To Those Shopping for a Church
Deacon Keith A. Fournier
I recently visited a local Bookstore and in the Religion section noted the following title “They like Jesus but Not the Church: Insights from Emerging Generations”.
In a quick review of its contents, I saw nothing new. This claim emerges repeatedly in some Christian circles, the notion that you can separate Jesus from His Church. The very concept would have seemed nonsensical to the early Christians and it still should to those who choose to stand on their shoulders and carry forward the fullness of Christianity into a waiting world.
Years ago I heard a program on Public Radio dedicated to examining the growth of what is often called the “Mega Church” movement in Western Protestant Christianity. It took a similar approach to dismissing the church as an optional extra. The “emerging church” movement is the newest version of this brand. The title of that program was “Big Churches Use Technology to Branch Out.” It focused specifically on a trend toward building “Satellite” churches. These are places where the sermons or messages are delivered to the assembly over a video conference.
The radio reporter had visited several “Satellite” churches and noted commonalities among them. Most have eschewed much of what they call “formalism” in worship. They include within that disparaging term all forms of liturgical worship. The appearance of the facilities was another common point; they had no interest in creating what they called “churchy” looking environments. One group actually boasted of covering over the stained glass windows left from a prior occupant of their facility in order to place the video screen in front of them.
The reporter interviewed several people who extolled the fact that they were able to obtain coffee as they entered the facility and drink it while they watched. While speaking with the reporter they took their lattes and cappuccinos into the main auditorium of the “Church”. There, they listened to a contemporary music band which became background music to the radio interview. One couple told the reporter of their fatigue with past church experiences and how they longed for something they called more “alive” and “fulfilling”.
One man commented that watching what he called the “messages” was like “watching TV” and that the content helped him to be more successful in his business and experience a more fulfilling life. He added that he and his wife liked attending this service by video because it “kept their children interested” as well. One telling line came up several times as people explained how they ended up in these satellite services. They all said: “We church shopped for a while… and ended up here.”
Can We Shop for a Church?
The very notion that we can “shop” for a church like we shop for consumer goods is simply mistaken. It misses the nature of the Church. The Christian faith is not just about “Me and Jesus”, it is about “Me in Jesus”, joined with all who are Baptized into Him and then sent into the world to continue His redemptive mission. It also implies that Church membership is one more optional consumer selection among many in a growing smorgasbord of modern materialist/consumerist lifestyles.
The expression “church shopping” emerged from the “seeker” movement. This movement is rooted in the most basic human experience, the existential search for meaning in life. The “search” can become the doorway to faith, or a return to faith as in my own life. It can open the seeker up to the limits of his or her own ability to answer the existential questions of life thereby turning them away from self absorption and toward the God who created them for loving communion. However, it can also lead to emptiness and delusion if it ends up “spiritualizing” what is just another form of self centeredness.
We all have a need to “belong” because we are not solitary by nature. We were fashioned out of and created for relationship. The heart of the Christian Revelation is that God is not “solitary” either. God is a Trinity of Divine Persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit who, in perfect love, is One. Christians proclaim that through the saving Incarnation, Life, Death, Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity and the Incarnate Word, we are now capacitated to participate in that Trinitarian Communion beginning now and opening up into eternity.
It is only in the gift of self to God and to one another that we actually find ourselves. The Christian claim is that we were made for God, and as St. Augustine said so well, “our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.” It is there, “in the Lord” that we also find our true home. That home is the Church which is fundamentally a relational reality, an ongoing encounter, a participation in the Trinitarian communion in and through Jesus Christ. Perhaps one of the most often quoted sayings of the early fathers is from Cyprian of Carthage who wrote, “He cannot have God for his father who has not the church for his mother”. We do not shop for a Church because it is the Lord Himself who came for us and calls us to Himself. “You did not choose me but I chose you.”(John 15:16)
The early Christians and the Church
The early Christians believed that to belong to Jesus was to belong to His Church with no separation. Of that there is no doubt. They believed that just as we were all born from our mothers womb – so we are invited by God, in and through Jesus Christ, to be “born again” into the Church, the new humanity which is being re-created in Him. Catholics, Orthodox and other what I will call “classical” Christians still believe this. They believe that the process of redemption begins when we pass through the Sacramental Waters of the font of Holy Baptism. It continues as we cooperate with the Grace given to us in our life within the Church. It will only be fully completed when the Lord Returns and we are raised in Resurrected Bodies and live in a new heaven and a new earth!
