Can I seek your forgiveness in advance? What I write here may be wrong in all sorts of ways. But I'm listening, I really am. I'm trying to understand.
Here's what I know. We in North America live in a culture that has thoroughly imbibed Christian faith. It's in the air, the water. It's so much a part of our history, in some ways we can't even know how much our perception of family, volunteering, work, and leisure, are "Christian."
On the other hand, I live in Fayetteville, Arkansas. It's a very religious town. It's a very religious state. Yet even here, in what some call the Bible Belt, I encounter more people who do not affiliate with a congregation than those who do.
So many of my neighbors who are culturally Christian don't formally affiliate with a church.
And on many levels a lot of adults I know who are not affiliated with a church live more Christian lives, and are more deeply faithful, than some people who go to church.
This leaves me in sort of a pickle. I am proud of the way many of my non-churchgoing neighbors comport themselves in the community and world. With no religious ostentation, no secondary layer of do-goodism, they just go about their business. They make quality things. They work and play well with others. They serve in the community. They provide food for their children.
They're not perfect. Like those inside the church, they could use a good challenge sometimes, even a swift kick in the pants. They make bad choices. They shout at people on the phone. They hoard their wealth.
You know what I mean. In other words, the outward marks of the lives of non-churchgoers are, on almost every level, identical to the outward marks of the life of those who wake up and go to church Sunday morning.
In addition, generally speaking, they believe. They have faith. It is articulate or inarticulate to greater or lesser degrees. But they have faith. And specifically they have faith in Christ. They believe Christ makes a difference in their life, in the world. Those who do not go to church often have more than a general religious sensibility. They identify with the life and proclamation of Jesus.
In this way also they are just like churchgoers. I know more than one lifelong churchgoer who cannot articulate the Christian faith better than those who have rarely darkened the doors of a church building.
But then on Sunday mornings, while us churchgoers head off for worship, they head off for, well, whatever it is they do on Sunday mornings. Frankly, stuff I'd also like to do some Sunday mornings--read the paper, go for a run, drink coffee, mow the lawn, sleep in.
So here comes the conundrum. There are many days, most days, when I want to invite them in to our congregational life. And I do. I'm proud of what we do, and who we are. I'm constantly inviting others.
Then there are days when I have my doubts. Why should I interrupt their lives? Why should I convince them to add an additional layer of outward religiosity to lives that are already in many aspects faithful, spirit-filled, and good? Is it even possible that by getting them to affiliate with us, I will distract them or draw them away from excellent ministry in which they would otherwise be engaged, although not overtly on behalf of the church?
In other words, is it possible that by asking them to join us as church, they will in fact become less of what we want them to be as church than prior to their affiliation?
Is there a way to do more church by being less church?
Is this what Dietrich Bonhoeffer had in mind when he outlined some notes on "religionless Christianity"?
For example, he writes to Eberhard Bethage on July 18, 1944:
[Religious humanity] must therefore live in the godless world, without attempting to gloss over or explain its ungodliness in some religious way or other. We must live a "secular" life, and thereby share in God's sufferings. We may live a "secular" life (as one who has been freed from false religious obligations and inhibitions). To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way, to make something of oneself (a sinner, a penitent, or a saint) on the basis of some method or other, but to be a human--not a type of human, but the human that Christ creates in us. It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the sufferings of God in the secular life.
Or again to Eberhard Bethage on July 21, 1944:
During the last year or so I've come to know and understand more and more the profound this-worldliness of Christianity. The Christian is not a homo religiosus, but simply a human, as Jesus was a human...
So if I ask inquirers returning to the church why they are returning, what do they say? Well, for the many who after long absence come back, I often hear, "I missed it." Missed what? Well, "it." Pretty much what I miss if I miss a Sunday worship. Things like liturgy, sermons, the people, Eucharist, hymns. The whole "going to church" gig. There is a kind of meaning-making in the church that can't be had by other means.
"There was just something missing in my life." Worship seems to re-frame things for us in ways we can't always comprehend. There are fathom-less depths to gathering for Christian worship in community that are often numinous even if difficult to articulate.
So, this leaves me with a couple of confessions. First, I confess that part of me wants to figure out how to turn church completely inside out. What if there were a way to bring everything people seek from "going to church" out into the daily lives of people, so that the thing they miss could come to them in the already present vocations they engage in from day to day. This is the this-wordliness of Christinaity.
Although I have trouble imagining what this might look like, it takes my breath away considering possibilities.
A second confession is more dangerous to say aloud. Essentially, the question becomes: By inviting people to church, are there any ways in which I make them less Christian? Let me give some examples. If they give 10% of their income to a local shelter, but when they join the church they hear our stewardship appeal and divert some of their giving to us, is this a good thing?
If, prior to coming to worship on Sunday mornings, they used to use that time to care for an ailing neighbor, catch up on essential conversation with their spouse, and simply rest, is that a worthy swap of time?
Or, if by becoming more overtly Christian or religious, those we have invited into our community now think there are especially "Christian" ways to do ordinary things, is there danger here? I think there is.
Gregory Walter writes, in his recent blog post, "I would much prefer, if there is a Christian difference in giving, to see how the economy of God's promise alters or frees up ordinary giving so that we can engage in ordinary giving in all its conflict and impurity [as opposed to giving that supposedly has some missional or ecclesial or evangelical 'end']."
And what kinds of habits are new members of our community learning when they become part of our community of faith? Are we really being as faithfully Christian in this community as we should? If those outside the church are being more faithful than those inside the church (and some are) perhaps the more evangelical posture is to tell people not to go to church, not to join my church.
These are simply thought experiments. Remember, I said at the beginning this post could go all kinds of ways wrong. Perhaps I'm completely off-track.
But here's what is on my heart. I really want to invite my friends and neighbors who are not currently attending a church to come join us at mine. I can imagine the many, many ways in which our church would be stronger, and do better ministry if they were a part of our community of faith. I desperately want to invite them in ways that strengthen us, and offer them a context where they can grow spiritually, and be strengthened in faith and life.
But I'm somewhat suspicious of my motives. So I don't want to invite for the wrong reasons. And I'm especially concerned that by inviting them, they'll hear implicit in the invitation a judgment on them that I actually don't have.
I want to offer space for those currently not affiliated to rediscover what they miss, while honoring what is already Spirit-filled in their daily vocations and work and life. It's going to be different for each family, really each individual.
And before I try to change their habits and invite them to become a part of what I do weekly, I want to make sure I have examined myself and motivations so what I invite them into serves not me but the free course of the gospel in the world.
Or something like that.