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‘Why Church?’ Is the Wrong Question – ChristianityToday.com

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Those who ask the wrong questions will get the wrong answers. In my discipline, theology, perhaps the more common error is getting the right answer to the wrong question.
Perhaps it is unfair to call the usual debates about cosmology, theodicy, and miracles the “wrong questions.” Insofar as they are asked in good faith, such questions can generate insight. But they often encourage humans to continue to ask and answer human questions about God.
Theology proper should provoke humans to think, as Thomas Aquinas put it, after God—to seek to speak of God as God is, to search after the “unsearchable riches of Christ” (Eph. 3:8, ESV).
That is, theology means nothing other than acquainting oneself through Scripture and the worship of the church with the God who can only be known through a glass darkly (1 Cor. 13:12).
Seeking knowledge of God and the Christian faith through the lens of God’s unknowability is not the most comfortable or common starting point. It feels to some like a dodge and to others as if I were suggesting that their faith is uncertain. It feels to others too flaccid, lazy even, when there are thousands upon thousands of words written about Christian doctrine that imply, Is it not better to attempt to solve all the potential problems of the Christian faith?
My answer is that the goal of Christian theology, for me at least, is Christian belief, not a conclusion to what can be said or what can be inquired. Complete comprehension and belief are not the same.
At the end of the Book of John, the resurrected Jesus appears to his disciples. They have returned to the Sea of Tiberias to take up fishing. This fact is poignant in itself. They were once fishermen who were called away from their profession to follow the Lord, the one who would save Israel. They followed him, forsaking their livelihood in the meantime, and this faithfulness seemed to end at the death of the one they loved.
This time between the death of Christ and the Ascension is a pregnant pause in the Christian tradition. Christ has died, Christ has risen—yet what this means for the disciples has not yet been fully revealed. There is a question, at this point, about the meaning of the resurrected one in their midst: What is the power, or the agency, by which they will carry forth the message of Christ?
And so they return to their former profession—fishing—and they spend all night on the sea. They catch nothing. You can imagine the sadness, the despair even, of such a night. They have seen their Lord die, and with him their hopes for the renewal of Israel. Some of them have seen him raised, but even so, the risen Christ was with them only briefly, and in a quite different form. And now their attempts to return to their former source of provision are also thwarted. What message will they proclaim? What can they offer to the world? How will they even feed themselves? All of these questions are, for the moment, unanswered.
You can imagine their confusion. They had believed that the Lord was the promised Messiah. Jews at the time of the disciples believed that the Messiah would return and bring an earthly, messianic kingdom. They believed this had immediate political ramifications for their lives in the Roman empire. When Jesus was instead crucified as an enemy of the state, their framework shattered. The echoes of this heartbreak can be heard in the words of the men on the road to Emmaus: “We had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21).
We had hoped.
The disappointment in this statement is pregnant, about to burst open with loss and even grief. It is certainly the case that the death of Christ had dashed the expectations of many who had expected that his life would instead usher in a new theocracy, a new reign of God on earth. But their question—How can the one who has died save Israel?—was, for the moment, the wrong question.
One question I encounter regularly these days is why the local church matters. This, I think, is the wrong question.
Disaffected Christians want to know why they should attend church when it has sheltered so much harm. Pastors and leaders want to know how to communicate to others, especially young adults, what good the church has to offer.
We are in a crucible that should burn off wrong answers about the church. Two years of pandemic-related church shutdowns has led many congregations to move their worship online. Church services were livestreamed and accessed in people’s living rooms. Communion was sometimes taken at the kitchen table, or not at all. Music was streamed virtually. And Christians gathered—or didn’t—with their immediate families to worship.
It would be misguided to suggest that such arrangements are not worship. Indeed, the psalmist says, “The heavens declare the glory of God,” and the Lord himself says, “Where two or three gather in my name, there am I” (Ps. 19:1; Matt. 18:20). The instinct that God can be encountered in living rooms, in nature, and even on a TV is not wrong. The entire Christian tradition insists that God is not hindered by anything and can be near people through matter—even when conveyed by data packets to a screen. God indeed dwells with his people, gathered in homes across the world.
Yet it would be incorrect also to call such a presence “church.” The church is not God’s guiding, consoling presence in one’s heart or the very real consolation and correction that can come when a group of Christians meets to pray. Nor is it what we name the occasional gathering of Christians to sing and study in homes or around tables worldwide.
In the Bible, the concern of God in creating the church is not to form persons but to form a people. Abraham’s call was to be a blessing to the nations; David’s was to be a king of Israel, not simply a man after God’s own heart; and the judges convicted the sin of Israel’s leaders in order that the nation might be led into holiness.
