I believe that the church today has largely failed to create the kind of community that we all long for.
The western church has developed an event-based spirituality, rather than a community-based spirituality. To be “a good Christian” is measured by attendance and serving in the many programs a church offers, rather than the actual health of one’s soul or the health of the community. This method of church was then carried over into our global expressions of church, which created an awkward expression of community in naturally collectivist cultures.
Martin Luther, in the 16th century, had good intentions when he centered Sunday services on preaching. His congregants did not know the Latin language of the Catholic church and thus had never read the scriptures for themselves. So, Luther translated the Bible into the German language of the people and “church” became centered on teaching.
As with any tradition, however, the way we practice church today comes from cultural distortions that have been passed down. During the revivals of the mid-18th century we started placing preachers on a stage, because, without a sound system, revival preachers discovered that a theater space had better acoustics (Kilde). The result of this logistical change is that the sermon today has become a performance.
An event-based expression of community distorts our formation in these ways:
- Pastors are taught in seminary that it is their responsibility to teach their congregation on right beliefs. This places an unhealthy expectation on pastors. The pastor’s success becomes measured by attendance and his or her self-identity tied to performance. Performance will always be measured by an impossible perfection.
- An event-based community is unhealthy for the congregation too. We can falsely think that simply attending Sunday services is enough for our own growth and formation. We place the responsibility of our soul’s health on the pastor and not ourselves. These days people can choose to stay or leave a church based on the pastor’s sermon. They use their money to judge the quality of entertainment.
- We have become postured towards constant activity. We are made to feel guilty when we’re too tired to attend the never ending programs and activities in the church. When people can get ‘burnt out’ because of the church, we have neglected the sabbath altogether.
After all this effort to create the Sunday service experience, the church has failed to actually facilitate intimate community. The western church, historically led by men, is afraid of the word ‘intimacy’. But intimacy is actually the community we all long for. Intimacy is not just physical. There are plenty of people with physical relationships that don’t actually experience intimacy. Just as much as romantic partnerships, we all long for intimate friendships and community where we are deeply heard, known, and seen. Sadly, these days, one can walk in and out of a church service and never be noticed.
As we stand in this threshold moment in history, is there an opportunity to be a different kind of spiritual community?
Take a moment to imagine the community your soul longs for? And where have you experienced that kind of community in this last year?
When I’ve asked myself those questions, I experienced community last summer when Pastor Tracey Stringer led our community through a two-month discussion on “Deconstructing Anti-Black Narratives”. Those hard discussions were more an experience of “church” for me than any sunday service I’ve attended, because it forced me to be honest with myself and with my community about an issue that matters to our collective soul and our collective justice.
In this last year, I also experienced community in various digital spaces created specifically for women of color. Even with people I have never met, I still felt seen. In order for community to happen, those spaces required that all of us enter with vulnerability, and in order to do that we needed to trust one another. In those spaces I found the wisdom of mentors as well as the inspirational energy of the young. I always left those spaces feeling rested.
I often wonder, if the church had developed with women as leaders how would our expressions of community look different today? My intuition tells me “church” would look very, very different.
How might we reimagine our communal practices to form a new kind of community?
- Preaching is not the same as teaching. The preacher does not have more authority than anyone else in the room. Perhaps we can reimagine preaching to be a moment to stir our souls. It is a catalyst for asking questions, rather than giving the answers.
- In the book Joy Unspeakable Barbara Holmes writes that in the African American tradition, contemplation is not a private, individual practice (Holmes). Contemplation can actually be a communal experience where we help each other move into the presence of the Holy Spirit. When we gather, we all contribute to creating an inviting space for the Spirit. Everyone has a role to play, and anyone can have words of knowledge for the whole community.
- I believe we also have much to learn from multigenerational households. They teach us a way of being family that is missing from western paradigms of community. To the children, every distant relative or family friend is an auntie or uncle, grandma or grandpa. It’s a vocabulary that teaches the wisdom of elders. Rather than an event, church is the noisy dinner table where we meet with God and with one another.
Kilde, Jeanne Halgren. When Church Became Theatre: The Transformation of Evangelical Architecture and Worship in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Holmes, Barbara A. Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2017.
**This blog series is my own journey to de-westernize the ways that Western values have distorted my spirituality. This series is not a criticism of Western spiritual traditions. See series Introduction: This is my Un-Forming for more info.