Theologian Gerhard Lohfink asks a provocative question: “Does God need the church?” In his book titled with that question, he answers with a resounding “yes!” The church, he argues, is essential to God’s mission and work in the world. But for those of us sitting in many churches on Sunday morning it is hard to see how God might need us. We look around at our half empty pews and we see a dying church, an aging congregation. Then we go to a vestry meeting and look at our church budget where we find that the grand buildings that were once witnesses to our success as a church are too expensive to maintain. In such a place, we must ask with doubt, does God really need the church?
Some try to answer God’s need for the church by turning the church into things that seem more relevant to what they see as God’s need. What God really needs is a production studio and so we try to turn the church into one. What God really needs are more young families in the church; so we do every fun-filled activity for young families that we can. What God really needs is to be more relevant; so we try to dress up what we do with video projectors, rock bands, and coffee shops. If God needs the church then we will become the church that God needs, we think.
This tendency is not all bad. I love good coffee at church and I certainly see a place for video in the work of telling the story of God, but none of these things seem to get at what God really needs when God needs the church. More often than not, our efforts in church are simply attempts to sure up the church as an institution rather than answering God’s need. What we need to realize is that the buildings, the ecclesial bodies, the liturgies, the hierarchies, the bishops, the priests, the laity, the budgets, etc, etc, etc, are only valuable as parts of the church in so far as they are fulfilling the mission of God. And though I claim no direct revelation on this matter, I think that with any reading of scripture and listening to the tradition it is clear that God’s mission is not nice services for nice people in nice buildings.
So what is God’s mission? The themes of God’s mission seem clear: love, reconciliation and resurrection. Framed within a narrative we could say that God who created the world out of love is working to reconcile all creation to that love, a work that that requires resurrection to undo the death that has entered the world. If the church is going to be a part of this work, then we must become a people that learn together the practice of love, reconciliation and resurrection.
Still we are more than simply a practice community. We are, as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians, “the body of Christ and individually members of it” (12:27). This makes the fact that God needs the church more clear as we see that with Christ’s ascension we become the incarnation of God on earth. Such a reality makes the old dying Constantinian Christendom seem pale and uninspired. We are called to be God’s real presence in the world—this is a radical and amazing call for a group of people.
How all this works itself out practically comes through two forms of church—the church as icon and the church as dojo. An icon is an image that sparks the imagination to move beyond the image and see God. This is opposed to the idol which is an image that tries to contain the presence of the divine and box it into human forms. In the church as icon our liturgies and rites all serve the purpose of showing us the God that is beyond the particular liturgy or practice. Baptism is a kind of icon as is the Eucharist. We run into trouble when we have such profound experiences of the divine through these icons that we limit God to their particular images—at that point we have an idol. Much of Western Christian history has been a path of creating idols of icons. I believe that much of the current demise of the church and religion is nothing more than a clearing away of these idols so that we can once again have icons.
When Jesus told the people of his day that to see him is to see the Father (John 14:7) he was laying out what was supposed to be true of any icon. As Christ’s body on earth in the here and now, the church should be able to say the same thing, “if you have seen us you have seen God.” Sadly, many of us in the church would rather the world not look at us, or at least those who are supposedly in this same body with us.
To fulfill the role of icons we must obey the call of Christ to discipleship—a process in which we aim to become like Christ through living out his teachings and practicing the spiritual disciplines Jesus himself practiced. This is where the church as dojo comes in. A dojo is a practice community within martial arts—it is the place where adherents to a specific form come together to learn how to be better practitioners, both from each other and from recognized masters of the form. Mark Scandrette, in his beautiful book Practicing the Way of Jesus, has suggested that what we need to do as church is to become “Jesus Dojos.” As Jesus Dojos we would become communities in which we practice becoming more Christlike together.
In such a context leadership within the church would serve in functions of both coaching and facilitation. The authority of leaders would not come as much from any specific certification—seminary degree, ordination—but more so from the leaders ability as a practitioner of the Jesus way. This doesn’t mean that these leaders will be perfect in this practice or even the best at being Christlike in the church, but it does mean that church leaders must be respectably good at being Christlike and have the ability to teach others to be just as good or better.
I work out regularly in a Crossfit gym and I see this kind of dynamic at play with the trainers there. In workouts we are frequently asked to do very difficult and technically challenging exercises. I would never do them if I didn’t trust that it was going to be of benefit to me. Why do I trust that these exercises will make me fitter, stronger, faster? Because the coaches at the gym are very fit and strong and fast. They clearly know how to get where I want to go. Sure they have a lot of book knowledge of physiology and nutrition, but they also have a demonstrated practical knowledge of how to become very fit.
The same goes for the church. In our age we can’t rest on titles and old roles. In all likelihood people coming into a church are going to have little respect for an ordained person as such. What matters is that we are good at Christianity, that we know how to pray, that we readily confess our wrongs, and that we practice humility. Our churches must spark our visions toward God and show others how to practice the way of Jesus.
Imagine a church where, after a few months of regularly attending, you are able to recognize that you are less angry than you used to be. Imagine a church that shows you how to forgive the person who hurt you most profoundly. Imagine a church that measures your love of God as Dorothy Day did hers, by how much you love the person you love least. Imagine a church that loves you for who you are, away from all of the facades of the self, and teaches you how to love. That is the kind of church I want to be a part of.