This pattern of God speaking to, instructing, and correcting discrete individuals for the service of a holy people is the story of God’s work among God’s people. All kinds of Christian gatherings and gatherings of Christians can be avenues for God’s gracious work among his people, yet not all of these gatherings are “church.”
The main temptation in defining church is to instead articulate its ends. The wrong question that we are inclined to ask about church is why it matters. But it might not “matter” in the way we expect.
The minute we ask why church “matters,” we are tempted to identify its concrete goods or its contribution to society. Sociologist of religion Peter Berger argues in The Sacred Canopy that religions are now offered in the marketplace of experiences from which individuals might choose. If Berger is right, religions are among many options that Americans and others in similarly secularized societies might choose in order to relieve their consciences, to soothe their anxiety, or to produce moral outcomes. Those would be seen as purposes of the church. But the soul is a remarkably inefficient reality, and as its care becomes optional, the priority of its care diminishes.
If it functions in a marketplace of sorts, the church therefore must market itself as something people might want. Once it does this, it becomes very difficult to imagine the church (or any religion) as something other than an outcome-producing good that people might choose.
It also becomes very difficult for religious leaders not to behave as if they were marketing these outcomes to individuals. Perhaps the church is full of more moral people than other clubs. Perhaps it has better music. Perhaps it has very young, hip leaders.
But what happens when the church is not more moral, more entertaining, or more attractive? What happens when it exhibits deep sinfulness and outdated forms of worship and people who grow tired of one another? Other, better options are often available to individuals if what they are looking for is good company or entertainment.
Sometimes churches attempt to demonstrate how they matter by adding something good to a community or addressing a problem. The problem here is not that volunteer service is bad; it is, of course, a true fruit of the gospel. The problem is that if the goal of church is seen to be social transformation, then volunteering for United Way could be just as effective—if not more effective.
If the product of the church is identified as social benefit, it would be sensible for a Christian to decide to volunteer on a Tuesday night and have brunch instead of church on Sunday. After all, the United Way has clearer outcomes, and the coffee might be better too.
Serving the local community and addressing issues of injustice is a great and important vocation. But one doesn’t need Jesus in order to do that.
If success is measured by growth, the church is doing quite poorly. Churches are shrinking, and church attendance—especially among young adults—has diminished significantly.
And who could blame them? If success is maintaining a set of values, many perceive that church leaders and members violate such values repeatedly. We have told our society that the church is supposed to be a force for good in the world and that Christians are supposed to be morally superior people. The Bible says Christians will be identifiable by their love (John 13:35).
[ This article is also available in español. ]
Even the church’s leaders seem let down by the church. A high and rising proportion of pastors are reporting significant burnout and, after managing the pressures of the past few years, are citing immense stress, loneliness, political divisions, and hopelessness and conflict about the future of their churches.
If neither the church nor its leaders are the best at any of the things they do, it might seem that the church is seldom required—it’s redundant.
When we ask what social good the church can provide, or how we can market ourselves to the world, we’re asking the wrong questions.
More than 30 years ago, Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon wrote a book titled Resident Aliens. Their concern was that the church was missing the opportunity for a new adventure, an adventure as radically peculiar Christians living in exile.
The authors said that because Christianity was, by their read, such a part of the American experience, it had become difficult to discern what was uniquely Christian about the church. Churches offered admonishments to be “good people,” to not lie or cheat on your taxes, and to help your neighbors when they were in distress. None of these admonishments required a belief in the Resurrection.
What God called for, however, was not a moral or powerful people, but a peculiar one. Now it is true that part of the church’s peculiarity should exhibit itself in a certain morality. But morality itself is not peculiar in this particular way. What makes the church peculiar is its knowledge of itself as called by God to be his representative on the earth, to be marked by unwieldy and inconvenient practices like forgiveness, hospitality, humility, and repentance. It is marked in such a way by its common gathering, in baptism and Communion, remembering the Lord’s death and proclaiming it until he comes.
A peculiar church is one that realizes that its existence is to witness to another world, one where the Ascension is not a sorrow alone but an invitation to live into a new moment when the Son is indeed seated at the right hand of the Father. Its witness to another kingdom, a commonwealth in heaven (Phil. 3:20–21), is what justifies its existence.
This is not to say that churches should become internally preoccupied and aloof from their communities. The church has an implicit social ethic, as Hauerwas discusses, and is guided by Jesus’ call to imitate him in love for neighbor and sacrificial concern.
But the church’s reshaped community is formed out of its worship, which witnesses to another world where the Lord is King. The authors conclude, “The church, as those called out by God, embodies a social alternative that the world cannot on its own terms know.”
