Reasons I struggle with America’s (Dis)organized(?) Excuse for Religion Part 1

Those who know me personally, or read my work on a regular basis know I dislike a few things, but I rarely give the personal reasons why. I often outline some academic ideas that I truly care about, but rarely develop full critiques with my emotional as well as rational sides. So here I am going to outline a few things I dislike, but explain why, as charitably as possible, with my responses. Because I believe it is important to the character of my mission, not to be defined by what I am against, but what I am for. This post is meant to outline that as charitably as possible.

For those who regularly read, thanks for letting me take a vacation, it was awesome, and now that I’m back I want to talk about the important things, the Jesus things, the love things, and the justice things. But in order to do so, I’d like to talk about the Church.

But anyways, as the title of the post implies I dislike A few things:

America’s (dis-organized) excuse for religion: especially, house churches and de-centralized “religion” in Christian circles.

American nationalism being placed above the church.

Now, of course we all know that it is terrible to be defined by what one is against, and should never resort to this as a primary means, so I will keep my critiques brief if only to outline what I am for more clearly.

1a. I dislike House Churches because they don’t fix the problem inherent in the protestant experiment. They continue the tradition of fragmentation, liberalization and de-communitizing the local assembly. They continue to advance the agenda of undoing the universality of Christian communion, and the idea that our fellowship should be One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic.

A brief moment of history:
The earliest churches were house churches, but those churches were about 50-100 in the first 60 years or so of Chrsitianity. Also, before widespread persecution, churches still met at the synagogues, and would have been even larger.

Practical issues:
1. house churches lead to cultic, personality driven assemblies, and are more not less prone to abuses in leadership due to minimal oversight, if any.

While there may be conspiracies and scandals in any large assembly of people, they are still forced to abide by certain strictures. Whereas, with micro-churches, there are no formal rules to abide by and everyone is gathered under a usually charismatic head, who given the opportunity and time, will likely build a cult of personality around him/herself.

The thing about house churches I cannot take seriously is the idea that anyone can be a pastor no matter what. It seems to me like a further outcropping of the American spirit of self-aggrandizement, liberation, and capitalism. If you do not approve of the local pastor for whatever reasons, likely sentimental, you simply turn yourself into a pastor of a micro-community. You outsource the church to your home, and at that point are no longer within the confines of the creed.

These micro communities are not a “rebirth” of anything Christian, but the outworking of the Enlightenment project to take away all political and public power from the Church’s witness. The Enlightenment sought to marginalize church life in favor of Reason, and it has done so, but the erosion of Reason for sentiment has created these little assemblies of people who have no clue what the Church means. They have no idea that worship and the order of that worship is about more than being “meaningful for me”. The liturgy is more than a bible study for a reason. The proclamation of the Church is for her up-building and public witness. Without a strong and visible proclamation, without being a community gathered under the creeds and with the sacraments what good shall we do? To serve our societies, how shall we do any good if we separate ourselves from Christ? Without an organized leadership, how can the churches be effective? Paul and the other apostles did not build local “relationships” on a micro-scale, they built churches. The theological reasons for this are profound, and yet simple.

The church is meant to enjoy a public presence, even in the midst of persecution hundreds and thousands went to the coliseum and torture chambers because of the publicity of Christian witness. Without a balanced leadership, a developed pastorate and a professional branch dedicated to service, there is no church. Without the work of the apostles and the Spirit, and the interactions of many gathered in a universal assembly, there is only homogeneity. The thing that house churches will ultimately breed is a hipster generation of unresolved tensions because we have simply lacked the moral and imaginative fortitude to be part of something larger than our problems, or ourselves.

2. have no sacred space

American churches are hideous. We’re aesthetically gnostic. We believe in “spiritual spaces” as large as our minds can conceive but have little tolerance for completely disinterested beauty. We tolerate whatever works and shun anything that might make our churches look more like churches and less like offices. Our architecture speaks a great deal about what we value. We value office buildings, we value money and power, banks and executive suites. We value comfort. Some have become tired of large corporate churches, and so instead of running towards true beauty, and the Christian tradition’s offer of disinterested and wondrous beauty, they run from it, in the form of smaller spaces. Little storefront churches, house churches. Now I am not saying that these meetings are illegitimate, the Spirit can use anything, but it strikes me as odd that our religion is inherently atheistic in this country. Our spaces serve us, our buildings serve our needs, instead of our deity. We have lost all conception of what God might want from our spaces because our imaginations can only primarily conceive of what we desire from these spaces.

Icons and chapels were part of the earliest churches for a reason, not merely as a formality, or as the evolution of paganism into the Christian witness, they were recognized as an important part of Christian worship. Otherness. We cultivate synthetic otherness through various means, but we prefer the synthetic easy to swallow brand name instead of the all natural otherness that comes from truly sacred spaces.

Of course to be fair, you can have a separated space which is just as profane and useless as anywhere else. If there is any great lesson we must learn from the prophets, it’s that simply because we go through motions and preach peace and compassion does not mean it is so. Even with Jesus on the scene as the final word, there is a call to live up to that standard. Where there is a community gathered in which Christ is taking form, we can be more certain that there is a church. Even our most valued and sacred treasures can churn out idols for us if we are not certain about the way we dedicate our spaces and our actions towards the proper service of God and neighbor.

A short Anecdote:

I burned out at my last church, where I was a small group leader, because I felt my pastor had missed the vision of what made our church great. He started using seeker-sensitive tactics to grow our congregation and it worked, but to our detriment. We faithful were marginalized and trusted to fulfill duties for the sake of themselves. It stopped being about a community sharing life, and about a group growing their campus, and their amenities on said campus. They wanted to expand the facilities, to build a light tower, and to have a sports field. None of which I am against, but all in time. And the time was certainly not right. This might surprise some of you, but I am not opposed to churches embracing integrating coffee shops and other services like sports. In the middle ages churches had all this and more, well not a starbucks brew, but groceries and education, and community centers.

I think this move can be used to re-medievalize the churches the right way. In America church has become a byword for a building and sunday morning activity. With this movement to integrate several aspects of modern life into the churches, they might once again become community centers, places of learning, places of shared life. It will take faithful dedication to watching and making sure that we do not please our sensibilities first and our neighbor’s needs secondly as we seek growth in this manner.

I understand the heartfelt concern that people express when they say that the Church is not a club trying to just grow in members, and I wholeheartedly agree. But the solution is not to run into smaller, more fragmented communions, but to come together and live a fully catholic, truly universal faith under the breadth and depth and width of the entire witness of the Church. The solution is not running from the churches into homes, but to the churches, to reaffirm them, to rebuild the ruins and sit fast in the desolation, knowing that like the Israelites in exile before us, God will use even what we perceive to be the desolate ruins in his plan of redemption.

Author’s note: This post was written months ago, I have finally finished it, and I have revised it recently. Take it or leave it as is, I’ll be shifting focus come October, but this is only part of a three part mini-series on this issue. after that, i’m re-framing my arguments, and my audience. Thanks for bearing with me. -Eli

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