Faith Works 1-12-17
Where can we find faithfulness?
As the old year ended, I was honored to be asked to do some teaching at a young adult gathering at my denominational camp & conference facility.
Those gathered were college students and entry-level workers, some starting out on careers and others in grad school. They had chosen to spend a festive season together, and at a church-oriented event.
So I was startled, and am still thinking, about an exchange I had there. After my part of the program, I stayed for more of the day to get a sense of the group and their vision for the Christian community of which we're a part. During a portion led by another pastor, we were doing an exercise where we were taking turns asking questions out loud, and responding to each other.
Now I am, obviously, some decades past being a young adult; my partner in the first step of this activity is a leader among this group. My question voiced to this person, and the larger group in a circle around us, was this: how can the church be faithful in the year ahead?
And without a moment's hesitation, the answer came back: the church will not be faithful. The church has never been faithful. Only faithful Christians will be able to make a true witness themselves in their communities.
I was, I will admit, stunned speechless. And the exercise was not one where we did a bunch of back and forth, but I did listen, and I (obviously) have continued to reflect.
"The church has never been faithful." It's a hard assertion to argue with, even if I had the opportunity. Hypocrites and self-servers in the organizational life of the Christian community gathered as "church"? Oh yes, I've seen it. Too often.
But to be perfectly fair, I've seen more than a few individual Christians speak and act and live in a manner I could only, with hesitation and hope for grace, call un-faithful. Emphatically so. Which is why I am hung up on the firmness of the assertion that it's "the church" that is so far beyond hope or grace itself, as a community, as a gathered body.
The anti-establishment strain in American society became a loud public voice in the 1960s, and has ebbed and surged, but mainly surged, ever since. A sociologist or historian would rightly point out that the roots of this anti-establishment, anti-institutional (and anti-intellectual) current flow back to 1776 and even before that, woven into our DNA as a nation, a part of our social assumptions.
And yes, I'm an ordained minister of my tradition, a part of some of its official processes (our Commission on Ministry meets in this coming week, affirming new ordinands, reviewing commissioned ministers, sometimes even removing standing from clergy). I know our failures all too well, historically and currently.
Yet I still have hope, and trust in God's grace to work through institutions as well as, maybe even more efficiently than through particular persons. Saints are handy, but the capital-C Church, whether you focus on the congregational expression of church or the larger judicatories (regions, dioceses, conferences, etc.), is where the saints are equipped. I do believe that faithfulness must be found, and can be detected, in the gathered community; if our faith is only in Christians as scattered and individual persons, I fear the disappointments and divergences would only grow larger than not.
The young adult's sense of "church" (or "Church") is something I, and we, will have to keep wrestling with. I think there are cultural reasons for such a settled and certain belief – I should note that the entire room, or the half of it I could see, nodded in agreement with the statement made to my question – but I also think that there are problems in our own theological self-understanding within some Christian communities. There's a confusion about what it means to talk about "the Body of Christ" at work in the world that we may be paying a price for in the functional outcomes of those muddled or contrary assumptions.
To be blunt, I believe in the significance, if not the priority, of the congregation. Too many "church" leaders see congregations as the problem, when I would argue they are in fact the solution. Here too I have to smile and agree: yes, I'm a parish pastor. And very content to be one. The local faith community can be faithless at times, no doubt, but it also can be forgiven, and redeemed, and renewed.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him about your faith community at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.