I spoke to my friend Sarah Hinlicky Wilson, an American Lutheran pastor serving in Japan. Sarah is a trained theologian, a pastor, and an expatriate. Serving in Japan has given her a unique vantage point to the challenges of church ministry in a secular context. Wilson says, America is “ignorantly Christian.” There is a cultural consensus that caring for the poor is good (though differences remain on how to do so), a value on the weak and marginalized, and a broad consensus that all life is valuable—Christian ideas not shared by all societies.
“Japan is not post-Christian,” Wilson says. “It is never-was-Christian.” She says the poor and indigent can often depend entirely on government services for aid. “From where I am sitting in Japan, all of the basic diaconal needs have long since been met.”
But she points to signs of spiritual destitution in a consumerist society: “It seems to me people are lonely, have so few meaningful relationships, [and] no serious relationship to any higher power,” Wilson says. “The thing people need is God.” This is something that only the church can provide.
This does not make evangelism an easy task in Japan. Indeed, Japan’s crisis of loneliness preceded America’s. The isolation of individuals, the lack of family ties, and the obsession with work are epidemic.
“But it’s hard to get them to consider church or even see what the problem is,” Wilson says, so neglected is the idea of spiritual care.
If American churches feel challenged to prove their value to a culture preoccupied with social and material needs, Wilson’s challenge in Japan is demonstrating the value of the human spirit. She is answering the right question. It’s not that spiritual needs are the only needs people have. It is that spiritual needs are the ones that only the church can meet. In her words, “How do you persuade people that all you have to offer is the gospel?”
Wilson’s observations square well with Willimon and Hauerwas’s concerns. In both countries, people’s attention is directed away from spiritual realities. The church’s “reality-making claim” does not deny that the challenges of the world are pressing, that evil is real, or that it is gaining ground. It is not withdrawn or ignorant or politically uninvolved. But it says that the Lord is King while the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain (Ps. 2:1).
In The Great Passion, Eberhard Busch recorded an event in Karl Barth’s life when a shell exploded through a church’s roof during a service. Despite this, they went on singing the “Magnificat.” Barth praised this, saying that the church had its priorities straight.
I am often asked if I am “asking too much” by insisting that the church’s worship form people in this rigorous way. But it seems to me that this kind of demand is the only thing that ultimately makes Christianity believable. If it is true, it’s worth betting your life on. If it is not, you are better off choosing something else.
When the church becomes preoccupied with defending itself to the world, it eventually becomes incoherent. The only way to be a church is to speak the peculiar language of peace, of forgiveness, of repentance and resurrection.
When we do not do our job, the church becomes understandable to the world but loses its mission. It is no longer peculiar, even if it is now coherent to a culture that is anything but Christian. We need that friction, that impossible question of how church works, that puzzlement over what the church does, because what it does is often inconceivable to those outside it.
The church today is at risk of merely reinstating the world’s favored social outcomes and policies. It will continue spinning its wheels to advertise for and recruit people who hope for something like joining the board of a local nonprofit. Unless it remembers its task—to continue on with the worship of God—it will lose its identity entirely.
We must resist the temptation to ask the wrong questions about the church. We must refuse to justify the church’s existence by stating what good we offer, what our contribution is, or whether we can promise that our people will resist temptation or refuse improper use of power or never harm each other.
The church matters because only there is the truth about the world spoken—because only there is the Lord proclaimed as King.
I am sometimes asked by local pastors what they can do to attract young people to their church. I tell them that there are no good ideas for such intent; indeed even asking the question means they would misunderstand my answer.
The only one that will bring people to church is the Spirit. The church must busy itself making the world’s boundaries clear by being a people called by the Spirit.
As Emmanuel Célestin Suhard wrote, “To be a witness does not consist in engaging in propaganda, nor even in stirring people up, but in being a living mystery. It means to live in such a way that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist.” It means to be peculiar in the face of a world that is looking for the next solution or stopgap measure—to sing a song of praise while danger is at hand.
The disciples at the Sea of Tiberias had finished a long night of fishing. They had caught nothing. Jesus met them, though they didn’t recognize him at first.
Cast your nets on the other side, he said. They did and received an abundance of fish. Jesus had made a fire at the shore, and he fed them breakfast (John 21:1–14).
In this moment, what mattered was not the how of the Resurrection or the why of their grief or the what-next of their situation. What mattered was being fed on Christ, as his friends.
The disciples did not in this moment ask the wrong question. Instead, they ate and bore witness to the one whose recorded works the whole world would not have room for (v. 25).
They caught fish because they followed his commands. This is the only justification for the church worth giving.
Kirsten Sanders (PhD, Emory University) is a theologian and founder of Kinisi Theology Collective.
[ This article is also available in español. ]
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