Can We Really 'Shop' For a Church?
By: Deacon Keith A. Fournier
© Third Millennium, LLC
"Christ has flooded the universe with divine and sanctifying waves. For the thirsty he sends a spring of living water from the wound which the spear opened in His side. From the wound in Christ's side has come forth the Church, and He has made her His bride"
Origen, Early Church father
"We need to take refuge with the Church, to drink milk at her breast, to be fed with the scriptures of the Lord. For the Church has been planted in the world as a paradise" Iranaeus of Lyons
"He cannot have God for his father who has not the church for his mother"
Cyprian of Carthage, Early Church Father
"In the Risen Christ, in his glorified body, in the very opening of His wounds, it is no longer death that reigns but the Spirit, the Breath of Life. And the cross of victory and of light, which is the pattern of our baptism, can henceforth transform the most desperate situation into a death-and-resurrection, a 'Passover', a crossing-point on the way to eternity.
And that is what the Church, this profoundly holy institution is: it is the baptismal womb, the Eucharistic chalice, the breach made for eternity by the Reurerestion in the hellish lid of the fallen world. The Church is the Mystery of the Risen Lord, the place, and the only one, where separation is completely overcome; where paschal joy, the 'feast of feasts', the triumph over death and hell are offered to our freedom, enabling it to become creative and work towards the final manifestation of that triumph, the final transfiguration of history and the universe. ...In its deepest understanding the Church is nothing other than the world in the course of transfiguration"
Olivier Clement, Orthodox theologian and author
I was traveling back from Richmond, Virginia after having served as a weekend deacon at St. Benedicts. I was especially tired and facing a two hour drive back home. So, I turned on the radio to listen to someone talking to me. Most of us know the drill, in order to pass the time and avoid "nodding off" on the road, we listen to "talk radio". I found a program on Public Radio which I hoped would keep me awake on the drive. It did much more. It opened my eyes and moved my heart. It reveals a hunger that is not being satisfied and a desperate need for the Church to become what she is and open her doors to the world waiting to be reborn.
Shopping for a Church?
The program, a special presentation of a P.B.S. series entitled "All Things Considered", was dedicated to examining the growth of what is called the "Mega Church" movement in a segment of Western Protestant Christianity. The title of the program was "Big Churches Use Technology to Branch Out." It focused specifically on a trend toward building "Satellite" churches which have the messages delivered to their assembly over video conference.
The reporter visited several Protestant "mega churches" who were participating in this "new" technological approach and noted some commonalities among them. For example, most have eschewed much of what they perceive as "formalism". The people being interviewed in the first part of the program were in the very facilities that house these groups. Some of these facilities were built by the groups and some were leased, either from a commercial developer or a former Church.
The appearance of the facilities was another common point; they had no interest in creating what they perceived as "churchy" looking environments. One group boasted of covering over the stained glass windows left from a prior occupant of their facility in order to place the video screen in front of them.
The reporter interviewed several people attending these "services". They extolled the fact that they were able to obtain coffee as they entered the facility. While speaking with the reporter, they took their lattes and cappuccinos into the main auditorium of the "Church". There, they listened to a band that could be heard as the background of the interview. The music was contemporary in its sound.
One couple spoke to the reporter of their fatigue with past church experiences and how they longed for something more "alive" and "fulfilling". They spoke of the attending these "new" churches, where the "message" is actually presented over video monitors, as the answer to "their needs".
One person being interviewed commented that watching the "messages" was like "watching TV". He claimed that the content of the messages helped him to be more successful in his business and experience a more fulfilling life. He later added that he and his wife liked attending this service by video because it "kept their children interested" One telling line came up several times in these interviews as, one after another, people told the reporter the reason they now attended these services: "We church shopped for a while..." they all said.
The expression called back to my own mind an article that I had read several years ago in my local paper entitled "Church Shopping: Finding the perfect place to worship is answer to prayers for many." I decided to read that particular article- after first dismissing it cavalierly -because I wanted to understand this phenomenon.
The subtitle reminded me of the words of an old Pentecostal preacher I met when I was as a teenager, right before I came home to my Catholic Christian faith. "Son, if you ever find the perfect church, don't join it" he opined, "it won't be perfect anymore." I then asked myself a question, the same one that came back to me as I listened to this P.B.S. Report, can we actually "shop" for a Church?
