Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Between Churches: The Dance of the Christ-Culture

One of the tricks of looking for a new church is the presumption that this new place will not suffer the shortcomings of the old place, that "different" is somehow inherently equal to "better"--although "too different" is more often thought to be "worse."

Presbyterians with a highly developed sense of personal space, for example, might chafe at the hugging and laying on of hands at a Pentecostal service down the road. Meanwhile megachurchfolk wince at the smells and bells (and scarcity of jumbotrons) at an Anglican communion. "Different" is the order of the day for those of us who find ourselves between churches, but it has to be the right kind of different.

The "right kind of different" has, in fact, been a question plaguing the church for the duration of modernity at least, and maybe, in a sense, for the length of the church's existence. In his 1951 book Christ and Culture Richard Niebuhr identified five postures the church takes toward the culture surrounding it. Examples of all five could be immediately called to mind by Niebuhr's contemporaries, and can still be easily found sixty years later. Is Christ against, of, above, paradoxically related to, or transforming culture? The answer to the question is necessarily historical, because whatever their relation, Christ and culture are the central organizing motifs of history: What has God done in the world, and what has the human race made of the world?

That's what makes the search for a church home so tricky: it's not just a question of where and how a person fits; it's a question of how this potential church home completes, even fulfills, the history of the world--even the history of God. To declare a church "home" is, at least in a sense, to declare to the whole world (even to God) "This is where you belong; what are you doing out there?"

I'm serious: there's an undeniable ego in the mix when you go hunting for a church. It's not entirely conscious, and it's ultimately not as heartfelt as I made it sound above (this is far too vulnerable a quest for sustained pomposity). But to the person on such a quest, the dance of Christ and culture starts to look like a slow song at homecoming, where in the shadows the dance partners look less like two separate beings and more like one indecipherable thing--too close for the onlooker's comfort. A church, to the church-hopper-shopper, looks like a "Christ-culture"--whatever that is.

That's not a bad way to describe a church, I suppose. But whatever a Christ-culture is, we need to remember, it's a bunch of people gathered in one place. Your mind will play tricks on you, trying to convince you that you're looking for the holy grail, the fulfillment of history, the ladder to heaven. You'll be faced with the optical illusion that these people are Jesus, that the Holy Spirit is in the planks and drywall of that building, that God looks like this pastor and likes those ushers best. In reality, however, you're looking at a bunch of people gathered in one place--in good, albeit fickle and faulty faith. Every Christ-culture is like a kid at a school dance, trying not to look ridiculous, trying to remember the steps. Our faith is lived out in such stumbling, but such stumbling is not the object of our faith. The perfect love of God is where our stumbling Christ-cultures are headed, and where we should be headed as well. As theologian Donald Bloesch reminds us in his Crisis of Piety:

God's kingdom is to be associated with a new heaven and a new earth. Moreover it will be manifested in God's time and in His own way. . . . We cannot build the eternal kingdom, but we can pray and hope for its realization. . . .

Since the kingdom of God ultimately lies beyond history the Christian life is one of pilgrimage. We can anticipate and approximate the goal of perfect love, but we can never finally arrive in this life. Ours is a theology of wayfarers.

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