Your final reflections in History of Christianity 1 were rather discouraging to me. I loved hearing about all the things you learned and how inspiring St. Francis, the desert saints, and Julian of Norwich were for your own faith. I loved hearing that the class gave you a whole new depth of understanding of the Living, Triune God. I also appreciated your gratitude for a good semester. I am grateful to you as well. You were excellent every day—highly engaged, curious, prepared, energetic, and enthusiastic—you were a truly delightful class!
It’s your enthusiasm and curiosity all semester that has me surprised by how many of you mentioned themes of wanting to leave the church. One of you said you wanted to leave Christianity but follow God, by which I think you meant leave the organized part of the religion. If I understand you correctly, your reasoning is that you discovered both what the church can be and what the church often is as you studied its history. I do understand that. There were great moments in the church, for sure. Martyrs were severely committed to Christ. So were the desert saints. I see how attractive that commitment to the way of Christ is. We spent time on Christendom and the ways and places the church didn’t live up to the way of Christ, too, and I understand that you may not want to be part of that. I think also that many of you look around at the church in North America and don’t see the kind of commitment you admire in the martyrs but do see the problematic strains of Christendom, even in post-Christendom. Know that I hear you. And I don’t disagree with you.
And yet, leaving the church is not the answer. The church is two thousand years old, which makes her like your elderly great-grandmother who doesn’t move very quickly anymore, who doesn’t always see that great, who sometimes spouts some opinions that you don’t agree with, but who is still your great-grandmother. You can’t stop being her great-grandchild just because you’re embarrassed when you’re with her or because you wish she were different. She loves you, and you’re stuck with her.
Unlike your great-grandmother, though, you can change the church. By joining in its leadership—ordained and lay—you can decide how it’s going to look and act in this generation. I am unashamed to say that I think she is worth keeping and worth sticking with and worth trying to change. For all that it isn’t what it could be and isn’t what Jesus will eventually make it to be, I love the church. Your comments about not loving it, about wanting to leave it, pain me. So let me tell you why I still love the church in hopes that you’ll give her another chance.
I love the church because like the old stained-glass, the church is beautiful in all its colors. The church isn’t just one thing. It is beautiful because it is colorful, intricate, complex, profound, and simultaneously fragile and sturdy. God is working in the church in all kinds of different ways. When I look at what I can see I am overwhelmed by beauty. When I think of all that I know God is doing that I cannot see or even imagine, I am in awe.
I love the church most because that’s where Christ is. The church is the Body of Christ on earth. We’re it. There are no “better” people. I love the church because God loves the church, and God has decided to work through the church. That’s what it means to be the Body of Christ. We are the way God comes to us and to the world. Therefore, the church is where I encounter God. God has promised to be there. God is there in the sacraments, performing mysteries with a devotion and regularity that reveals love and commitment. God is there in Scripture read and performed, speaking his Word and binding us into the story of his redemption. God is there in the Word preached, sometimes even getting up off the page and walking about the sanctuary. (I borrow this image from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who says that the sermon is when Christ gets up and walks among the congregation—“The Proclaimed Word,” in The Company of Preachers: Wisdom on Preaching, Augustine to the Present, ed. Richard Lischer [Eerdmans, 2002], 34.) God is there in the confession and pardon, convicting, hearing, and speaking good news to us week after week. God is there in the singing, the offering of gifts, and the prayers. And in the benediction, God lays his hand on each one of our heads and blesses us to go back into the world for another week.
God is there in the people, too. The church is, after all, the people who follow Christ. God comes to us through one another. So in the church, God is there in Rosemary, in Jim, in George, in Paul, in Lisa, in Kristen, in Kent, in Scott, in Mackenzie. God is there in the people who annoy and frustrate me, too, in the people who I think are not following Christ the way they should. But if they are in the church, God is working in them, just as God is working in me. And so the church is also a place where I witness God redeeming the world and making human beings look more like him. That is a genuine miracle.
Come to church with me Sunday. I’ll tell you more about what I see.
With all love,