What is the purpose of the Church? Some would say that churches build community, and indeed they do. However, in the 21st century there are countless other organizations seeking to build community. What makes local churches different? Some would say that the local church offers a place to worship God, and also builds community. That certainly is true – but there are many spaces and places to address our spiritual life. Why go to church? We used to say that church was the only appropriate place to worship and serve God, but with approximately ninety percent of Americans claiming a belief in God and only twenty percent of Americans in church it’s pretty clear people are finding other places to worship and serve God that meet their needs pretty well.
Some have answered the question by creating church as multi-media entertainment center. You certainly can’t create that at home, and the quality of the live music can’t be duplicated by just one or two people sitting in their homes. In the 1980s and 1990s these churches thrived, but their message hadn’t evolved and so they now participate in the same slide the rest of organized Christianity seems to suffer from. In places where the message has evolved, the church has done better – but still struggles to stay afloat.
Other churches, regardless of their particular facility or worship style, have become what I call happy-clappy churches where escapism rules the day. It’s Robert Schuler on steroids, a place where everything is wonderful and positive and there aren’t any real problems. It is escapism at its finest, and if members never had to return to the real world these places would be heaven on earth. As long as we don’t examine the teachings too closely, all is well. Sooner or later, we realize that the power of positive thinking has its limits. If we put our car in a ditch, all of the positive thinking in the world won’t get it out. When our thirteen year old daughter comes home and announces she is pregnant, the Law of Attraction isn’t going to help us – and, hormones being what they are, it isn’t going to keep her from getting pregnant, either. It’s at these places where happy-clappy just doesn’t cut it and people decide their escapism is better found in a movie theater!
What if the real purpose of church is personal and societal transformation? What is the goal of church was to build community that transcended the walls of the building, that in fact built community across the walls of the building? What if church acknowledged that there would, of course, be a community within the building but that community would be focused on transforming the lives of the members spiritually by re-connecting them to the community in service and support? Imagine if that re-integration wasn’t only in groups sent out by the church but also existed on the individual, quite personal level. So John Doe might volunteer to serve meals with the church group at the food pantry, but he also would find a way to be personally involved doing something one on one in the community – perhaps tutoring a high school student, identifying an elderly person who needs help with their yard work and helping them without being asked, volunteering at a hospital or nursing home, or some similar opportunity. Then, and this is critically important, what if the church gathered its members together to examine and celebrate how their service impacted their spiritual lives? That would lead us to make connections between our spirituality and every corner of our lives, to being to see what Christians call the Kingdom of God that Jesus said was right here, right now.
Of course, it’s not for everybody. This kind of engagement requires putting ourselves on the line and getting our hands a bit dirty. It isn’t escapism – at least the service part isn’t – but rather engagement with the real world. If we need to escape, perhaps that need can be met by our worship and a good movie, but the rewards we earn when our spirituality transcends the traditional limits of the four walls of our building the rewards far outweigh the risks we take. What’s more, there is nothing wrong with saying that at this time you are not ready for one on one service. I can’t help but believe that being part of a spiritual community that does do service through relationships in the community might help you answer your questions and ease your fears. At the very least, you will find yourself transformed by the environment.
This kind of shift in perspective may cause a shift in priorities within your church as well. Before you know it, you might find yourselves thinking that spending an inordinate amount of money on high technology worship environments doesn’t seem like good stewardship any more. You may find that owning a building doesn’t make as much sense as renting space. When a group starts to see its purpose as lifting all of us up, fiscal responsibility is seen in a new way. There will be some people so attached to the idea of church as country club that they leave as priorities change. Can we see that is perfectly fine? Can we see that they need to find a place that fits their needs even as ours evolve, and trust that new people interested in transformation of self and society will come to take their place among us? More to the point, can we see that the survival of this church is less important that the survival of our communities?
Now that is community building!