. I’m sort of a late-comer to this appreciation of tradition. In many evangelical churches, there is no knowledge of Christianity between the disciples and C.S. Lewis (or perhaps if you’re lucky, John Calvin or Martin Luther). This is a problem. It allows them to say they are pursuing “Biblical Christianity” when in fact they are following their own ungrounded, cultural expression of what they perceive the early church to be. The entire weight of the Christian tradition means nothing to them, and this is a problem. Because the church has struggled with many difficult issues over the centuries with varying success, but we can learn from failures and successes all the same. In this sense, tradition actually has a moderating influence. For you, on the more radical end of things, it has the opposite effect of seeming glacier slow.

    But this is where my conservative tendencies kick in. Every time that humans try to remake the world, they inevitably create more problems that they didn’t foresee. They enable things that never could have happened in the old tradition–the French threw off an inept and decadent royal line, but that led to mass slaughter and later a dictator and emperor. The English, in contrast, moved by slow and steady reforms and avoided both the mass slaughter and the dictatorship. Both are now social democracies with a strong rule of law tradition, but neither is a paradise of egalitarianism. Which path do you prefer to get to that less-than-perfect end result?

    In my first post I tried to sum up this sentiment in reference to the purpose of the church:

    For me this is the key part of Christianity that differentiates it from utopian political movements like communism. We reconcile ourselves to the tragedy of pain and suffering and injustice in this world because we cannot eradicate it. It doesn’t stop us from working, from being political (but not partisan–a distinction of yours which I like). But ultimately we put true justice in the hands of God and leave it there. The moment we humans have the power to definitively reform society as we please is a sad day for humankind, particularly for those who come after and have no say at all. No human generation is wise enough to know what is best for all at all times. That’s why tradition (and the unity that comes with it) is important. It keeps things together and helps us avoid the worst excesses of conservative and radical anti-traditionalism.

    Another thing that comes with it is humility. I think Rachel expresses it very well when she recounts what happened to the individual curious about her church:

    It would have been nice if she could have become part of the community and worshipped together with them. But she didn’t. So what are you going to do about it? You can’t and shouldn’t force people, even if you think you know best. So you accept it in prayerful humility and continue on.

  8. Chris says:

    One last thought:

    If we’re going the whole WWJD route, then we need to look at the way Jesus fought injustice. He didn’t take up the sword and he didn’t wield instruments of political or bureaucratic power.

    He didn’t cure the world of leprosy, he healed individuals and small groups. He didn’t force all of society to associate with tax-collectors and prostitutes, but he did. He didn’t remove hunger forever, but he did provide a meal here and there.

    On that note, Dostoevsky’s “Grand Inquisitor” does a great job of explaining the difference between what Jesus did and any utopian movement. The end result is that it has to do with suffering and self-sacrifice in the face of the ugliness of this world.

    Justice and reconciliation are part of the Christian message, but they are only a part.

  9. All people are created in the image of God. They may be totally different from us or may be thinking totally different than us. Who are we to judge somebody else? A Christian community has to be open to all sorts of folks, but it has to know the commandments of God and has to keep to them.

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