There is a time to lay quietly and a time to thrash about, and there’s a time to honor the church and there’s a time to warn the church. And warn the church is exactly what Rubel Shelly does in his new book, I Knew Jesus Before He Was a Christian… And I Liked Him Better Then. He warns the church about being and becoming “the church of sanctified religiosity.”
He opens by reminding us of the movie Chocolat, a movie Kris and I watched years back and which impacted me. I kept saying all we’ve got is Jesus and Jesus is the chocolate. Anyway, ever since Kris and I stumbled upon the actress, Juliette Binoche, in an Italian village one evening, I have wanted to watch the movie again. That movie reveals a heavy-handed dead church contrasted with an inspiring, loving, and including chocolate shop. Never mind the theology of the movie for now, it’s a good image for what Shelly is arguing: the church too often becomes a group of the sanctified religious who are dead and unloving.
All of which leads Shelly to the preposterous — and he knows it — claim that for 1700 years (since Constantine) the church has failed miserably. It is saddled with a form (institutional church with power brokers) and formula (doctrinal tenets), but the church has shown itself capable of adapting and accommodating.
The Church of Modernity is his problem: it’s about laws, steps, creedal statements and confessions. Shelly proposes that more leaders need to attend an AA meeting to see what the church could become. It needs to re-examine the Book of Acts and the description of what the church did.The church, an organism, has become the church, an organization. The church needs to be about love, accountability, and nurture instead of a “complex set of doctrines, rituals, and hierarchies” (41).
He ties into the young Bonhoeffer who spoke of “Christian religiosity” and the older Bonhoeffer who spoke about “religionless Christianity.”
“Organized religiosity has failed. Institutional church is dead as an effective means for representing God to the emerging scene” (44). So this “stiff-and-stilted church needs to become more relational, hungrier for the Truth, and open to the Spirit.” He’s got an amazing chart on pp. 45-46 that compares “Institutional Church” with “Relational Church.”