The Church Conundrum


Most people associate the church with a local congregation and its activities, especially the Sunday morning worship service. Beyond that, the church may be associated with a given denomination and its structures. That, however, is not how the church has always been experienced or understood. The denomination is an American invention that developed out of the unique experience of immigrant groups who needed to adapt their religious traditions to a new world where Catholics, various Protestant groups, and Jews had to learn how to coexist.

Denominations are an odd fusion of state-church structures historically related to Christendom and the more congregational free-church traditions that grew out of the radical reformation and the American frontier. These two models do not easily fit together. A basic problem is the inherent divide between denominational structures and congregational life. Denominational bureaucracies become a world unto themselves.

Innovative efforts to bridge that divide have included denominationally organized assemblies held every several years in a large convention center. Yet the divide persists. Now there are indications that our ability to organize such gatherings may have run its course along with other denominational structures such as publishing houses and mission boards.

As a consequence, congregations tend to morph into generic community churches with obscure ties to their religious heritage. They reflect the values of the larger society and lose the ability to critically and constructively engage social and spiritual issues from the perspective of their religious tradition. It goes beyond being unwilling to do so; we have become biblically and theologically illiterate, hence incapable of doing so.

The problem is exacerbated by the divide between local churches and denominational colleges and seminaries. Biblical studies and theology have become professionalized and speak primarily to the guild. This weakness is further exacerbated by the long-standing American belief that churches are spiritual rather than political. The spiritual is understood as private and the political is understood as the domain of secular government. Consequently, the churches lose much of their Christian content and become the spiritual supporters of what religious scholar Will Herberg has called the “American Way of Life.”

Beginning with the local church, we need to experiment with new ways of being church in response to this conundrum. From a radical free-church perspective, the church is understood as a people of God and followers of Jesus without any social or national boundaries. This distinct community has its own social and political reality with the purpose of serving God and the common good of all people around the world. To be this kind of community the church needs to be vigilant concerning its religious freedom and not be co-opted by any imperial power including the “American Way of Life.”

My next posts on this topic will look at the biblical precedents of being a people of God and explore different models for being that kind of people in our world today.

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