Friday, November 12, 2010

Church: Closed Castle or Open Community?

In this twenty-first century, post-Christian, post-modern world, the church is having to re-assess how it relates to the world around it. Phyllis Tickle wrote a book about this, entitled The Great Emergence, in which she advanced the idea that the church and the world go through these massive paradigm shifts every 500 years--in the time of Jesus at the turn of millennium, at 500 C.E with the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, in 1000 C.E. with (among other things) the Great Schism between Eastern and Western Christianity, in 1500 C.E. with the Protestant Reformation, and now in the post 2000 C.E. time with post-Modernism and the information age.

One interesting commentary on how we interact with the world is a recent article which asks the church to "stop policing the borders of Christianity." The author's point is that Christianity is more interested in maintaining purity than in growing community. This is the old "be in the world but not of the world" conundrum--how does one prevent becoming indistinguishable from the world while still following Jesus, who "took the form of a servant," literally incarnating God on earth? This is a significant challenge, as the prevailing attitude about Christians is that we're "not of this world" in all of the wrong ways--that we're more judgmental, rigid, and unloving than the world around us! Yet as the world becomes yet more polarized, we have a prime opportunity to express what Christianity is, not just what it is not. This risk-taking, get-your-hands-dirty, earthy Christianity is precisely what Jesus modeled for us. He ate with people with whom he shouldn't have been sharing a table, touched people who were unclean, and generally eschewed purity in favor of one-on-one interactive love for all people.

This does not mean that Jesus wasn't interested in how people lived their lives. He repeatedly points out sin when he encounters it, but he doesn't do so by shouting down from the ramparts of the holier-than-thou castle, he does so as he interacts with real people, with real problems, in real situations. In fact, Jesus has some rather harsh things to say about the religious authorities of the day who require high standards of purity from others and who, while ritually pure, have some serious problems with the "love your neighbor as yourself" commandment.

As we enter the twenty-first century, one of the biggest trends in the church is moving from a buildings-based, "mighty fortress" mentality of us against the world to a risk-taking, get dirty, work among folks, community-building mentality. It may not be as visually impressive, and it is certainly a lot more risky, but it is perhaps a truer version of the Gospel then all of the stained glass we have. The challenge is to turn these buildings from sanctuaries from the world for Christians into sanctuaries from the wold for everyone.