This week of Lent, my suggestion is to give up going to church. Some of you already have. The rest of you may be wondering why on earth I would make this suggestion. Isn’t the whole push for congregational renewal to get people back in to church?
Jesus went to synagogue on Sabbath, “as was his custom.” So did Paul. So why shouldn’t we followers of Jesus, and of the teachings of Paul, go to church?
Is it that in many ways church has served its purpose?
After all, the message of Jesus has already escaped into the world. The focus on sacrificial love, the need for community, servant leadership—all these concepts have made their way deep into the culture of the world we live in. Even business leaders are counseled to practice servant leadership.
No, that’s not what I had in mind.
Is it that the idea of going to church is relatively new, at least in US history? As Diana Butler Bass writes in Christianity After Religion, people didn’t really go to church much before the Civil War. “Because of the lack of trained clergy and the long distances people sometimes had to travel to even get to a church building, parents acted as the arbiters and authorities of a faith tradition, teaching their children the bible, Christian ethics, and even liturgy in the their own homes. Mothers and midwives often baptized infants, especially those in distress. Homes often served as ritual space, as most baptism marriages and funerals happened in the family parlor.” It wasn’t until after the Civil War that religion restructured into the kinds of denominational and became more like big business.
No, that’s not what I had in mind either. Although the house church, the local Bible study, and other forms of re-emergent Christian community are intriguing.
Is it that just like you don’t have to go to a store to buy what you need, since you can get almost everything online, do you really have to a church building to fill your religious or spiritual cup?
Nope. In many ways it’s true. But that’s not what I was thinking either.
The biggest reason I am suggesting to give up going to church has to do with the meaning of the word church. Church is drawn from the Latin ecclesia and the Greek ekklesia. It’s where we get the words ecclesiology and ecclesiastical.
Rather than refer to a building, biblically speaking, it means a called out people of God. Just as Jesus called Andrew and Peter, then James and John to follow him, so in a sense all followers of Jesus are called out too.
The point is, church is more about being a community of believers, than it is about the building that people may meet in. It’s more about our way of being, than our location for meeting.
So we can’t very well go to church, when we are the church. In fact, that may be a cop out. A way of avoiding our own personal responsibility for letting the Light shine through us, or actually practicing our faith.
Maybe that’s why there’s such an emphasis these days on getting beyond the church walls to do mission and ministry. It’s the church in action, out in in the world, that makes a difference. Not necessarily the quality of the building.
Or maybe that’s why more people report feeling closer to God in nature than in a church building. The buildings themselves, notwithstanding the ancient churches of Europe, often aren’t inherently special. It’s we the people—alive with the Spirit—that can be something special.
This Lent, it’s time to give up going to church. Time to finally be church.
Reggie McNeal suggests 3 ways congregations can make this shift in his book Missional Renaissance.
1. Shift from an Internal to an External Focus. Look beyond organizational goals to the needs of the community around you.
2. Shift from Program Development to People Development. Instead of focusing on delivering specific doctrinal content to people, cultivate a culture in which people can pursue their own customized spiritual journeys.
3. Shift from Church-Based to Kingdom-Based Leadership. Free people up from club-based activities like chairing committees that don’t make much of a difference to reaching out to the world around you. This can be even at the simplest levels of praying for and blessing others. Or the level of abolishing hunger or homelessness in your town.
Jesus himself spent more time out and about proclaiming the Kingdom than he ever did in synagogue. His followers were with him every step of the way. Isn’t it time we followed suit and did the same?