Mark Sandlin recently wrote a telling article on the rise of the “Dones,” people who have been active in the church and their departure. The article hit a deep nerve and a number of people declared themselves among this new, disaffected tribe. Sandlin lays the blame at the church’s doorstep, noting that the church has “killed spiritual community.”
On one level, I agree, but reading the church’s failure against the backdrop of over two thousand years of history I could have hoped for a bit more definition. The New Testament describes the church as a spiritual community, but that community is not nearly as generic as that. The church isn’t a group of people who assemble in order to be spiritual. It is “the body of Christ,” an in-dwelling reality of which we are each a part. As such, the church isn’t just a group of people who support one another in their spiritual lives, it is meant to be a foretaste of our spiritual destiny. We are gathered around Christ on a journey ever more deeply into Christ — dependent upon one another — shaped in our behavior toward one another and those outside the church by that journey — imperfect and yet one with the coming Kingdom of God.
As such the church hasn’t simply failed to be something interesting or helpful. It has failed to be what God intends for it. Instead we have given ourselves to alien definitions that are the empty, small reinterpretations that have shaped the church over time: the church as one institution among others; a club to belong to alongside other clubs; a bureaucracy to be maintained; an agency for good works; and an incubator for amateur politicians.
The only thing that can revitalize the church is to grasp its central purpose and then reevaluate what it does and is, discarding anything that cannot be justified on that basis and nurturing new ways of being that conform to that purpose.