The Sacraments of Place
The Sacraments of Place
Letters to a Future Church: Words of Encouragement and Prophetic Appeals
February 29, 2012
176 pp., $10.57
The North American church is in a credibility crisis. We find ourselves in a culture that no longer sees Christianity to be true, relevant, or, for that matter, interesting. Yet we keep doing church the same way—as if nothing has changed. We continue to do Sunday morning (and Sunday evening) services, put on Christian rock concerts, do outreach events and hang out in the fellowship hall. We do it all seeking to reach the world with the gospel, but we discover that only Christians are showing up. Meanwhile our neighbors and the world go on oblivious to the good news of Jesus Christ. We are looking more and more like a people having a conversation with ourselves that no one else cares about.
We keep counting what we call "decisions for Christ" in our churches. Yet we know most of these decisions don't mean anything. Statistics continue to show that only a small percentage of our recorded "decisions" are made by people who will still be following Jesus a year later. And yet, like the teenager who keeps going forward in the Baptist church service week after week, "making sure" of his decision one more time, we keep doing this. We intuitively know this ritual is making no connection to the way people live, but we can't stop ourselves.
The progressives among us do the same thing with justice. We create enormous energy around justice issues in the name of God. Some impressive money is raised and some good works are done in the name of Jesus. But often, too often I suggest, the word justice becomes a bumper-sticker-like rallying cry that makes us feel better rather than accomplishing anything that actually takes root in our lives. Sadly, we participate very little in actual relationships with the poor who live alongside us in our churches or near our church buildings. It is much like buying fair trade coffee at Walmart. Nonetheless we keep doing it.
I contend that one of the best ways to understand what we're doing is to study ourselves as an ideology. Ideology has been called "false consciousness" because it can keep us repeating the same behaviors over and over again while covering over the contradictions that would make us question what we're doing. By studying ideology, we can help people see the contradictions. When it becomes apparent that we are saying one thing while doing something quite the opposite, the emptiness in our way of life is revealed. We end up manufacturing justifications and even enemies to keep the church going. Contradictions appear. Lies get revealed. Our ideology loses its credibility and it goes into a crisis.
There are reasons to suspect that this is what is happening among us as the church in North America. For instance, sadly, over the past twenty years we have become known more in North America for our duplicity, judgmentalism, and dispassion than for the gospel. Whether it is because of the "evangelical right" and the various New York Times bestseller "hate books" written about it, or the megachurch pastors who get caught in sex scandals, evangelical Christians are now a people who are best known for our fighting against gay people, those who don't believe in absolute truth (read as "those who don't believe like we do"), or the liberal political agenda. We are living in contradiction to the gospel. Whatever is to blame, our way of life as evangelicals has failed to make the gospel compelling in the society we find ourselves in. We're looking very much like an ideology that is losing its credibility and is in crisis.
When an ideology is in crisis, its leaders get defensive. We find enemies to rally people against in an effort to keep the system going. Unfortunately, the church in North America is now defined more by what we are against than who we are or what we are for. This kind of ideology happens all the time in our churches. We notice it when someone says, "Oh, that church is the Bible-preaching church—they believe in the Bible," implying that the others don't. "That church? They're the gay church and that one is the church that is anti-gay. We're the church that plants gardens and loves the environment"; and, "Oh, by the way, you're the church of the SUVs." On and on it goes as our churches get identified by what we are against. We get caught up in perverse enjoyments like "I am glad we're not them!" or "See, I told you we were right!" In the process we get distracted from the fact that things haven't really changed at all, that our lives are caught up in gamesmanship, not the work of God's salvation in our own lives and his work (mission Dei) to save the world. This cycle of ideologization works against the church. It is short-lived and breeds an antagonistic relationship to the world. In the process we become a hostile people incapable of being the church of Jesus Christ in mission.
And so today, this week and in the months that lie ahead, we must join together as Christians to break this cycle of ideological church. I suggest we can do this by "going local." We can resist the ideologizing of the church by refocusing our attention on our local contexts. In going local, we inherently refuse to organize around what we are against and instead intentionally gather to participate in God's mission in our neighborhoods, our streets, among the people that we live our daily lives with. Here we gather not around ideas extracted from actual practice in life that we then turn into ideological banners, but around participation in the bounteous new life God has given us in Jesus Christ and his mission. We participate in his reign, the kingdom, by actually practicing the reconciliation, new creation, justice, and righteousness God is doing and made possible in Jesus Christ. Here we become a people of the gospel again. It is only by doing this that God breaks the cycle of the ideological church.
Christ has already given to us many practices by which his life is birthed in us in an actual time and place. To name a few, Christ and his apostles have taught us how to inhabit place humbly, listening, eating with, inhabiting, and bringing peace (Luke 10:1-16). He (and his apostles) taught us how to practice reconciliation in conflict and discernment (Matt. 18:15-20), participate in the Eucharistic meal (Matt. 26:26-29; 1 Cor. 11:17-33), proclaim the good news in a place (Luke 4), minister to the poor and broken (Matt. 25:34-46), share fellowship in the gifts of the Spirit (Eph. 4), and shape a new economics together (1 Cor. 11:17-22; Acts 2:44-45). These are sacraments of place. They are sacraments because Christ extends his presence into the world through them in us, through us and into the world. Christ extends his reign into each new situation. The gospel is proclaimed situationally. We cannot ideologize this. We can only discern and cooperate with him and move forward in the mission. As we do these practices, we participate "in Christ" in the new world coming. We become birthed into a local expression of the kingdom of God in concrete life. The apostle Paul calls us this form of communal politic "the fullness of Christ" (Eph. 4:13), where such a plenitude of love and reconciliation is birthed that it bleeds seamlessly into the whole world.
As we look at the church in North America, it appears that the world can no longer make sense of what we assert to be true by looking at our lives. This is the crisis in our way of life, which is another way of saying "this is our ideological crisis." In these urgent days, therefore, let us stop everything and figure out what has gone wrong in the disparity between what we say and how we live. Let us return to the basic practices of being his people together in the places where we live. Let us pay attention to the Eucharist and the daily reconciliation we must practice in life with one another in this place. By reading and hearing the Word, let us pay attention to what God is saying and calling us to in our neighborhoods and respond with simple obedience. Let us pay attention to conflict and disagreements and see them as times to submit to one another in fear and trembling, seeking God's voice. It is out of these times that we shall see more clearly what we must do to cooperate with God's work in the world for his salvation. Let us minister and proclaim the gospel to the poor, to those who can teach us how to receive the gospel for our whole lives. Let us minister the gifts of the Spirit to each other, seeking the renewal of all things in our lives and in our neighborhoods. Let us seek the good of the city through the proclamation of the reign of Jesus Christ as Lord. And in so doing, the gospel shall take root in us and our neighborhoods. The ideologization of the church shall be resisted, and God in Christ shall take on flesh in us and come humbly into the neighborhood.
This push toward place is already happening all over North America. Amid all the noise and busyness of North American life, it is the manifesto of the gospel anew. Will we all join in? I see it already happening. Praise be to God.
David Fitch is pastor at Life on the Vine and the B. R. Lindner Chair of Evangelical Theology at Northern Seminary.
Adapted and excerpted from Letters to a Future Church: Words of Encouragement and Prophetic Appeals, edited by Chris Lewis. Copyright(c) 2012 by Chris Lewis. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, PO Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515. www.ivpress.com.