The "Seeker" Movement"
I understand that some people have been dissatisfied with their experiences of what is presented as "Church" in some circles. That was clear in this "All Things Considered" program that I listened to on my way home from Richmond. However, the very notion that we can "shop" for a church like we shop for consumer goods misses the very nature of the Church and reveals a serious challenge facing Christianity in this Third Millennium.
It also misses the existential purpose of human life. It reduces our Divine call and human vocation - to be in communion with God- which is the heart of the Christian faith - to one more consumer selection among many in a growing smorgasbord of modern materialist/consumerist lifestyles.
The very expression "church shopping" emerges from a growing phenomenon receiving much attention these days, what is called the "seekers" movement. This "seeker" movement emerges from a fundamental human experience, the search. The "search" can become the doorway into the Church because it opens the seeker up to the limits of their own answers and turns them away from self and toward the God who created them for loving communion - and then re-created them and incorporates them through Jesus Christ. However, it can also lead to emptiness and delusion by, in a sense" "spiritualizing" self centeredness.
We can all identify with this "search", because we have a need to "belong", to find a place, a home. The Christian claim is that we were all made for God, and as St. Augustine said so well "our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee." However, it is only there, in the Lord, that we find our true home.
We also are called "home" and in the classical Christian vision, that home is the Church, a very participation in the Trinitarian communion in and through Jesus Christ.
The "orthodox" (in the sense of theologically faithful) understanding of the purpose of each of our lives is that as we were all born from our mothers womb, we are invited by God, in and through Jesus Christ, to be "born again" into the Church, the new humanity being re-created in Him, through our passage through a new birth canal, another womb, the font of Holy Baptism. The modern "seeker" movement - and the trend that is called "church shopping" -is symptomatic of a deep longing to belong to God but suffers from woefully inadequate ecclesiology, which is an understanding of the very nature of the Church.
One of the problems we face in articulating this is that some of our Christian friends who have been caught up in this trend have rejected any real discussion of theology as if it is a bad word.
Yet, theology is, after all, according to its ancient definition "faith seeking understanding." In an age that has elevated shallow thinking to an acceptable state of being; I believe that we need all the intelligent reflection on what it means to be a Christian that we can find!
Theological issues are what lie at the root of the topic examined in this radio program and the phenomenon revealed in the newspaper article I read years ago -the very notion of "church shopping" and the mindset it reveals. Those interviewed expressed a way of thinking about the Church and the Christian vocation that was anything but classically Christian. It revealed a kind of thinking that would have been foreign to ancient Christians.
Some contemporary Christians have lost the depth of understanding, found among classical Christians, concerning the nature of the Christian vocation, the nature of the Church and the nature of Christian worship and living. However, that does not change the ontological truth that to belong to Christ is to belong to the Church. An early Church Father said it well: "whoever has God for his father has the Church for his mother." The only question is whether those who opt for a limited experience of Church will settle for what will never satisfy.
The Church is not, in the first instance, about "function", or "benefit"- at least in the contemporary sense of meaning what we "get" or what we do - or even what we experience.
The Church comes from above, it is an invitation into the very life of God through Jesus Christ, a participation in the Divine Nature , that is instituted by the Lord and to which we respond. The Church is a relation, a "mystery", in the sense conveyed by the Greek word "mysterion", an invitation into a relationship which can not be fully grasped.
That relationship is nuptial, it is the beginning of a call to be espoused to Jesus Christ as a bride to a bridegroom. This is more than analogy, it is ontology. The Church is a gift and a seed of the Kingdom to come. The Church is the vine into which we are grafted , the new family begun at the Cross where we learn to love because we enter into the very communion of Love. Birthed from the wounded side of the savior, the "New Adam" on the altar of the Cross, the Church is His Body now continuing His redemptive mission on the earth.
Our place in this eternal relationship is determined by our response to the One who invites us, Jesus Christ. We do not make the Church, the Church re-makes us. Each of these insights lies at the heart of the classical ecclesiology that is so evident in the early Christian literature, sampled by the quotations which begin this article. They are also distinctly different than the notion of Church revealed in these interviews.