This understanding of the Church as a real participation in Christ and entry into the very Trinitarian Communion, runs throughout the writings of the early Church Fathers. Let me share just two snippets as an example. First some words from Origen: “Christ has flooded the universe with divine and sanctifying waves. For the thirsty he sends a spring of living water from the wound which the spear opened in His side. From the wound in Christ’s side has come forth the Church, and He has made her His bride” Then, a few words from Bishop Ireneaeus of Lyons, a disciple of Polycarp who was himself a disciple of the Apostle John: “We need to take refuge with the Church, to drink milk at her breast, to be fed with the scriptures of the Lord. For the Church has been planted in the world as a paradise” The early Christians did not see the Church as something onerous or optional, they saw it as normative for every Christian and life giving.
“Church shopping” is symptomatic of a deep longing to belong to God. We should appreciate that longing and respect it. However, it suffers from an inadequate ecclesiology, which is a theology of the Church. One of the problems we face in discussing this topic is that some of our Christian friends have rejected any discussion of theology at all. It has become a suspect word in certain Christian circles. Theology is, according to a common definition, “faith seeking understanding.” In an age that has elevated shallow thinking to an acceptable state of being; I believe that we need all the intelligent reflection on what it truly means to be a Christian that we can find!
The Church is not about “function”, or “benefit derived”- at least in the contemporary sense of meaning what we “get” or what we do – or is it even primarily a matter of our own personal experience. Rather it is about a continuing, lived, dynamic, relational encounter with the Lord and all those who are now joined to Him in His Mystical Body. The Church comes from above. It is a participation in the Divine Nature, instituted by the Lord and not designed or redesigned by us. The Apostle Peter wrote of this truth in his second letter to the dispersed early Christians: “His divine power has bestowed on us everything that makes for life and devotion, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and power. Through these, he has bestowed on us the precious and very great promises, so that through them you may come to share in the divine nature…” 2 Peter 1:4
The Church is a “mystery” (the Greek word “mysterion”). It cannot be fully grasped or explained by words. St. Paul writes regularly of this mystery. His writings concerning the Church in his letters to the Corinthians, the Romans, the Ephesians and the Philippians all demonstrate the integral place of the Church in his understanding of the Christian faith. His encounter with the Risen Lord on the way to Damascus reveals the ground of his ecclesiology. (Acts 9: 1-22): We read, “Now as he journeyed he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed about him. And he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to Him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute Me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And He said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”
The voice Paul (then Saul) heard from heaven asked him why he persecuted “Me”. Saul had never met Jesus in the flesh. He had however persecuted the Church. Jesus is identified with the Church and her members. He is really, truly present in His Body on the earth. In the words of St. Augustine, the “whole Christ” cannot be separated, “… the body as a unity cannot be separated from the head.” The Church is an encounter with that whole Christ, the Risen Lord and an entrance through Him into the Trinitarian communion. That encounter and the relationship it supports is spoken of throughout the Christian Tradition as being ‘nuptial’, this is wedding language; the Christian vocation is to be espoused to Jesus Christ as a bride to a bridegroom for all eternity.
Let me share some of the language used for describing the Church found in the early Christian writings. The Church is a gift – and a seed of the Kingdom to come. The Church is the vine into which we are grafted. The Church is Jesus, Sacramentally present in the world. The Church is the new family begun at the Cross. The Church is where we can learn to love as we enter into the very communion of the Love of the Godhead revealed in the total gift of the Son of God on the second tree of the Cross. Birthed from the wounded side of the Savior, who is the “New Adam”, on the altar of the Cross, the Church is His Body continuing His redemptive mission on the earth.
See how different all of this is from the idea of finding a place where we can have lattes and listen to good music? All of these images of the Church which I just used are found in the Sacred Scriptures and expounded upon within our common Christian tradition. We do not make the Church in our image, the Church re-makes us into Christ’s Image through the grace which is mediated through the Sacraments, revealed in His Word and experienced in our ecclesial life together. This is heart of the ecclesiology so evident in the earliest Christian literature; a view of the Church which is dramatically different than the notion revealed in that interview and in that book.
