What we call the “church” is too often a gathering of strangers who see the church as yet another “helping institution” to gratify further their individual desires. – Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon, Resident Aliens, pg 138
This line from the excellent book Resident Aliens really shows where my head has been at in the last few months in my theological thinking and writing. In fact, I’ve lapsed into a serious form of theological grumpiness recently, probably thanks for reading a lot of Hauerwas (a noted theological grump) this summer and fall. And it all comes back to what this line is saying: the Church should not just be another social service agency.
I say this because, this seems to be where a lot of progressive Christians want to go with their church. Oftentimes, the worshiping is downplayed, the focus on God and Christ is downplayed, the spiritual and theological formation of congregants is downplayed, and instead, progressive churches highlight their social justice and service initiatives first and foremost.
And don’t get me wrong: those social services are vitally important. A lived faith involves working for justice in the world. Churches are important gatherings of like-minded people, and should put that collective effort to work in pursuing the Kingdom of God.
But, that last point is the key one: the work churches do is in service to God, at the behest of Christ, in pursuit of the Kingdom of God. Our first order priority as the church is not justice, but worship. It is following Christ in service to God. Justice necessarily arises from this, because our God is a God of justice. But, everything the church does should stem from its identification as a specifically Christian institution.
This means that members of individual church should avoid desperately being the “strangers” Hauerwas and Willimon mention, and instead, should be intent on cultivating real, authentic relation with other members of the church. This should extend to feelings of accountability, in our public and private lives, to one another.
It also means that our personal pet projects – our “individual desires” – should not override the stated mission of the church. What I mean is, any service or work the church undertakes should eventually occur because of the desire to make disciples, and of being the Living Body of Christ in and for the world.
I’ve gotten grumpy because I don’t want my attendance at church to feel like I’m attending a local meeting of MoveOn or the United Way, and it’s so dang hard to find a good, progressive church that still centers the Gospel in a way that doesn’t make you feel like they are ashamed to say the words “God” or “Christ,” or that still acknowledge the important spiritual aspect of communion or the confessions. I know there are churches like this, but they are increasingly harder to find. And I think this is because so many progressives, mirroring conservative evangelicals, are seeing their churches as extensions of their political parties and priorities.
The church is meant to be the church. In other words, the church is tasked with the Great Commission first, and all other work arises from that. The first order of business in that is being a place where disciples of Christ are reoriented towards God, admitting guilt for our sins and seeking forgiveness, embracing our joy of membership in the body of Christ, and reaffirming our place in the great traditions of the church. Then, our faith, edified through the weekly practice of worship, compels us to our works in the world, which does mean social justice work, but also sometimes means just loving our neighbors and our enemies, forgiving those who sin against us, and being a living example of Christi n the world. This is the church I want to be a part of.