Monday, February 01, 2016
The Cult of the Big C
You know what bugs me? "The big C church." I hear pastors and church leaders and culture leaders associated with Christianity say it all the time. And all the time, it drives me crazy. When these leaders refer to the "big C Church," they're referring not to their own, local gathering of Christians, but to the aggregation of every Christian gathering throughout the world, a head count of every Christian in the history of the world. It's a heady, heady concept. But then you look at the marquis at the entrance of their church building, and you look at the masthead of their church bulletin, and what do you see? A big C. It's appropriate to capitalize the C on a church's marquis or masthead, though. That's what you do with proper nouns—from institutional names to honorific titles. To lowercase the name of your church would be an act of shocking pretension. If you're not the first church of e. e. cummings or bell hooks baptist, then it would be silly to act like it. The flip side of the rules of capitalization is that you don't capitalize things that are functional, or conceptual, or generic, or of ambiguous relation. President Obama (honorific) is president (functional) of the United States. The church (generic) down the street is First Church of _________ (the institution). TWEET THIS: The church (generic) down the street is First Church of _________ (the institution). I get why people refer to the "big C church." Sometimes you need to speak universally of not just the church in your midst but the "great cloud of witnesses" that the New Testament names as the church in the world. Sometimes you need to identify yourself with fellow Christians on the other side of the world. It's a good, well-meaning impulse. TWEET THIS: When we capitalize church we emphasize the institutionality of it. But the nature of capitalization is to assign importance. When we capitalize "church" we emphasize the institutionality of it: We assert the "big C church" as something that everyone everywhere must take seriously, even show due deference to. It becomes equivalent in its meaning in the world to other such audacious entities: the United Nations (which is something more than a mere gathering of united nations), the Illuminati, the Mafia, Monsanto, that sort of thing. Such entities assert themselves into the world, flexing their muscles and declaring themselves as the world's great hope. The church, as the living and active presence of Christ in the world, loses some of its vitality when it is so institutionalized. We aren't meant to be set on a pedestal or a throne; we are meant to sink into the dirt of our context, like a seed, there to die in order to bring about new life. TWEET THIS: The church writ large is actually a small c church. In this respect, the church writ large is actually a "small c church." Our activity in the world is subtle and silent, even as its impact is clearly felt: We are compared in the Scriptures to yeast in the dough, salt in the meat, light on a hill. It's not the church that is to be noticed, but what is made possible, visible, by the church. We must decrease; only Christ must increase. TWEET THIS: We must decrease; only Christ must increase. I don't expect anyone is going to join me on this bandwagon. The greatest hurdle is probably because I don't have a clever monicker for what I mean to compete with the cutesy "big C church." Everybody knows what people mean when they say that. Maybe it's evidence that we talk too much about the church to begin with, when we ought to just get to it and do it. Maybe a hashtag would do it: #lowercaseus. We could make bumper stickers.