One of my favorite contemporary theologians is an Orthodox layman named Olivier Clement. He writes of the absolute splendor of the Church in a manner which reveals that the same experience of the Church which characterized the early Christian fathers is being experienced today:
“In the Risen Christ, in his glorified body, in the very opening of His wounds, it is no longer death that reigns but the Spirit, the Breath of Life. And the cross of victory and of light, which is the pattern of our baptism, can henceforth transform the most desperate situation into a death-and-resurrection, a ‘Passover’, a crossing-point on the way to eternity. And that is what the Church, this profoundly holy institution is: it is the baptismal womb, the Eucharistic chalice, the breach made for eternity by the Resurrection in the hellish lid of the fallen world. The Church is the Mystery of the Risen Lord, the place, and the only one, where separation is completely overcome; where paschal joy, the ‘feast of feasts’, the triumph over death and hell are offered to our freedom, enabling it to become creative and work towards the final manifestation of that triumph, the final transfiguration of history and the universe. …In its deepest understanding the Church is nothing other than the world in the course of transfiguration”
The Church searches for us
Sadly, the lack of ecclesiology has created a vacuum which has contributed to the consumerist notion of shopping for a Church revealed in the book and the radio interview. This inadequate notion of the church is beginning to make its way even into some Catholic circles. It flourishes where there is an inadequate formation of the faithful in the true meaning of Baptism. In one of his last books entitled “Memory and Identity: Conversations at the Dawn of a Millennium”, (which was a compilation of conversations and dialogues with others), the late Servant of God John Paul II revealed his ecclesial vision and his concerns over the loss of a true understanding of the nature of the Church in our day:
“Christ yes, the Church no! – is the protest heard from some of our contemporaries. Despite the negative element, this stance appears to show a certain openness to Christ, which the Enlightenment excluded. Yet it is only an appearance of openness. Christ, if he is truly accepted, is inseparable from the Church, which is his Mystical Body. There is no Christ without the Incarnation; there is no Christ without the Church. The Incarnation of the Son of God in a human body is prolonged, in accordance with is will, in the community of human beings that he constituted, guaranteeing his constant presence among them: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Mt 28:20). Admittedly, the Church, as a human institution, is continually in need of purification and renewal: the Second Vatican Council acknowledged this with courageous candor. Yet the Church, as the Body of Christ, is the normal locus for the presence and action of Christ in the world.”
The Church is not a commodity but a communion, an organic relational reality into which we are re-born through the Holy Spirit in the waters of Baptism! The Church is not simply a human construct but a supernaturally natural human community being “divinized” through an ongoing encounter with the Risen Christ. Membership and participation in this Church is the entryway into, and the beginning of the eternal communion we will have one day have with the Lord and with one another in the Kingdom to come. When understood in this way and experienced by grace and through faith the Church is a gift. It is in this sense I can say that we do not really “go to Church” at all; we live in the Church and go into to the world, which is waiting to be reborn through the Waters of Baptism into the New Humanity of the Church. The Church is meant to become the home of the whole human race! The early Fathers often spoke of the Church as the “world reconciled” and the world in the process of transfiguration.
From antiquity the Church has also been called a “mother” because she gives birth to spiritual children. We are her sons and daughters, sent from her heart, beating with the love of Jesus, on mission into the world that God still loves so much “that He sent his only Son”. He still sends His Son- now- through the Church that He founded and established in Him. As He created the world in the beginning through the Word, He re-creates the New World through the Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ.(See St. Johns Gospel, Chapter 1) The Church participates in that ongoing redemptive mission to bring all the lost sons and daughters of the Father home through the ongoing redemptive work of Jesus Christ.
The Church is, as the fathers of the Second Vatican Council called her, the “seed” of the Kingdom to come, making that kingdom present in the temporal world. She is prophetically demonstrating eternal truth in a transitory world. She is not “the kingdom” but she is a sign, a “sacrament” of the kingdom. The kingdom will only come in its fullness when Jesus returns. However, a seed has the “genetic code,” the DNA, the elements, of the tree and the fruit that will grow from within. The Church is the vine and makes the kingdom present through her fruitful life and mission as lived through her members. The Risen Lord mediates His presence, His power, His authority, His mercy, and the mystery of His majesty through His Church! There is no “plan B.” The Church is the plan for the entire human race. The Church is “catholic” because it is universal, intended to be the home of the whole human race, which, redeemed in the Son are invited to enter into communion with the Lord.
