About that painfully embarrassing church

Ever been embarrassed by your local church? Perhaps it’s small and unimpressive—a tiny group of common, broken people with limited means? The preacher does his/her best, but certainly isn’t a best-selling Christian author or a well-known televangelist. There’s no stellar music either—just a humble little worship service. Small, plain, common. And you wish it were somehow more “spiritually uplifting.”

So why not stay home and avoid the whole messy business? Besides, you might even feel more satisfied and spiritually uplifted by downloading and privately listening to a nourishing sermon from Pastor Big Kahuna, the dynamic speaker at the regional mega-church down the road.

Dr. Julie Canlis touches upon such notions in portions of a public lecture she gave in 2008 at Regent College in Vancouver (click here to listen). She points to common confusion surrounding our expectations of “doing church.” She also describes historical events that may have led Protestants to become susceptible to a non-Trinitarian “virtual spirituality” based primarily around words, knowledge, a good sermon—and without all the messy parts such as “other people.”

Canlis [pictured left, on the occasion of receiving the 2007 Templeton Award for Theological Promise for dissertation and first book] says this incorrect approach places too much pressure on preaching.
“We’ve removed the icons, and yet we’ve put in a new icon—the preacher. With only a pulpit at the front, people assume they go to church to gain more knowledge. And so our church experience becomes a quest for that modern 'holy grail'—a good sermon. Based on how the preacher performs, we feel either satisfied or disappointed spiritually.”
With this emphasis on knowledge, Canlis says we may be guilty of trying to turn the “Word made flesh” back into words—trying to turn Christ and the whole sphere of physical creation into ideas. She reminds us of Calvin’s teaching that the Trinity is to be entered into as a lived experience of the Christian life—including relationship with the community of brothers and sisters in Christ. She adds...
“If doctrine and knowledge are the goal of the Christian life, then there is no need for church except perhaps the church as a lecture hall….and there is certainly no need for ‘others’, especially since they just get in the way of my personal experience of Christ.”
People who claim to be spiritual sometimes say they don’t like institutions. With that usage, says Canlis...
“‘Spiritual’ is...played off against things formal and bounded, like the church, as if they were inherently at odds. It is a spirituality addressed to our minds and to our moral efforts for which we have no need of others or creation or the sacraments or the church….What’s lacking….is an understanding of the person from whom the word spiritual ought to take its cue—how the Holy Spirit’s realm is with physical things and very physical people.
“In the early church there was no term spirituality. There was no adjective ‘spiritual’—there was the Holy Spirit—so to be spiritual so to be taking part in the spirit’s concrete realm, the church, its sacraments its prayer, its unity. There was no playing of the Spirit against the goodness of creation. So it came as no surprise to the early church that he who hovered over the waters of chaos to bring forth life, that he who hovered over Mary’s amniotic waters to bring forth Christ, with a physical body, should also minister to us in very concrete ways.”

Canlis recounts how “spiritual” gradually changed from its original meaning of life lived by and through the Holy Spirit into something that...
“Had nothing to do with the Holy Spirit’s realm, but with the individual’s mental state ascending to God and away from the things of the flesh….[and] into the privatized, unembodied approach to spirituality that we Christians have inherited today….But Trinitarian spirituality on the other hand calls us to engagement. It puts into the world, into our neighbor, into our local church.
“….And as much as we equate the Spirit’s domain with the free, the unexpected, the unknown—so equally (perhaps more so, but I could be wrong) the Spirit’s domain is the known, the physical, the routine, maybe even the boring….Unlike modern definitions of spirituality that highlight the individual and the incorporeal essence of who I really am, Christian spirituality is always painfully—even embarrassingly—concrete….
“Through baptism and in the name of the Father, and in the name of the Son and in the Holy Spirit—the Spirit leads believers simultaneously into a communion both Trinitarian and ecclesial….Every time we go to church we declare that the whole church, not just my individual self, is the Bride of Christ…. The church is a new set of relations with the Father, Son, Spirit and their extended family that (and this is hard to stomach) form part of my new creation self.”
Canlis says the things we do in church such as praying together, receiving Holy Communion, and listening to scriptures (which were addressed to whole communities in the first place), are things that “liberate me from myself.” She asks...
“Are we still coming to church with Gnostic expectations, wanting new information that will change us? Or are we simply repelled by that ‘scandal of particularity’ that God would choose that means, that group of people, that bread and wine to heal us? After all, I always prefer my brand of brokenness to those people’s brokenness. But if it is in this group, this church that I’m participating in—this group of broken people in which I am being remade—in fact into whom I am being rewoven and into whom my identity is being renewed, then perhaps I can come to church with different expectations.
“Perhaps I can go as the broken person that I am, seeking wholeness there in that place, with that group of people, with that particular food set before me by that particular God, who decided to identify himself with a particular people in history at a particular place, and for a particular salvation for us all. That is the scandal of the church. That is why going to church offends our deepest sensibilities. That is why it is a stumbling block for so many of us. That is why it is foolishness to the Greeks, but it is our salvation!”
It’s all so embarrassingly messy and scandalous. And spiritual.

Comments

  1. Thanks for your contribution and encouragement Jonathan. In my view, what Dr. Canlis has to say is important for all Christians, but is especially helpful to those attending and/or serving in small congregations -- which may be the vast majority of us.

    Canlis says we are often too hard on ourselves, and that part of the ministry of the Holy Spirit is to have us be more gentle with one another and ourselves. This includes having a better appreciation and proper expectation of how Jesus and the Spirit would have us 'do church' in our small gatherings.

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  2. Anonymous8/02/2010

    I'm beginning to see how God uses the church. My own church community is becoming smaller. Many are leaving discontented. I find what keeps me with this body is not the sermons or programs but the relationship we have in Christ.

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  3. Dear Anonymous - Thanks for your comment. I think we all get discouraged from time to time in small congregations, or when we see our group getting even smaller.

    In addition to discouragement, Canlis points out that going to church can "offend our deepest sensibilities." We all want to be thought well of, and yet here we are meeting with a small group of common, humble, broken individuals seeking wholeness (with lives just as messy as our own)....and it looks to all the world like foolishness rather than the doing of a powerful God.

    Thanks for reminding us that it is Jesus that has hold of us, rather than some program or sermon that is "good enough" to hold us. Blessings to you and your congregation.

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