Tuesday, August 7, 2012

A Perfect Church?

Over the last several months, I have found myself involved in a number of conversations regarding what a church service would look like if I were designing it from scratch. Part of this stems from my own disenchantment with the Church, as well as the feelings of many of my peers who have been alienated by the institution. Part of what follows also stems from my dreams of what the Church could be. These words are my own opinions, and partially the product of many of the above-mentioned discussions. I'd love to take this opportunity to encourage further dialogue.

"Bigger is better?" Not in this house.

First of all, the church should be small. Early churches functioned within the confines of the immediate "neighborhood," with worship services often being held in houses (these house churches formed a larger community network, resulting in "the Church in Corinth," or "the Church in Rome"). In a culture that often values a super-sized McChurch over an intimate community, it is refreshing to think of the Spirit of God moving more fluidly among less institutional meetings. Additionally, churches that get "too big for their britches" often fail at adequately discipling and providing for the spiritual needs of their congregants; often, members of large churches simply have the opportunity to show up, feel good about themselves for a while, and return home without offering much in return to the community (for more on this topic, see Wolfgang Simson's 2001 book, Houses That Change the World: The Return of the House Churches). A 20-30 member church provides an opportunity for adequate, organic community without drowning the congregants in the costs of coffee bars and theater seats.
Furthermore, churches should have no business owning property (unless it serves a significant purpose other than being a house of worship—ie., a homeless shelter). The house of God is not a steepled building (as beautiful as they may be). The house of God is all of creation, and is attested to in the human heart. Why should a congregation take on the burden of a mortgage, or pay to heat/cool for a whole week a building that is mostly utilized only on Sundays?

No creeds, no sacraments, except...

The years have not been very kind to the Church's penchant for setting beliefs and practices in stone. The Nicene Creed, influenced by the major political and theological issues of its day, is not as pertinent to today's Church as it once was. In general, creeds are no sooner set to paper before they become over-analyzed and outdated—especially in the fast-paced theological milieu of the 21st century. Though I'm sure many will disagree, I propose that the only necessary sacrament to maintain a healthy Christian community is the tradition of the Eucharist. The symbol of the table is the most spiritual element of Christian orthopraxy; it feeds the body while also feeding the spirit. It carries with it the notions of sharing, sacrifice, friendship, and social health, and I feel it should be a vital piece of weekly worship.

Order of Worship

It is important to explore and expand beliefs and traditions. However, there must be a baseline order of worship for any regular meeting/service, or its own fluidity will cause it to fail. Granted, every order of worship is subjective, and reflects the values of its particular faith community. With that in mind, however, here is what I envisioned:

- Gathering/Greeting/Passing of the Peace/Reading of Scripture (15 minutes). I seldom experience as much joy as when I have the privilege of initiating the Passing of the Peace in the small rural church where I often preach. By beginning the service this way, a general pleasant attitude is engendered in the hearts of those gathered. Reading scripture at the start of service and before the period of contemplation gives congregants something to meditate upon.
- Contemplation (30 minutes). I love this Quaker practice, and believe that it should comprise the most significant time segment of worship. I personally feel closest to God in a room full of people together in total silence. However, even I will readily admit that a full hour of silence is taxing, and perhaps does not exactly fulfill all of a community's spiritual needs.
- Homily/Music (15 minutes). This should be the least important part of the service, and at the same time, the most malleable. Should someone desire to speak, that would be fantastic! Should the congregation happen to have a musician that could lead us in one or two songs, that's wonderful! But the service does not hinge on this portion. This is merely a time of worshipful expression, in whatever form that might take.
- Fellowship/Eucharist (As long as it takes). This should be the most important part of the service. Being the central practice of Christian tradition, the sharing of a meal helps build community and invites us to share in the same love that Jesus shared with his disciples.

Congregants would sit in a circle/square, similar to the style of a Quaker meeting house. There may be candles; perhaps not. There may be an altar; perhaps not. The focus would be on one another.

Diversify, diversify, diversify!

I want to attend a church that is not afraid to try new things. I want to attend a church that is not afraid to reach out artistically to feel out the meaning of its own humanity. The human soul is free, and the Church should relish and take advantage of this freedom in any way it can. If a painting, song, film, or other piece of art seems particularly relevant to the worship of God, it should be used and discussed! Art and the process of creation should play a vital role in a worship service. People should be free to express themselves, and the Church should make room for them to do so! And the above-mentioned Order of Worship should be adapted to accommodate. I want to attend a church where this is as welcome as this. Or this. Or, for whatever reason, even this.
This all sounds fine and dandy to me. But here's the great difficulty: the Church does not exist to serve the needs of one person, or even two or three. Churches—as places of worship—exist to serve the spiritual needs of the congregation; they function primarily as a place where communities can gather to experience the Other. Post-modernity has splintered any illusions of a monolithic worship service that we might have previously held to be true. The so-called "Emerging Church Movement" has given birth in the last twenty years to schizophrenic faith communities who vacillate between the desire to be grounded in tradition and the desire to be sensitive to those without a specific tradition (a stance that has erroneously been dubbed "seeker-friendly"). I suggest that a church need not be encumbered by its desire to be sensitive to others' unfamiliarity in order to make converts. Churches should be courageous laboratories of spiritual experimentation that are at the same time unafraid of seeking out their own traditions. The only way in which the Church can continue to be a place of hope in this decade and the decades to come is if we break free of what is known and begin to dream.
For more information about house churches, check out these 15 theses by Wolfgang Simson.

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