The Church is not only a “spiritual” reality but a temporal one as well. After all Jesus was not simply spiritual but physical. The Incarnation continues in and through the Church that he founded, over which He presides and through which he continues to mediate His redemptive love on earth. Faithful Catholics are aware of the “mixed” history of the Church. We understand the reality of sin, and the presence of both the wheat and tares in the Church. However, we also believe that the unity of the Church is a part of the plan of the Son of God. Sometimes the apparent tares are disfigured wheat simply needing and waiting to be cleaned up. The home where that can happen is the Church. The Church is “holy” in the sense of being set apart for God. However, her members are also called to be holy and that entails a process of sanctification and conversion. Though we all bear the Image of God, we are being re-created in Christ into His likeness through the process of ongoing conversion. When Catholics are asked by other Christians “Are you saved?” the proper response is “We are saved, we are being saved, and we hope to be saved” in the Church.
Church Buildings and Worship
Though the Church is not a building, Catholics, Orthodox and many other Christians love to build beautiful sanctuaries- houses for formal worship, because they know that they are the place where the communion of the faithful gathers to offer fitting worship to the Lord. Such holy places should reflect the heavenly mysteries that take place within her sanctuary, where God meets man and draws men and women into His very Trinitarian life. The Church is also not a theatre or a house for entertainment. Worship is not about entertainment or observation. Worship is about participation. That insight lies at the heart of good liturgy!
From antiquity a special form of worship occurred in those holy places, it came to be called the “Divine Liturgy.” The early Christians understood this. Along with their clear “personal relationship with Jesus” they understood both the obligation and the joy of worship, adoration and sacrifice in the manner which He instituted and the Holy Spirit continued in their midst. They were, for the most part, Jews, and they therefore understood liturgy. Anyone who honestly studies early Christian history will find liturgical worship was at the foundation of the teaching on worship contained within the earliest of Christian sources. Anyone reading the greatest worship manual in the world, the last book of the Sacred Scriptures, the “Book of Revelation” will find that it is liturgical worship that characterizes the eternal activity going on around the throne of the Lamb- no “me and Jesus” ditties being sung here, but honor and elaborate worship as befitting the One who sits on that throne. Liturgy is presented as the model of the eternal worship! In fact, post New Testament literature circulating among the Christians, such as the “Didache” (Teaching of the Twelve) contained explicit instructions on Liturgy.
The word “liturgy” actually means, “work”, not play. That is what the Christian life is also meant to be. It is a life of being poured out for God, and in Him for others. It is not a “spiritualized” consumerism. The article and radio interview that prompted this article noted that many who were “shopping for a church” were looking for dynamic worship. We all are. But worship is about more than simply finding good music. Then there is the issue of good preaching. It is about so much more than messages on a video screen that seemingly help us to be “successful”, however that word may be defined over the continuum of one’s life.
“Orthodoxy” (right doctrine) always promotes “Orthopraxy” or right living. We need to be concerned with right doctrine. It is desperately needed in an age where novelty over substance has infected too many Christian ministries and communities. Catholic Christians believe that, in fulfilling His promise to “not leave us orphans” the Lord gave us a “Magisterium” (Latin for “teaching office” — the root of which is “mater” or mother) to guide us in the interpretation of that wonderful entrustment of His Word we call the Bible. How many of the aberrant practices in some segments of the Christian community are “supported” by an individualistic interpretation of a biblical text! That is only one of many reasons why we need the gift of Church authority. “Where the Bishop is, there is the Church” wrote Ignatius of Antioch. Today, more than ever, we need to rediscover that truth is available to all who would seek after it. It is entrusted to a Body. We are called to hunger for it, seek it, and inform our lives by it. The Church is the teacher.
Catholics call the Church “apostolic” because we believe that the Lord has secured the apostolic office to guide and protect us as the Spirit leads us into all truth. The “institutional” and the “charismatic” are not at odds with one another. They co-exist in an asymmetrical relationship within the Church. She is ancient but she is also ever new. Always in need of reform and renewal, she is able to anchor men and women in every age to the Rock of salvation. I must confess that the older I get, I would rather have right teaching, delivered by a boring messenger, than a parade of new novelties from a newly self appointed and “anointed” motivational speaker. From my experience, every Christian group has some kind of “magisterium,” some kind of interpreter of the scripture. I prefer one that has stood the test of over 2000 years. After all, the real task is to hear and be changed God’s living word, not to be drawn to any particular messenger. We are all to become a “living letters” (see 2 Cor. 3:2) written by the Lord Himself making His presence known in the real world.