What can be learned?
There is much to be learned from both the newspaper article and from the Radio special on NPR. Not necessarily in the way the author or the interviewer intended, but at a deeper level. Yes, I must admit, this all reveals the shallowness of some contemporary versions of Christianity. It smacks of what was recently warned of by Pope Benedict XVI, a kind of "do it yourself religion" .
Though these experiences of "Church" referred to in the interview may help people along the path of responding to the invitation of Jesus Christ to come into the fullness of Christian living, they, at best, only act as a road-sign, pointing people toward asking important questions about the meaning and purpose of their lives. They will not satisfy that longing for finding our home in God. Indeed, they reflect just how far we have wandered from the ancient Christian faith and from the early Church's self-understanding.
All this talk of "church shopping" forced me to think about the nature of the Church and just who actually does the "shopping." I now share some of those thoughts with you, my readers.
The Church searches for us
There is little left within segments of contemporary Protestantism of what is the classical vision of the nature of the Church. Sadly, this lack of "ecclesiology" (the study of the nature of the Church) has actually created a vacuum which has led to this kind of consumerist notion of shopping for a Church. Even more sadly, the vacuum -and the resultant inadequate notion of church - is beginning to make its way even into some Catholic circles.
In one of his last books entitled "Memory and Identity: Conversations at the Dawn of a Millennium", (which was a compilation of conversations and dialogues with others), we find some insightful words from the late Pope John Paul II concerning the nature of the Church. These were written before the Lord called this beloved gift home to the fullness of eternal communion with the Trinity- which communion is begun in the communion of the Church. They also reveal the heart of his ecclesial vision and his concerns over the loss of a true understanding of the nature of the Church in our day:
"Christ yes, the Church no! - is the protest heard from some of our contemporaries. Despite the negative element, this stance appears to show a certain openness to Christ, which the Enlightenment excluded. Yet it is only an appearance of openness. Christ, if he is truly accepted, is inseparable from the Church, which is his Mystical Body. There is no Christ without the Incarnation; there is no Christ without the Church.
The Incarnation of the Son of God in a human body is prolonged, in accordance with is will, in the community of human beings that he constituted, guaranteeing his constant presence among them: "And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age." (Mt 28:20). Admittedly, the Church, as a human institution, is continually in need of purification and renewal: the Second Vatican Council acknowledged this with courageous candor. Yet the Church, as the Body of Christ, is the normal locus for the presence and action of Christ in the world."
Pope John Paul the Great
The Church is not a commodity but a communion, a call into the very inner communion of the Trinity through Jesus Christ!
Like an increasing number of my generation, I am a "revert" to Catholic Christian faith. I journeyed back into practicing my Catholic Christian faith after a sincere, difficult teenage "hippie pilgrimage" spent searching for truth. That search brought me home to the One who is "Truth" incarnate, the Lord Jesus Christ and back into His Catholic Church.
My journey home was aided by other Christians, mostly evangelical Protestants, who had the heart to tell me about Jesus at a time when I had wandered far from him. The journey also led me through one semester at a Protestant Bible College where I discovered the writings of the early Christian Fathers and ancient Christian writings, and then into a Catholic monastery where I re-learned my Catholic Christian faith and began to learn how to pray. I am still a student of prayer, but I am never disappointed at the wealth of spirituality within the Catholic tradition.
My Catholic Christian faith is the bedrock foundation of my entire life. It has been forged through all my questions and has stood the test of an intensely inquiring mind. To me, being Catholic is a way of being Christian, a way of living the gospel in its fullness. The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council wrote that the "fullness of truth subsides within" the Catholic Church. I have long believed that this should not make Catholics haughty but rather humble.
We among all Christians have the duty to honor all those who bear the name Christian because we believe they are in some form of communion through their baptism with the Catholic Church. That is the understanding of the "ecclesiology" of the Council. When other baptized Christians come into the Catholic Church they are said to be coming into "full communion".
I often tell other Christian friends whom I have befriended over all these years, and worked alongside of in the fundamental human rights movement of our age, the pro-life movement, that if I were not raised a Catholic, I would have become one, partly because of my growing understanding of ecclesiology, the theology of the Church. Some have told me, "we do not need theology" --to which I always respond "oh yes we do---now more than ever."
