What's good about the Church?

Frederick Buechner tells a story about a young student asking him, in some anger, "So what's so good about religion anyway?" Buechner said that for a moment he was speechless and "couldn’t for the life of me think what it was? Maybe the truth of it is that religion the way he meant it—a system of belief, a technique of worship, an institution—doesn't really have all that much about it that is good when you come right down to it, and perhaps my speechlessness in a way acknowledged as much."

I guess I share in his initial speechlessness when I try to articulate what's good about the Church. I’ve often said that I love the Body of Christ but I hate the Church. I once said this to a former bishop of mine and he didn't know what I was talking about. Maybe I don't know what I'm talking about but I do believe that they aren't necessarily the same thing, even though we keep describing the Church as the Body of Christ. I suspect that this is a type of wishful, hopeful thinking, such as I've heard when couples who've come to me wanting to be married describe themselves as the "perfect" match, or declare when asked that they wouldn't change a thing about the other.

They say that love is blind, and there is something touching and even necessary about being able to look past commonplace flaws and shortcomings to the essence of who someone is. And sometimes it's just as necessary to look beyond the initial attractiveness to the hard truths about who someone is or isn't. This, I believe, is true of our relationship with this phenomenon we call the Church.

Though entering a relationship with another human being with the idea that we are going to reform them is just asking for trouble, to be in a loving relationship with another is to continually help the other to become his/her best self, just as the other calls out the best in us. This kind of love is not a feeling, it's a choice we make even when the feeling isn’t there. What does/would the Church at its very best look like? If we could start with a blank page, on which we could write whatever we want, uninhibited by what's gone before or what we "should" include in calling out the best in the Church, what would we put down on that page and be excited about calling into reality?


I'm not a religious person.

"I'm not a religious person." In my 30+ years of ordained life, I've had many people say that to me. Often it was an "explanation" of why they didn’t attend church. After all, attending church is for people who are religious. It's certainly not a place for the non-religious, the unreligious, the irreligious, the I-don’t-know-what-I-think-about-religion folk.

And when most of these good folk would claim not to be religious, they probably were also hinting at their inner conviction that the record of their lives would not stand up to the standards they assumed were required for those who are religious and/or attend church. The church, of course, is also not a place for those who've messed up or who are in the act of messing up their lives. As Mark Twain claimed, "The church is a place where a nice respectable person stands up in front of other nice respectable people and urges them to be nicer and more respectable."

Often when someone would tell me that he/she was not religious, I'd reply, "Neither am I." This would almost always evoke surprise and even laughter. How can I be a priest and not be religious? In fact, the clergy are usually expected to personify all the religious characteristics. Aren't they?

I could probably answer that question better if there were any satisfactory definition of the word religious. Like the term Christian, and the term Church, there are as many understandings as there are people. The Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance have an article on definitions of religion: Definitions of the word "religion"(None are totally satisfying). They settled on what they call their compromise definition.

"This website's essays use a very broad definition of religion:

"Religion is any specific system of belief about deity, often involving rituals, a code of ethics, a philosophy of life, and a worldview." "

I do have a belief about deity, I'm often involved in rituals, I do have a code of ethics, a philosophy of life and a worldview. But probably so do all those people who claim not to be religious. If to be religious is what I think most people who've claimed not to be believe it is: to be nice, respectable and good, to not have ever messed up your life, to never have questioned your belief in deity, or dropped away from being involved in the rituals, or transgressed your own code of ethics, wondered about your philosophy of life, or changed your worldview from time to time, then I'm not religious and I hope I never am.


What is a Christian?

I did an Internet search on “What is a Christian?” and the results were mind boggling. I’ve written here and on my website, The Bird Sanctuary, that I believe we’re called to redefine what we mean by Church and by Christianity. If there already is a “correct” definition, it’s certainly not one on which all, or even very many, Christians agree, and heaven only knows how non-Christians might go about explaining it. Creating a new understanding for what no one can agree is a current understanding is a formidable task. It’s somewhat reassuring to realize that I’m not the only one who has noted this phenomenon.

Mark M. Mattison writes, “What is a Christian, anyway? Someone of European descent? A persecutor of Jews? Someone who votes for only the most conservative Republicans? At times all of these answers have seemed plausible. Some use these definitions to this day. In Christian circles the answers are no clearer. A Christian is sometimes said to be someone who has made a decision; sometimes, someone who belongs to a church; far too often, someone who confesses the right creeds. Which brings us right back to our question: What, really, is a Christian?”

Time Magazine published an article in its October 22, 1951 issue about a court case in which $75,000 hung on the answer. It was as inconclusive as any other attempts to nail it down.

If you hoped I would offer the definitive answer in this blog, don’t read on unless you’re as ready to start from scratch as I am. Along with allowing the Church to die, I believe we need to let Christianity die as well, not because it isn’t fit to live, but to die for the same reasons that Jesus said the seed must die in order to experience new life. When we stop trying to save Christianity for its own sake, for fear that we’ll be lost or powerless without it, we might be freed to enter into a new relationship with the Gospels and be able to keep an open mind and heart about just who Jesus was and what his life was about. Because the real question for me is not “what is the Church?” or “who/what is a Christian?” but who is Jesus?


In the Church but not of it?

William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury (1942–1944) is quoted as saying, “The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.” I wonder just what he meant by that, if he did indeed say it. The Church seems to have developed over the centuries multiple reasons for existing as seen by those who have been or have not been, are or aren’t its members. Some that I have experienced, not necessarily in any chronological or ascending/descending order, are:

  • A safe place to recover from life’s wounds and challenges,
  • A cocoon to wrap oneself in to create a buffer from the incivility of the world,
  • A social network to provide needed community,
  • A place of and for prayer and worship,
  • A classroom for developing spiritual gifts and knowledge,
  • A “pass through” to respond to charitable requests,
  • A society where like gathers with like in order to separate from unlike,
  • A conduit for artistic endeavors,
  • A place to celebrate or grieve life’s rites of passage,
  • An institutional network of individual parts creating a larger base for responding to the world’s needs,
  • A building emotionally linked to its own and individual family history, and jealously guarded from all change,
  • An arbiter of morals and right behavior,
  • A mentor for one to live out one’s sense of call to ministry,
  • An environment to experience and explore the mystery and otherness of God,
  • A circle of risk-takers who dare to confront injustice, poverty, oppression, violence and all that drags humanity into indignity regardless of the cost to its reputation or resources.

    I’m sure there are many more reasons that others can name for the existence of the Church. I believe that for most of us, the Church we experience is one that has morphed into whatever our own needs have asked of it, and yet at other times it refuses to become what we ask of it, and that can be a good thing, as well as a bad one. It seems to me that some form of “Church” may be necessary, but to ask so much of it in terms of meeting our own needs is impossible and deadly. The Church is not God, and anything that is not God is less than God and not worthy of our worship. The Gospel of John quotes Jesus as saying that we should be in the world but not of it. Is it possible that we should be in the Church but not of it?