The Bible is the Book of the Church. The Church is not the Church of the Book. Jesus did not come with a pen in His hand and dictate the sacred text. He came and chose the first fruits of a new humanity and entrusted His ongoing work to them, and we encounter Him through His written word. Through His death and Resurrection, He accomplished what we could not on our own. He dealt with the separation caused by our sin, and opened the way for our communion with the Trinity! He thereby capacitated all who will enter into communion with Him to be made new and participate in His ongoing work of making all things new. To this new people, He gave the Sacred Scripture (remember the biblical “canon”—meaning “measuring stick”—was approved well after the Ascension of the Lord by the Church!) and the Holy Spirit, to guide us into all truth. He calls us now to walk in the communion of saints that is the Church. Though we all like to be “inspired” by good preaching, in his instructions, St. Paul reminded Timothy that all scripture is “inspired” —literally “God breathed” and he encouraged him to “fan into a flame” the gift that was given to him by the laying on of hands. Yes, good preaching helps – but we are the best preachers in our own lives.
In the Catholic Church we are invited to come to the formal liturgy having read the sacred texts, already prescribed in a continuum of orderly readings called the “liturgical year.” I know that when I am properly prepared, even a boring homily can come alive when the breath within the word of God touches my receptive heart! The predictability of the liturgical readings of the Church year offers me an orderly progression through the scripture over the course of a year. It is not meant to be a substitute for personal, communal or extemporaneous reading and study of the Bible. Instead, like the liturgical seasons, it is meant to provide a pattern and structure to the ongoing life of faith. The garnered wisdom of 2000 years of Christian history has confirmed for me what anyone who has served the Lord for more than a few years will admit; sometimes spontaneity isn’t spontaneous anymore.
Liturgy is not drudgery, but rather an opportunity and a gift! There is a liturgy, a flow, to life itself! There are seasons in our lives. We humans will mark time. The Church has chosen to mark time, to sanctify it, by the great events of Christian faith. As a Catholic Christian, I choose to stand in a continuum of 2000 years of history, on the shoulders of giants. I believe that we can learn so much from the communion of saints, which includes all who have gone on before us. There really are very few “new” theological issues and the human experience has not really changed all that much over all these centuries. I find great solace and confidence in the ancient yet ever-new liturgy of the Catholic Church and the clear, wise, direction of the teaching office “the “magisterium” of that Church. So do an increasing number of other Christians these days. It seems that “everything old is new again.” There is a record return of Catholics to the Church. A growing number of Christians from other communities are also seeking the solidity, maturity, historicity and depth of Catholic faith and life.
My memory of that radio interview and stumbling upon that book at the bookstore recently prompted me to write concerning a Catholic distinctive on a vital contemporary topic, the “search” for a church. To all my Christian friends dissatisfied with their own church experience, I extend an invitation. Come; find the beauty and stability of the Church that has stood for over two thousand years. When I travel and serve as a Deacon in ecumenical Christian circles, I am still asked by well meaning evangelical friends if I have “found a church” to attend in that locality I am visiting. The question is simple to answer for me. Where is the Eucharist? Where is the Word, rightly divided and understood? Where are the people of God, constituted over time, ordered for service and worship —one foot on the earth so as to redeem it, the other stretching toward and bound for eternity? Where is the Bride, espoused to the Holy Bridegroom that is being prepared for the wedding feast of the Lamb?
Where are the altar, the ambo, and the precious Body and Blood? Where are the men and women being made holy in the furnace of daily life joined to the Cross and purified by the fire – not perfect, but being perfected, by the One who is alive in her midst? There, there is the Church. With all of her human weakness and mistakes, yet eternally bound to the One from whose wounded side she was born on the altar of Calvary. I am so glad I don’t have to shop for that Church. She searched for me and welcomed me home. Her invitation extends to all men and women. To those shopping for a Church, come Home to the Catholic Church.
Posted here with the author’s kind permission.
Deacon Keith Fournier is a Catholic Deacon of the Diocese of Richmond, Virginia. He holds degrees from Franciscan University of Steubenville (B.A., Theology and Philosophy), the John Paul II Institute of the Lateran University (M.T.S., Theology) the University of Pittsburgh School of Law (J.D.) and recently completed the coursework for the PhD in Moral Theology at the Catholic University of America. He will sit for his comprehensive exams this fall. He is the author of hundreds of articles on issues of faith and culture and the spiritual life and eight books.