Shortly after my relocation to Virginia Beach in 1991 to build a pro-life public interest legal group, I was asked by some well meaning evangelical Protestant friends "have you found a church yet?" It seemed an odd question to me as a Catholic. I wasn't looking! The Church found me at my baptism. She issued a wonderful invitation to come back home at a critical time in my life. She has since brought me the identity, the stability, and the rooted-ness for which I longed as a Christian.
To a Catholic Christian (and to an Orthodox Christian) the Church searches for us, that is her mission as the Body of Christ. She finds us. We are her sons and daughters and she is, as the early Christian fathers so rightly called her, our "mother." Funny thing about your mother, no matter how old or disheveled you may find her at times, she is always your mother! This family imagery is laced throughout Catholic ecclesiology, the theology of the Church. It is not simply piety, but prophecy.
To Catholics and Orthodox, the Church is a "Communio" a communion, an organic relational reality into which we are re-born! Not simply a "spiritual" construct but a real human community that is both "institutional" and "charismatic". Membership and participation in this Church is the entryway into the eternal communion we will have one day have with the Lord and with one another. It is in this sense that we do not really "go to Church" at all. We live in the Church and go into to the world, which is waiting to be reborn.
The Church is meant to become the home of the whole human race! We are her sons and daughters, sent from her heart, on mission into the world that God still loves so much "that He sent his only Son". He still sends His Son- now- through the Church that He founded and established in Him.As He created the world through Christ, He re-creates the New World through Him.
It is the ongoing mission of this Church to bring all the lost sons and daughters of the Father home through the ongoing redemptive work of Jesus Christ. He continues His presence, His power, His authority, His mercy, and the mystery of His majesty, "incarnationally" on the earth through His Church! There is no "plan B." The Church is the plan for the entire human race.
The Church is "catholic" because it is universal, intended to be the home of the whole human race, which, redeemed in the Son are invited to enter into communion with the Lord. The Church is not simply a "spiritual" reality but a temporal one as well. After all Jesus was not simply spiritual but physical. The Incarnation continues in and through the Church that he founded, over which He presides and through which he continues to mediate His redemptive love on earth.
The Church is the Body of Christ. We are members, grafted on through the Son to the vine. This process is dynamic and begins at Baptism. It is initiated by God and invites our response, our freely given "yes", which is to be repeated over and over and over as we grow into His Image.This is one of the reasons why when Christians of other communities are said to enter into "full communion" with the Catholic Church when they become Catholic, we do not "re-baptize" them. There is one baptism, one Lord, one God and father of all.
That's right---Catholics believe that all Christians who are baptized are, in a sense, already in communion with the one Catholic Church. That is why we speak of the One Church. Though the Body is broken, that is not God's plan. The Church is meant to be one and will be once again.
This is a bold belief given the current disunity within the broader Christian community. However, it is rooted in faith. It accepts the reality that we are not perfect, we make wrong choices, individually and corporately. This is called sin. It is a misuse of our human freedom. The historic divisions within the Body of Christ, no matter how important the issues may have been at the time, should never have resulted in the breaking of the unity of the Church.
Since the first breaking of the unity of the Body, the splintering has only continued. There have been many mistakes on all "sides" and repentance is the path to healing.
Faithful Catholics are aware of the "mixed" history of the Church. We understand the reality of sin, and the presence of both the wheat and tares in the Church. However, we also believe that the unity of the Church is a part of the plan of the Son of God. Sometimes the apparent tares are disfigured wheat simply needing and waiting to be cleaned up. The home where that can happen is the Church.
The Church is "holy" in the sense of being set apart for God. However, her members are also called to be holy and that entails a process of sanctification and conversion. Though we all bear the Image of God, we are being re-created in Christ into His likeness through the process of ongoing conversion. When Catholics are asked by other Christians "Are you saved?" the proper response is "We are saved, we are being saved, and we hope to be saved!"
