Sunday, June 3, 2007

God is bigger than your church...

Most church-going Christians in our country are satisfied with one church. In fact, it is such a given in our society that each believer have a "church home" that most people look at you either with disbelief, or worse, when they find out you go to more than one church. I was jokingly going to write a blog about how most people are happy with one church, but we go to three. Then I got to thinking. Why is it that we as Christians are so bound to the "one church for each person" model?

Don't get me wrong, I understand the biblical admonishment not to neglect "assembling together." I honestly feel that as Christians it's important to have a fellowship of other believers for comfort, community, support, and accountability. Many believers think that means a "home church" or fellowship, and that is certainly a legitimate way to interpret it. But is it the only way to interpret or fulfill the admonishment?

It occurs to me that this is very likely a result of the Reformation and the splintering of the Protestant denominations. When the Catholic Church had a virtual monopoly on Christian houses of worship in western Europe, there wasn't much point in shopping around. There was one "Christianity" and you, as a Christian, belonged. You belonged in Paris and in London, Madrid, Rome, and everywhere else. If you were traveling and Sunday came along, you went to the nearest parish. You knew the drill, and it would all be in Latin, just like home. You knew when to stand, kneel, cross yourself, how to respond even if you'd never been there before in your life. I assume you would have been allowed, and even expected, to take the Eucharist if you were baptized.

I'm not here to argue the rights or wrongs of the Reformation, I'm just thinking (at this point) about some of the ramifications. After Luther nailed his suggested reforms to the Wittenberg door, the Protestant Reformation was on its way. After splitting with Rome Protestants decided not to stop there. They kept splitting. I'm also not going to argue about how many denominations there are in the world today. I've read Catholic assertions of "over 30,000" and Protestant rebuttals that there are less than 8,000. I've also read the Protestant claim that if we use the same separation criteria to look at RCC churches that they use to look at Protestant churches, we'd come up with over 2000 Catholic "denominations" as well. So if we drop all the micro-separating of both groups (Prots and Catholics), we end up with 6000-8000 Protestant denominations, up from one originally.

What I do want to talk about is how that splintering into different denominations has affected how we go to church. If you are Presbyterian, you will probably pass by anywhere from 5 to 10 perfectly nice churches on the way to yours every Sunday morning. There is the Baptist church on the corner, as well as five more in the next five miles, and then there is the Methodist church, the Bible Church, the Lutheran Church, and several store-front independent and/or charismatic churches and the new church now meeting in the local elementary school.

We all know why we, as Christians, drive past many churches on the way to our home church. It's because of doctrinal and style differences. And these differences cause some fierce loyalty issues. Our church home is part of our identity, and we are protective of that. When someone "rejects" our church for another, we can feel personally rejected. It's bad enough when someone looking for a church decides ours isn't "the right one." But it's worse when someone who has been at the church for years decides to leave. If you leave a church you can expect to encounter not only sadness and some hurt feelings, but sometimes real hostility as well. Especially if you are changing denominations.

It's not our preferences in doctrine and style I wonder about, it's that fierce loyalty. Our family drives past a lot of churches, too. But what about that loyalty? Aren't we all the family of God? Aren't we all Christians?

And why do we think we each have to go to only one church in order to do it "right"? Those Baptists over there are good brothers and sisters in Christ, but we don't want our Reformed community members worshipping there! Heaven (!) forbid! We all need to be "planted and grow" in one church. Church hopping, or church shopping, is seen automatically as something weak, sinful, and lacking in character. Why?

It is grounded in the bloody differences in the early Protestant church, of course, where sect members fought each other and died to preserve what each saw as the hard-won "truth" about Christianity. This established what is effectively a mentality of "every denomination is an island." We mostly now agree to disagree without bloodshed, but we remain distrustful, none-the-less.

But could the problem today be partly because churches have become businesses? They are businesses at the very least in the fact that they employ people, take in money, and disperse money. Since not only the programs and missions, but the church staff, require a fairly hefty intake of funds, it seems logical that churches would want to attract new members and keep the ones they've got, especially the faithful tithers. And I think you will find that most of the fluctuations in church membership numbers are due to "moving sheep" not new believers. All the churches are drawing from the same pot, so to speak. So perhaps we discourage those moving sheep from roaming. Maybe we build fences to keep them in and post Danger signs all around the perimeter.

