Moving beyond Church as the practice of the faith

I’ve been writing about the institutional model of church and understand both Catholicism and Protestantism to hold to this model, gathering people to worship and then respectively the Eucharist and Message. Yet the church is not an institution but rather an organism consisting of the people who are the Ekklesia. Nevertheless, despite the reality of the Ekklesia as the people the practice of the Christian faith as Catholics and Protestants has long centered what it means to be a practicing Christian on attending a meeting held in a building, by ordained staff or clergy with approved volunteers, and makes attendance and membership synonymous with a saving faith.

My most immediate concern with this lies with the fact that the Church serves as a barrier to people seeking God from outside the Church and prevents many within the Church from truly finding God by making a relationship with God synonymous with faithfully attending, supporting, and serving within churches. People are left starving for God outside and within the Church. meaning that they lack for a meaningful and consistent relationship with God.

While those outside the Church are left with questions as to whether there is a god and of the gods which is truly God those within the Church are left without a meaningful relationship with God in the practice of their faith. Within the Church we make a relationship with God synonymous with worship and Eucharist or Message while finding ourselves uncertain and insecure about whether and how to hear from and experience God. Furthermore, we are often weirded out by the notion of what it means to experience God and what the value and purpose thereof is. And we are often not happy with what is both hyped and pushed onto people and boxed up as an experience of God.

For a faith that’s ostensibly about a relationship with God, Christianity is curiously conflicted about what, whether, when, why and how to experience God and confused and uncertain about what the practical value of such may actually be.

Much work has gone into questioning and evaluating the institutional model of Church, but not enough had gone into exploring the practice of the presence of God and he role thereof in the gathering of the Ekklesia.

The answer to the problems associated with the institutional model of church isn’t the institution of a yet another model of doing church. Yet this is precisely where most of the focus has been the past few decades — questioning the older forms of the institutional church only to focus on creating newer institutional churches. The whole goal of Church Growth as a field is on how best to grow churches and most churches simply buy into it. And many church movements consider churches and church planting as their number one priority, for example is the Vineyard Movements 2018 conference where speakers such as a John and a Carol Arnott, Phil Strout, and Costa Mitchell affirmed that the faith and professional ministry is all about church and churches. I’m sure other movements wouldn’t disagree with this, evidencing how entrenched the doing church paradigm is and the degree to which it defines our priorities.

Yet many have been questioning what exactly we’re doing when doing church and whether there is another way.

  • Leonard Sweet and Brian McLaren have long considered the shifting cultural foundation and the expression of Christianity in relation to such. McLaren’s A New Kind Christian and The Church on the Other Side are still well worth the read as is Sweet’s So Beautiful: Divine Design for a life and Church. However, the Emerging Church is more a reboot of doing church around cultural identity and values coupled with a review of the institutional model as determined by modernity as the only and way way of doing church. Though the emerging church hasn’t grown into and proven itself as a movement in itself, it plays a vital role in envisioning and renewing existing churches and enabling innovation around when and how we do church. Many, such as Gerardo Margi and Gladis Ganiel in The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emerging Christianity, provide a seemingly sound critique of the emerging church while seeming to completely miss the point of the movement itself. It is evident both that Christianity is among those religions shrinking in the postmodern world and rebuttals often contrast the values of one culture against another. They’re not actually engaging in the fundamental transitions in our society. What’s complicated for the emerging church is that they’re both questioning the institutional church and recognizing the fundamental shift in society while acknowledging with humility ha hey have no set answers. Here others, like Fresh Expressions, are more accepted because they’re only dealing with the change in society rather than questioning the institutional model of doing church. A reading of Jacques Derrida’s Religion sans Religion or John D. Caputo’s Repetition and retrieval quickly establish that the institutional model is being defended by many and the real change in society glossed over on the premise of a faith that Johannes Krüger establishes as fideism between Metatheism: Early Buddhism and Traditional Christian Theism and Sounding Unsound: Orientation into Mysticism.
  • Fresh Expressions and Frank Viola are among those who argued that the church is invitational and see the decline of the church as rooted in a reduction or loss of purpose and mission — the church has no reason to be and has lost relevance. Fresh Expressions argues for a missional expression of church centered on the missio dei or mission of God while Frank Viola argues for an embrace of the kingdom of God as the vehicle of personal and social change. Both, however, embrace the institutional model of doing church though Viola also seeks an organic model and Fresh Expressions seeks new versions and expressions of the institutional model. An exploration of both will certainly draw out and nuance their differences, but the former emphasizes the missional approach for establishing churches and the latter the kingdom of God as a measurement of whether we are playing real church’s that enable personal and social change. Such explorations differ from the emerging church in being less about arguing about and questioning the institution of the church than in questioning how the church may recapture it’s vitality and purpose. Where the Emerging Church questions the identity and purpose of the Church here only the Purpose and Activity is in question. It’s easier to work out what we must do than what we must be.
  • Phyllis Tickle, in The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why and Emergence Christianity: What it Is, Where it’s Going, and Why it Matters, provides us a retrospective as an overview of the fact that Christianity radically redefines itself every 500 years or so, encouraging us not to get riled up about such a “Reformation” is once again in motion. Such forward-reflecting historical theology is fantastic as it helps us understand that the church not only does but also must change.
  • Yet there are others who simply question and deconstruct the institutional model, bypassing the angst filled philosophical and theological problems of others. Anthony Anderson, in Deconstructing Church: The Allure of the Machine and the Hope for a Better Way exploring demands and costs of the institutional model. Jim Henderson and Matt Casper explore Christianity in Jim and Casper go to Church: Frank Conversations about about Faith, Churches and Well-meaning Christians, providing us with an outsider-insider atheist-Christian conversation about church and what’s communicated through the services of churches. Richard Jacobson, in Unchurching: Christianity without Churchianity simply deconstructs the underlying paradigm governing the institutional model uncritically accepted by Catholicism and Protestantism and determining their centering of the faith in the Church. Hess are potentially most fruitful to read because they’re not written by philosophers and theologians.
  • In Church Refugees: Sociologists reveal why people are DONE with church but not their faith the general assumptions provided by the institutional paradigm as to why people leave churches and the expected results are proven incorrect. People are leaving the institutional church in the postmodern world for good reasons. As I see it, their diaspora is less accidental than the deliberate work of God.

And though there are many well-researched and -written explorations and deconstructions of the institutional Church and church leavers, as evidenced above, there is not yet any real alternative to the institutional church that isn’t in itself just another institutional model of gathering people to do church and grow churches. And though the institutional churches tend to evolve and incorporate changes to how they do church the only real revolution took place in the Protestant Reformation and transitioned authority from the papacy to the Bible and therewith the central activity of doing church from Eucharist to Message. We can change up the style of what we’re doing, but if all we’re doing is changing our style of teaching and participating and our venues, are we really embracing an alternative paradigm? Neither the Catholic nor Protestant paradigms continue proving life giving by enabling Christians to grow in their relationship with God and seekers to find God. And though such does happen, it happens more despite what than by what the Church is doing when doing church.

I believe that we can let go of the institutional Church and be better together as co-contributing collaborators. But this doesn’t happen by establishing yet another institutional expression of Church that gathers to meet about God. This would only perpetuate the practice of the Christian faith as the practice of doing church. Instead the answer lies in enabling the Ekklesia, as individuals and as individuals who gather, to embrace the practice of the faith as the practice of the presence of God. We need to move from doing church to being church, from attendance to practice, and from membership to relationship.

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