What is Church?

That’s the question up for discussion at Symphonic recently. I find it an oddly distressing question to grapple with for several reasons. I guess first among those is church has sometimes been an uncomfortable environment for me. I’ve been involved with almost every major expression of “church” in America, both Protestant and Catholic. I’ve been able to see the fragmented, self-isolating nature of the church in a way that people who stay within a single religious framework can’t. If pressed to give a definition of “church” as it is around us today, I’d say it’s a vehicle for a subset of the culture to express itself as being “Christian,” according to whatever that means to them.

An idea presented by Brian McLaren and others in Emergent is that “Protestant church” is a modern invention which is not addressing the post-modern world. (Catholicism/Orthodoxy is pre-modern and has a somewhat different set of problems.) So now many churches are exploring how to be a “new kind of Christian” which is a wonderful, exciting effort.

There’s one thing, though. I don’t think the Church has ever really worked managed to achieve but a fraction of its potential and purpose. [I had to re-word this since it was far too harsh and seemed to imply something I didn’t mean. But on the other hand, if something fails to achieve but a fraction of its potential and purpose, does it “work”?—Jon] And I don’t know if simply trying to find a new way of “being church” will be enough, since Christians have been trying that for two thousand years.

I think the core problem is that “salvation” is not understood. It has shifted to mean “going to heaven after you die,” and the magnificent Good News that Jesus proclaimed in his Kingdom teachings is reduced to a moral code. I believe that Jesus meant living in the Kingdom of God now, and enjoying the same essential union with God that he had.

When I read Paul, I see someone who was literally transformed by this union at once upon encountering Jesus, and I also see his frustration at the fact that other people weren’t. “How is it that you act as mere men?” he asks. He saw church as the sum of all Christs, with Jesus the “first-born of many brothers,” not as “mere men” who loved Jesus.

That, I think points to the essential problem of church today. The theotic transformation of humanity into divinity isn’t happening, except on a very, very small individual basis, and people often have to leave the church to even learn about it, let alone for it to happen. Even the concept of the teacher or master–a spiritually awakened person who lives in divinized human reality is missing. And if someone did appear in that role, in the overwhelming majority of most churches, she or he’d be driven out post-haste.

Why do I study Zen? to learn from a teacher. Without teachers, church makes for a very strange school. It’s as if the second-graders are teaching the first-graders. No wonder most of the kids are biding their time waiting for the bell to ring.