But what about the people like us, who go to several churches all at once? People simply don't know what to do with us! Worshiping with different communities of faith, different styles and doctrines, different beliefs and practices, should make us stronger, not weaker. It should make us closer-knit, more understanding, kinder. We should be able to see more aspects of God's greatness when we expose ourselves to more varieties of how His people worship Him.

I understand the desire to have a close knit community, for your children to have friends they grow up with, and for you to have support and people who've known you for years. I want that, too. But what I'm beginning to see is that you can achieve that in a variety of ways, and some people might find that regularly going to several churches is one way to broaden and deepen that community, not make it more shallow.

I haven't always seen the strengths, but I thank God that my family has had this opportunity.


Sentient Marrow said...

Great post, Carrie. Currently, we aren't going to church at all. I mean, I have prayer group regularly. The kids did Awanas this year though their hearts weren't in it. But, overall, I am tired of getting up on Sunday morning when it's the only morning of the week that i have the option of sleeping in. Is that selfish or disobedient? I don't know. The church we are currently trying out is a "church without walls" which formed from a local Lutheran church that decided it was more important to minister to people and spend their money that way than keep paying for running a building and the staff associated with that operation. We've only been able to try the church once since I've been traveling so much this month but I see an opportunity for change... an opportunity for all the money collected (when they do collect which isn't weekly) to go directly to the people who need it. This group is experimenting and doesn't know where God will lead them. I am thinking of going along for the ride.

Sandie said...

Great post! I would love to see more like this on LP even..hint, hint... :) You bring up a lot of interesting thoughts here. I have to say homeschooling made a big difference in this area for me. I was able to have the time and energy to visit, study and worship with many different denominations and even different faiths with the kids. It was time very well spent and if I had it to do over again I would do more of it and I would have switched churches sooner. I didn't switch 'home faiths' but it sure felt like it just by going to a different congregation.

carrie said...

I am tired of getting up on Sunday morning when it's the only morning of the week that i have the option of sleeping in. Is that selfish or disobedient?

I think there are a lot of ways we fulfill our "neglect not to fellowship together." Your prayer group is one example. I think keeping in contact with our friends and family is another way. I think there are benefits to regularly attending a church or fellowship (or two or three!), but I also don't think it's always possible.

The church without walls sounds very interesting! I'd love to hear more about it.

MaryD said...

I enjoy reading your thoughts Carrie!

I know some people find it difficult to develop relationships in several different churches. That's what makes our chuch "home" to me is that people know us and care about us-- although we chose to visit in the beginning because we agreed with the theology, and then we stayed because we liked the style-- but after that it became like family for us.

If I had more energy I'd enjoy worshiping at different churches, some more liturgical, some more laid-back etc. but especially in our limited time in the States it's about the comfort of being part of the family, and reconnecting with them.

SusansPlace said...

Interesting timing, Carrie! I enjoyed reading your meanderings. I visited a Unitarian Universalist church yesterday. It is 40 minutes from my home and during the drive I thought,
"It would be interesting to visit lots of different churches...a different church each week." I am still pondering the logistics and dynamics of such an undertaking.
I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to a UU church yesterday.


Susanne B. said...

Love this, Carrie. I feel quite strange in worshiping at two different churches each week -- glad to know I'm in good company. :)

I feel plugged into both churches which is very cool. I'm closer to the people at Lake Murray but am closer to the pastor at Alpine Anglican, porbably because I'm the only parishoner (besides my kids) at the Friday services.

And I feel closer to Father Acker after Confession. He knows my worst and counseled me so gently yet truthfully. I can see how Confession builds an amazing bond in churches; I wish that Protestant churches had more of it. "Accountability" partners/groups are the closest we can get, I guess.

I appreciate your take on this -- and I agree about some of the fallout from the Reformation, too.

Great thoughts.