It is important to distinguish between belonging to the church (to a community of fellow-followers founded by Jesus that exists invisibly and universally, throughout time and space) and belonging to a church (a particular denomination, structure, congregation or place).
Belonging to the church is integral to the christian life. If we have decided, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to follow Jesus’ Way, Truth and Life, then we are necessarily members of the universal church.
But I’m not so sure about ‘church’ in the ‘sitting in pews on a Sunday morning listening to the man at the front and giving him your money’ sense of the word. Belonging to a church might be helpful for some, at certain times, and in certain ways, but it is not always necessary for everyone. I don’t see any clear mandate from Jesus that the universal, invisible church should take any particular institutional form. There is an assumption in the New Testament that fellow-followers will gather together to encourage and support one another. But no requirement that it be done in a dusty building with a leaking roof, that there be a ‘worship team’ with electric guitars, or that there should be a pastor who calls all the shots and does all the talking.
In other words, being written in the Lamb’s Book of Life is not dependent on being written in the membership rolls of any particular congregation. For many, membership of a local congregation can be a source of help, blessing and community. I don’t doubt it. For some, however, it can become an idol. It’s all about building ‘our’ church, expanding, raising more money, doing ‘exciting’ things. It’s just empire-building, and its endemic in the institutional church. It’s this sort of thing (coupled with intellectually shallow, brittle, conservative preaching) that makes the institutional church a source of frustration, misgivings and disillusionment for some of us. It actually gets in the way, for us, of authentically following Jesus.
I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about how I am done and disillusioned with the institutional church, so I will not labour that point further here. I would like to reflect a little, however, on possible alternatives. How might it be possible to achieve a specific incarnated community of members of the universal church in a way that doesn’t just become institutional cash-cow?
I have no definite answers to this question, although it is one that I think about very often. Nevertheless, I’d like to offer some preliminary ideas, if only as a spark to further thought and discussion, on the principles on which such a community might be built.
1. Intellectually robust teaching that takes modern biblical scholarship, science, comparative religions, and the findings of history and anthropology seriously. We cannot have a church in which the message of Jesus is contingent on accepting 1st century worldviews about the origins or nature of existence.
2. Recognition of plurality and difference. Christianity is complex and many faceted. We don’t all have to agree on everything. The core on which we do have to agree might, in fact, be very small indeed: ‘Jesus is Lord’ was the first creed, and perhaps the best that has very been devised. There should be room for different soteriologies, christologies, eschatologies – as long as we can learn from one another, remain open to one another, and not condemn one another for such differences of opinion. We should place Jesus at the centre, not doctrines.
3. A firm commitment to tackling poverty, homelessness, racism, exploitation, slavery, war, and abuse of power at the heart of everything we do. Christianity is about standing on the side of freedom, peace, justice and love. If we get this wrong, we might as well pack up and go home, because we will have missed the point of what the gospel is about: liberation and transformation, setting captives free, wiping away tears, bringing love and joy and hope and life and abundance – in practical (and most often edible) ways, in the here and now.
4. Democratic, plural leadership. No one person in charge. No ‘senior pastor’ who claims to be primus-inter-pares but runs the show like a dictator. Congregationalism should be taken seriously – not just in business meetings, but also in meetings for worship: that is, everyone should be able to contribute, to share in the preaching, testifying, singing and music making.
5. Following from point 4, no paid clergy, no paid staff, no church buildings. Once a church has a building, so much of their time, work and money is put into serving the building, and not into serving the community. The church can meet in people’s homes. Larger conservations, gatherings and events can take place in venues hired for the occasion.
6. Limitations on size. Each congregation should be no bigger than can meet comfortably in a large living room. But several of these congregations co-operate in order to achieve common goals (particularly in terms of serving the community, doing charitable outreach etc). Keeping it small prevents empire building. Of course we want the church (universal and invisible) to grow, but we can do that by creating new small congregations that branch off like amoeba, not by building massive mega-churches that are invariably filled with tithing pew-sitters being lectured at by a millionaire pastor-entreprenuer who is only in it for the private jet.
7. Just as I see the future church as post-evangelical, I also see it as post-Catholic and post-Orthodox; that is to say, the little house church is a manifestation not of the Protestant branch of christianity, but of the whole universal christian experience. I can envisage a combination that pairs progressive theology with the cycles of the liturgical year, action for social justice with the Common Lectionary, fully egalitarian participatory congregationalism with Gregorian chants, and sermons on environmental stewardship with icons and candles.
8. I envisage a ‘rule’ for christian communities, a little bit like a monastic rule (but obviously much shorter, and not necessarily intended for a residential community) in which these principles could be embodied. This rule would be replicable, thereby providing a simple and accessible basis for the incorporation of independent house-church congregations in keeping with these principles. It wouldn’t be necessary to constitute each house church from scratch – any group of people could download the rule and use it as a baseline for establishing their own little congregation on these lines.