The traditional Christian church with its traditional message and image is becoming increasingly irrelevant. It happened in Europe a long time ago, and is happening now in the US. More and more people who try to do good identify themselves as secular humanists rather than Christians. More and more Christians identify themselves as progressives for whom the traditional gospel story is meaningless. It really is time to rethink and reform how we understand both church and world.
It seems as though the basic issue for the church is how to survive in an increasingly secular society. There are many analyses of why mainline churches are in numerical decline, but most of the talking points seem to be sociological, pertaining to changing demographics, etc., with little mention of theological perspective, a point of view that is essential to the conversation. There are two critical points from a theological perspective: one concerning the church, the other, secular society.
First, in order to be true to itself as well as to be relevant to society, the Christian church must first strip away everything extraneous and lay bare its reason for being. Why is there a church in the first place?
There is one circumstance, and one only, one set of events from which all else flows, and that is the simple yet under appreciated fact that something very special happened when Jesus interacted with the men and women who were his disciples. This is a historical fact, a fact which in and of itself is the foundational core without which there would be no church, no New Testament, no 2000 years of church history, no writing these words today. Had the disciples never been affected by their encounter with Jesus, there would have been no interest whatsoever in his birth, his crucifixion, and everything in between, including his teaching and his life.
What was this special thing that happened? When the disciples were encountered by Jesus, they discovered what it meant to be a truly loving human being and they felt in contact with the divine, both at the same time, the one in the other. Moreover, when Jesus was crucified and they gathered together, they knew that he was alive in their midst as a living spirit of a new order that transcended their ability to understand. They were so convinced of this Living Presence in their community together, that they were willing to suffer death themselves.
Every Christian agrees to this foundational fact. What we must also realize is that everything else that we find in the church is secondary to this event, including all doctrine, organization, sacraments, liturgy, everything, including the New Testament itself. True, were it not for the reports that we find in the gospels, we would know only from secular records that Jesus existed as a trouble-maker for the Romans. The gospels tell us that Jesus called disciples who followed him, but had the disciples not been affected as they were, no one would have reported it. Furthermore, every book of the New Testament, being written decades after the death of Jesus, is reflection upon that death and the life that preceded it, reflection upon the disciple-Jesus encounter. It is thinking about the event, but not the event itself, and the thinking, the theology, differs. Mark, Matthew, Luke, John, Paul, James- everyone has a unique point of view that differs from the others. Son of God, virgin birth, physical resurrection, dying for others’ sins, preexistent word, trinity, sacraments, church, etc., -every belief that has become “essential” to traditional Christianity is reflection after the core event, and that core event is the interaction between Jesus and his disciples.
Of course, if someone believes that the bible is the absolutely inerrant written word of God, then there is no conversation. But if folks can accept biblical scholarship, as it seems most do in the progressive church, then differences in belief are subordinated to everyone accepting the core event: the formative relationship between Jesus and the disciples. Differences in doctrine can be discussed, but not argued. We can be one, despite a variety of belief, and we must not impose a “Christian” list of doctrinal beliefs on an unwilling secular world.
The second thought pertains to this secular society. We are all homo sapiens. In so many respects, it makes no difference whether I am a believer or non-believer, Christian or secular humanist. We all limit ourselves by our parochial perspective. We all feel a certain emptiness and search for meaning in life. We all experience moments in which we are lifted out of ourselves by something that transcends our being. We all need to be with others whom we love and who love us.
Recognizing that all people share these characteristics, the function of the church is threefold. First, and speaking negatively, it is not to convert people to the “one true religion”. It is, rather, to help everyone overcome their parochial perspective, search for meaning, experience those “moments”, and love and be loved.
Secondly, the function of the church is to share the story epitomized in the Jesus/disciple encounter, a story that makes great sense to us, the church, for the story tells us that it is in and through the God we find in Jesus that we are enabled to overcome our parochialism, fill the void in our lives, discover God anew in those moments, and love others. Even as we proclaim the gospel, we must recognize that this story may not make sense to all. And that is fine.
And, thirdly, we must join with others in doing good in the world.
When Jesus called his disciples, both men and women, he created a microcosm of a fulfilled and loving humanity, to which others might look and see what it means to be a human being. Today, as always, the world needs a reminder and an image of what it means to be a caring and sharing community, and that is a function well-suited to the church. Other communities can and may and do exhibit the same wholeness, and the function of the church in this regard is to celebrate the love and happiness it sees elsewhere, to reach out to it, and to exemplify that love and happiness in its own being, extending the invitation to share in its community.