Church IS the alternative
I don’t usually start conversation with new people telling them that I’m a pastor, or that I go to church. Why? My sense is that people tend to associate church – and Christianity, generally – with a negative view of institutionalism, and there’s also the notion that religion is bad, these days.
At the same time, I don’t like to get too far into a relationship with someone I may want to be friends with without letting them know that faith community is a part of who I am. “Church” can be more than institution and organized religion.
People may talk about church – and those who attend it – as that which adheres to out-dated ways of being, or a turn backwards in time. There isn’t a lot of sense, these days in western civilization, that church presents an alternative to the world – an alternative that includes awareness of the environment and matters of human rights in the world. But church, when it’s done well, all about those things.
Church is the alternative. It invites people into community regardless of socio-economic status; it breaks down barriers of division, whether it has to do with political views, gender roles, or facades we may hold up; it invites people into caring conversation and being vulnerable with each other. Where else do we do those things in life? At work? No. At a social gathering? Not usually.
As Christians, we have a way of life that is alternative – when we’re willing to embrace it fully. As Walter Brueggemann has pointed out, primary marks of the Christian life include: showing hospitality, being generous, not coveting, not being vengeful, and observing Sabbath rest. I would say that, as Christian communities, we also must “give ourselves away” – being generous in a corporate way! …but that’s hard for those who have seen the church as something to build up for so long. As Christian communities, we also do things that people generally don’t do in other parts of life, we make ourselves vulnerable with each other through such things as sharing stories (those of our ancestors in the faith, as well as our own), sharing food (ritually in Communion; also in potluck dinners!), and singing together.
It’s true that throughout history, Christian community has taken on trappings of culture (and “empire”) for the edification of it’s own institution – it’s been profitable to be on the side of power! It’s also true that Christian community is making a return to its roots of lifting up oppressed people, speaking out for those on the margins, and supporting causes that help the poor and tear down the walls between rich and destitute.
On June 25, 1530, German princes and theologians gathered to present the “Augsburg Confession” which was created to clarify to the Roman Catholic Church the changes Philip Melanchthon, Martin Luther, and others in their movement, wanted to see in Christian life. It was a move to break down institutionalism, and to help Christian community return to its roots of lifting up all people and putting value in the person, not their ability to produce or consume. It meant a break with the church. It meant a risky new path.
In 2011, congregations that try to do a new thing often find themselves struggling. I know this intimately as pastor at a house-church trying new ways of being Christian community for this time and place. We want to connect with those who are looking for meaning in their lives. We want to know what people want when they gather, and what is worthwhile in their lives – regardless of traditions, or non-traditions, they have in their background.
I believe Christian community continues to be an alternative vision, calling all of us to live in new ways – ways that are not necessarily promoted in our culture. It’s a challenge, but one we can take up together and be a movement for good in the world.