Friday, June 10, 2011

What is church?

What is church? A recent column in the New York Times started me thinking about that question (Mark Oppenheimer, “The Church That Oprah Winfrey Built,” May 27, 2011).

The column infers that Oprah through her show created a “church,” a community of people whose spiritual needs are met through her program and associated products, especially the books that she features.

As Islam expands in the United States, and to a lesser degree in other western countries, imams face new expectations. People look to the imam for pastoral guidance, for community leadership, and for organizing social, welfare, and educational programs at the mosque. In other words, the mosque instead of being simply a place of prayer becomes the focal point of a community who look to the mosque and its leader to meet their spiritual needs. Western culture transforms a distinctive Muslim institution into a hybrid of Islam and Christianity.

In American Grace by Robert Putnam and David Campbell (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010), the authors describe a Jewish synagogue, Beth Emet, which is located in a Chicago suburb. Setting that description in the context of American religion, Putnam and Campbell remark about the “Protestantization” of Judaism, the process by which Judaism has responded in a similar fashion to the same type of expectations that Islam has more lately encountered.

More and more people find themselves disenchanted with organized religion but continue to describe themselves as spiritual. In surveys, these people criticize organized religion as hypocritical and unhelpful. Too many congregations focus on the “what” without thinking about the “why.” Consequently, programs exist for the sake of the program and not as a means to the important end of nurturing and celebrating spirituality. Although I strongly disagree with Rick Warren about the purpose of the church, I think he has hit the nail on the head, as his bestseller indicates, by focusing on the purpose driven church (this came out before his better known book, The Purpose Driven Life).

Organized religion needs to rediscover that its real purpose is nurturing and celebrating spirituality. Anything that does not support that mission diverts and distracts.

Christians chart their spiritual path according to the teachings of Jesus. To truly be a Christian church a congregation must be a community of people who seek to walk the Jesus path together. This requires that people know what constitutes spirituality and how to nurture that spirituality in a manner consonant with what Jesus taught.

My guess is that many congregations fall woefully short of that standard. Some small congregations simply focus on keeping the doors open (and the vast majority of Christian congregations are small). Larger, more vibrant congregations may succeed as a community that nurtures and celebrates spirituality more by accident than design, often unable to define with any real measure of clarity what “spirituality” connotes.

The human spirit has six key aspects: self-awareness, linguistic capacity, aesthetic sense, limited autonomy, creativity, and the capacity to love and be loved. A healthy church will intentionally create a community that emphasizes all six aspects.

For example, an Episcopal congregation at worship will gather in a place where the aesthetics invite attention to the beautiful and that which is greater than the self. The words of the prayers, scripture readings, and sermon will engage the linguistic capacity and invite the gathered to become more of themselves, of one another, and of that which is greater than self, i.e., God. The music will similarly engage the aesthetic sense, linguistic capacity, self-awareness, and – at its best – be a catalyst for creative engagement with the community, the world, and God. Holy Communion will invite people to exercise their limited autonomy to make a choice (whether or not to receive, with the commitment that implies) while continuing the reflection (prayer) begun earlier in worship. Finally, the thrust of the worship in total will be to help people to experience the community’s love for them as an expression of God’s unconditional love, love that impels them at the end of worship to love self, others, and creation more fully.

Of course, no one pattern of community life will fit everybody. Do you participate in a community that nurtures and celebrates your spirituality?

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