The other morning after a four-inch snow I decided to help my neighbor with my trusty snowblower. Coincidentally another neighbor showed up and we worked together to clear our neighbor’s sidewalks and driveway. We got done, high-fived each other and I said, ‘There, we’ve had church for today.” Mark 12:33 says that loving a neighbor is better than going to church. Yep, that’s a paraphrase but it’s right there.
During this Covid time, I have reflected on the meaning of the church. From my own professional and personal experience I have come to think that church is very much a part of the Constantinian Captivity. After the church was made legal and even mandatory it lost its central message of ‘loving one another’ and instead came up with religious inoculation whereby if you get a little of it you won’t be subject to the whole infection of God. Now, that might seem a bit extreme but it’s been proven time and time again that when push comes to shove ‘the church’ would rather be safe and secure than dying for the neighbor in trouble, which is the true definition of love.
Let me give you an example. Once upon a time, as a pastor, I had a finance person ask me, ‘What are you going to do to put more bodies in the pews?’ Not what I was going to do to spread the gospel or help a neighbor but rather how was I planning to get more people in church so that… we could more easily finance the budget.
The church today has become weighed down by its own bureaucracy and self-security.
I am reading Bonhoeffer’s “Letters and Papers From Prison”. At one point he writes to a friend, ‘It’s remarkable how little I miss going to church. I wonder why.’ Many of us have not been inside a church for a long time during this pandemic and some of us are just not missing the experience.
I am wondering if the church is not intimate and outward-focused enough. I suspect that smaller and more intimate groups would be better suited to fulfill the commands Jesus gave to us in the Sermon on the Mount and the two greatest commandments by which he tells us to love God and neighbor. Remember, Jesus only had 12 disciples through which God changed the world.
From the conflict I observe these days in churches, I am convinced that small intimate groups are the only way to reconcile people and resolve such conflicts. The political vitriol we see has split some churches into factions that have become unmanageable.
Now, onto a confession of my own. I have been a professionally paid pastor most all my life. My personal security has been taken care of by the larger institution and so I feel some sense of guilt of speaking this way about the church. But I’ll get over it. However, I am seriously thinking that a small group of disciples can more effectively be the fellowship of change and reconciliation that God wants in this world. And some larger churches can make this work by means of smaller fellowships that carry out the mission of Christ in the world and with one another.
Bonhoeffer went so far as to say that the time will come and should be upon us when the church sells its property to give the money to those in need. He says the pastor won’t be paid or at least very little and probably will have to find secular employment. A tall order that I am sure we can get around if we use the right Bible verses.
A smaller, more intimate group of people can better reach the marginalized people in the community. Much prayer, study, and accountability are better attainable in such a setting.
I don’t know what will happen once churches are fully open but I hope in the meantime we all do some deeper reflection on what it means to be disciples today.