The Church is our mother, even when, because of the weakness and sinfulness of some of her members; she doesn't behave or look the way she should. She is the mother of the "new humanity" recreated in the Son of God. She is also, as the fathers of the Second Vatican Council called her, the "seed" of the Kingdom to come, making that kingdom present in the temporal world. She is prophetically demonstrating eternal truth in a transitory world. She is not "the kingdom" but she is a sign, a "sacrament" of the kingdom. The kingdom will only come in its fullness when Jesus returns. However, a seed has the "genetic code," the DNA, the elements, of the tree and the fruit that will grow from within.
The Church is the vine and makes the kingdom present through her fruitful life and mission as lived through her members.
Though the Church is not a building, Catholics (and many other Christians) love to build beautiful sanctuaries- houses for formal worship, because they are to be the place where the communion of the faithful gather to offer fitting sacrifice to the Lord. Such holy places should reflect the heavenly mysteries that take place within, where God meets man and draws men and women into the heavenlies. Though we call these buildings "churches"-- the Church is made up of the members joined to Christ (and through Him to the Trinity) and in Him to one another.
The Church is also not a theatre or a house for entertainment. Worship is not about observation, or entertainment. Worship is about participation. That insight lies at the heart of good liturgy! That is why from antiquity a special High form of worship occurred in those houses, it came to be called the "Divine Liturgy." The early Christians understood this. Along with their clear "personal relationship with Jesus" they understood both the obligation and the joy of worship, adoration and sacrifice. They were, for the most part, Jews, and they therefore understood liturgy.
Anyone who would honestly study early Christian history will find that the form of liturgical worship was at the foundation of the teaching on worship contained within the earliest of Christian sources. Anyone reading the greatest worship manual in the world, the last book of the Sacred Scriptures, the "Book of Revelation" will find that it is liturgical worship that characterizes the eternal activity going on around the throne of the Lamb- no "me and Jesus" ditties being sung here, but honor and elaborate worship as befitting the One who sits on that throne. Liturgy is presented as the model of the eternal worship!
The word "liturgy" actually means, "work." Not play. That is what the Christian life is also meant to be. It is a life of being poured out for God, and in Him for others. It is not a "spiritualized" consumerism. The article and radio interview that prompted this article noted that many who were "shopping for a church" were looking for dynamic worship. We all are. But worship is about more than finding "soulful music", or "good Sunday school" or even fun.
Then there is the issue of good preaching. It is about so much more than messages on a video screen that seemingly help us to be "successful", however that word may be defined over the continuum of life.
"Orthodoxy" (right doctrine) always promotes "Orthopraxy" or right living. We need to be concerned with right doctrine. It is desperately needed in an age where novelty over substance has infected too many Christian ministries and communities.
Catholic Christians believe that, in fulfilling His promise to "not leave us orphans" the Lord gave us a "magisterium" (Latin for "teaching office" -- the root of which is "mater" or mother) to guide us in the interpretation of that wonderful entrustment of His Word we call the Bible. How many of the aberrant practices in some segments of the Christian community are "supported" by an individualistic interpretation of a biblical text! That is only one of many reasons why we need the gift of Church authority.
"Where the Bishop is, there is the Church" wrote Ignatius of Antioch. Today, more than ever, we need to rediscover that truth is available to all who would seek after it. It is entrusted to a Body. We are called to hunger for it, seek it, and inform our lives by it. The Church is the teacher.
Catholics call the Church "apostolic" because we believe that the Lord has secured the apostolic office to guide and protect us as the Spirit leads us into all truth. The "institutional" and the "charismatic" are not at odds with one another. They co-exist in an asymmetrical relationship within the Church. She is ancient but she is also ever new. Always in need of reform and renewal, she is able to anchor men and women in every age to the Rock of salvation.
I must confess, the older I get, I would rather have right teaching, delivered by a boring messenger, than a parade of new novelties from a newly self appointed and anointed motivational speaker. From my experience, every Christian group has some kind of "magisterium," some kind of interpreter of the scripture. I prefer one that has stood the test of 2000 years. After all, the real task is to hear God's word, not to be drawn to any messenger. We are all to become a "living letters" (see 2 Cor. 3:2) written by the Lord Himself making His presence known in the real world.
