What is the purpose of the church?

Some say that churches are necessary to build community. I believe that they are. However, since there are many other organizations seeking to build community, what makes parishes different? Some say that the parish, in addition to building community, offers a place to worship God. That is also true – but then again, there are many places where someone can worship or address their spiritual life. So, why go to church? Did you know that about 90% of Americans claim a belief in God but that only 20% of Americans attend any church? That makes it clear to me that people are finding other places to worship and serve God in ways that meet their needs pretty well. Some are saying, then, that parishes are becoming obsolete.

For several years now, new church communities have sprung up that attempt to re-envision the local church community as a sort of multi-media spiritual entertainment center. You certainly can’t create that at home, and the quality of the live music can’t be duplicated by listening to “canned” music. While some of these churches have thrived in our current cultural environment, some of that attractiveness dulls as their message fails to evolve effectively. Some have begun to experience the same decline the rest of “main-line” churches have experienced forcing them to spend a great deal of energy in cyclical strategic revisioning to become the newest, the best, the most innovative.  In places where the message has actually evolved, such local churches have done a bit better – but the struggle to stay afloat requires an ever-expanding base of operations – which in turn requires exponential growth in terms of people and financial resources. Church growth becomes an idol (the thing) rather than the result of effective gospel proclamation.

Other churches, regardless of their facility or worship style, have facilitated a sort of escapism. You might remember Robert Schuler and the Crystal Cathedral (services broadcast as The Hour of Power). On the surface, it seemed to be a place where everything was wonderful and positive and where there weren’t any problems. It was spiritual escapism at its finest. Afterall, if members never had to return to the real world such places could be seen as a little bit of “heaven on earth.” All too often, however, these places thrived as long as no one too closely examined their teachings or scrutinized their practices. In this case, the limits of “the power of positive thinking” soon reached its limits and the real world caught up with the dream: the church filed bankruptcy, its magnificent was building sold, and what remains of the congregation is now in negotiation with a mainline denomination for admission. This is but one example of the error we make when we see the purpose of the Church as “making us feel better about ourselves and the world.”

Image result for maundy thursday

So then, what if the real purpose of Church is genuine personal and social transformation? What if the goal of Church is to build a community that transcends the walls of our buildings so that the community being built wasn’t just inside the church building but all around it? What if we acknowledged that the primary purpose of the Church was to build our community by spiritually transforming the lives of our members by re-connecting ourselves to the mission and ministry of servant leadership that Jesus envisioned and acted out at the Last Supper?

Imagine if John Q. Public would not only volunteer to serve meals with the group at church but also would find a way to be personally involved doing something one-on-one in the community ? Perhaps he would tutor a high school student in math, or identify an elderly person who needs help with yard work, or volunteer at a hospital or nursing home to keep a lonely person company? Then, and this is critically important, what if the church gathered its members from time to time to examine and celebrate how their service had an impact not only on the folks around them but also in their spiritual lives? Doing that might help us to make connections between how our personal spirituality has an impact in every area we touch — especially outside the “red doors.” When that happens, we may begin to see why Jesus says that Kingdom of God is already all around us. All we need, as Jesus said, are the eyes to see it.

This is exactly what we hope to do later this year. As part of St. Luke’s continuing visioning process (VISION20/20), we hope to convene an “Outreach Summit” – a time when we will use the power of Appreciative Inquiry to discover and explore our deepest desires for this important element of our life together.

The Outreach Summit will seek to move us closer to the two major goals set out in VISION 20/20, namely:

  1. To strengthen existing efforts and intentionally seek to address the systemic causes of hunger and homelessness and other forms of poverty in our community.
  2. To ground all outreach efforts in prayer and study, discourage our tendency to reduce social justice and service efforts to “social work,” and to encourage our own spiritual growth and development through genuine servant-discipleship.

This work may help others see that spending an inordinate amount of money on high technology “entertainment” worship environments may not be good stewardship of the church’s resources. We may find new uses for currently unused space in our own buildings or those available in the community-at-large. When we start to see that our purpose as not merely to survive but but to lift all of us up, we might begin to see stewardship and fiscal responsibility in a new way. If these things happen, we will not only be transforming ourselves but the community in which we live, play, work, and study.

Above all, we need to trust that if we genuinely commit ourselves to the Way of Love – to the Way of Jesus, people interested in transforming themselves and their society will join with us in the challenges ahead. Maybe that’s the point of having a church at all – maybe that is what community building is all about! Maybe, just maybe, that’s the purpose of the Church.

Source: Rector’s Blog

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