“The injunction of the gospel is… to lose one’s life in the service of others, not to keep one’s options open.”
This is John Meacham’s interpretation of John Lewis’ practical theology in the Pulitzer Prize winner’s recent biography of the late Congressperson and Civil Rights icon. It struck me as an acutely apt prophetic challenge for today’s commitment-averse society.
If you talk to contemporary pastors, one of the real stressors in ministry is the unwillingness of people to commit to the congregation. In previous generations, it seems people organized their lives around membership in the body of Christ, as expressed by their local congregation.
“Regular” worship attendance used to mean 50 weeks a year; people might miss worship for vacation or an illness, but rarely anything else. Those were your core members. These days, the definition of “regular” is a lot more like 25 weeks a year. Pastors never really know if even their most dedicated members will show up from week to week.
I don’t think our congregations are without fault in this trend. We’ve largely avoided engaging in the issues that affect daily life for most people. We’ve refused to challenge societal norms with the counter-cultural message of the gospel. We haven’t given people a purpose they find essential to their lives. Much has been written about moral therapeutic deism and you can read up on it elsewhere.
The typical pastoral complaints of youth sports, beach houses, and the pure enjoyment of just sleeping in aren’t entirely wrong either, though. There are certainly more and more options competing with what was traditionally a Sunday monopoly for Christian congregations, but I suspect it’s this notion of “keeping our options open” that proves more dangerous to healthy lives.
We may be over-committed today, but not in the same way we would’ve defined commitment in the past. We’re involved in more things, but much more loosely than we would’ve been twenty years ago. You’re a member of a gym, a book club, and a congregation, but you keep all of those commitments at arm’s length. There’s a “don’t ask, don’t tell” element whereby they won’t demand rigid attendance and we’re always available to do something more interesting.
It’s a by-product of consumer society. We’re always open to trading up. My kid gets recruited for a higher level travel team? Let’s jump ship, teammates be damned. My friends want to spontaneously go out for drinks tonight? There will be another bible study next week.
I don’t want to be a Pollyanna, decrying the lost commitments of the past. We’ve largely abandoned the shame tactics that made people feel guilty for an absence (“we missed you last week” might be a genuine expression of concern, but more often it sounds like passive-aggressive scolding), but we’ve not yet mastered a loving communication of importance.
This is the rub. How do we reinforce the reality that no group is at its best without all its members and also not require those members to bear a larger burden or responsibility than they feel capable of shouldering?
First, the focus of our efforts should be on love. The root of the gospel is not behavior modification, moral policing, or getting people to heaven. The Kingdom of God is where everyone feels valued. Whatever else we do in life, it’s all in a search for meaning. As Christians, we believe you find that meaning in the eyes and in the lives of other people. (Peter Rollins will tell you there’s no meaning to find, which may be true, but he still ends up at the importance of engaging in inextricable relationship with other people.)
We all need some place where we can unload the baggage of the week, express our inconvenient frustrations, and be encouraged to act and react out of the core of our being rather than the messiness of our emotions.
Binge-watching trashy reality shows over a gallon of ice cream allows us to do the first. Laughing and crying with friends over drinks, board games, or ax throwing gives us access to the second. The third, however, requires the Church.
I try to be very precise with my language. A congregation is an organized local body of like-minded people. The Church is the whole of those people, throughout time and space, committed to embodying the gospel. Which means, your board game club might just be the Church, if it helps you better live out what’s really important.
There are real, foundational truths in the world. There are a few things genuinely right and good and true regardless of context. Some things are bigger than us and our emotions and they demand we commit our lives to them if we have any hope of peace in this world.
For Christians, those things are love. That’s it, just love: reckless, extravagant, selfless love for even the worst human being you see each day. We might not be called to end our lives in service of that love – as Jesus did – but we’re absolutely called to give our lives to that love.
Love is the gospel. Whatever and whoever helps us align our lives with that truth is the Church.
Moving forward, Church can’t only bring to mind one very specific image that’s largely defined the word for the last millennium or so. That’s not to say pews and hymns and sanctuaries are out of date or unimportant, just that they are only as necessary as their ability to foster the gospel of love in those who attend.
The important element, as Meacham says, is that we’ve got people around us who help us commit – not to obligations or guilt or pleasure or fun, but to something real and true and deep and bigger than ourselves.
We like to keep our options open to avoid stress and with an eye towards the false promise that easy satisfaction is right around the corner. Whatever we’re looking for: meaning or validation or belonging or peace is not found “out there.” We can only be truly human by going deeper – deeper in love, deeper in relationship, deeper in commitment to one another.
There is no other option, so stop looking.