The Bible is the Book of the Church. The Church is not the Church of the Book. Jesus did not come with a pen in His hand and dictate the sacred text. He came and chose the first fruits of a new humanity and entrusted His ongoing work to them, and we encounter Him through His written word. Through His death and Resurrection, He accomplished what we could not on our own. He dealt with the separation caused by our sin, and opened the way for our communion with the Trinity! He thereby capacitated all who will enter into communion with Him to be made new and participate in His ongoing work of making all things new.
To this new people, He gave the Sacred Scripture (remember the biblical "canon"--meaning "measuring stick"---was approved well after the Ascension of the Lord by the Church!) and the Holy Spirit, to guide us into all truth. He calls us now to walk in the communion of saints that is the Church.
Though we all like to be "inspired" by good preaching, in his instructions, St. Paul reminded Timothy that all scripture is "inspired" ---literally "God breathed" and he encouraged him to "fan into a flame" the gift that was given to him by the laying on of hands. Yes, good preaching helps - but we are the best preachers in our own lives. In the Catholic Church we are invited to come to the formal liturgy having read the sacred texts, already prescribed in a continuum of orderly readings called the "liturgical year." I know that when I am properly prepared, even a boring homily can come alive when the breath within the word of God touches my receptive heart!
The predictability of the liturgical readings of the Church year offers me an orderly progression through the scripture over the course of a year. It is not meant to be a substitute for personal, communal or extemporaneous reading and study of the Bible. Instead, like the liturgical seasons, it is meant to provide a pattern and structure to the ongoing life of faith. The garnered wisdom of 2000 years of Christian history has confirmed for me what anyone who has served the Lord for more than a year will admit; sometimes spontaneity isn't spontaneous anymore. Liturgy is not drudgery, but rather an opportunity and a gift! There is a liturgy, a flow, to life itself! There are seasons in our lives. We humans will mark time. The Church has chosen to mark time, to sanctify it, by the great events of Christian faith.
As a Catholic Christian, I choose to stand in a continuum of 2000 years of history, on the shoulders of giants. I believe that we can learn so much from the communion of saints, which includes all who have gone on before us. There really are very few "new" theological issues and the human experience has not really changed all that much over all these centuries. I find great solace and confidence in the ancient yet ever-new liturgy of the Catholic Church and the clear, wise, direction of the teaching office "the "magisterium" of that Church. So do an increasing number of other Christians these days. It seems that "everything old is new again." There is a record return of Catholics to the Church. A growing number of Christians from other communities are also seeking the solidity, maturity, historicity and depth of Catholic faith and life.
This radio interview, like the article I read a couple of years ago, presented me with an opportunity to present a Catholic distinctive on a vital contemporary topic, the "search" for a church.
To all my Christian friends dissatisfied with their "church experience", I extend an invitation. Come; find the beauty and stability of the Church that has stood for two thousand years.
When I travel and serve as a Deacon in ecumenical circles, I am still asked by well meaning evangelical friends if I have "found a church" to attend in that locality I am visiting. The question is simple for me. Where is the Eucharist? Where is the Word, rightly divided and understood? Where are the people of God, constituted over time, ordered for service, worship ---one foot on the earth so as to redeem it, the other stretching toward and bound for eternity? Where is the Bride, espoused to the Holy Bridegroom that is being prepared for the wedding feast of the Lamb?
Where are the altar, the ambo, and the precious Body and Blood? Where are the men and women being made holy in the furnace and purified by the fire - not perfect, but being perfected, by the One who is alive in her midst? There, there is the Church. With all of her human weakness and mistakes, yet eternally bound to the One from whose wounded side she was born on the altar of Calvary.
I am so glad I don't have to shop for that Church. She searched for me and welcomed me home.
Her invitation extends to all men and women.
Deacon Fournier is a deacon of the Diocese of Richmond, Virginia. He is a graduate of Franciscan University, the John Paul II Institute of the Lateran University and the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. He is currently a Doctoral student in Historical Theology at Catholic University of America, focusing on early Christian writings. His eighth book, "The Prayer of Mary: Living the Surrendered Life" is available in bookstores.
Third Millennium, LLC
http://www.catholic.org VA, US
Deacon Keith Fournier - Deacon, 757 546-9580
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