This one has been brewing for a while, then I read about the Bill Hybels/Bono exchange at the Willow Creek Leadership gig, and it prompted me to get these thoughts down. (Disclaimer: I wasn't there. But, thanks to all those tweeps who were there and helped me with their recollections of the conversation. Also, there are some very good detailed blog posts here, here, and here.)
As anyone who has spent more than 5 minutes on this blog will know, one of my pet peeves is language. More to the point, the issue is words. How we use and abuse them, how we interpret, reinterpret and misinterpret their meanings, etc.
"Church" is one such word.
First, there is an assumption. For the most part we have translated the Greek ekklesia (ἐκκλησία) as "church". Therefore, to many of us, as long as we call our own gatherings and institutions by the same name, they must be the same thing. Then we turn around and use that as some kind of perverted excuse for the church's shortcomings. As someone once said to me, "Sure church sucks, but it's the Bride of Christ, so what are you going to do?" I reject that thinking outright. Just because we call it by the same name doesn't mean it's the same thing, and it doesn't mean it should be accorded the same unquestioning allegiance as the original construct. "Church" does not get a pass; we must always question what we are doing. Always.
Second, there is the constantly evolving meaning of the word, which I think should be encouraged. The problem is many of us have our pet definitions; this is what church means, and therefore this is what it will always mean. Even as society, culture and humanity as a whole continue to evolve, so too will the Body of Christ. It will look different for different times. It's the ethos or the heart of it that will never change. The problem is we have long since lost sight of what that heart is, and so lacking that deeper understanding we have no choice but to cling to whatever iteration of church we happen to experience and appreciate... and to defend that structure at all costs.
Finally, and at the risk of contradicting my first two points, I think there is also an issue of "trajectory". I believe the People of God are on a trajectory of understanding what life in the Kingdom looks like. To the extent that the organized church will participate in this (r)evolution, it is on the the same trajectory. The Spirit is slowly working on us, teaching us what it means to follow Jesus, and bringing us back into alignment with God's purpose.This implies movement, change. In this environment nothing should stay the same for long because we are always learning, growing, maturing.
All that to say my view of "church", and my use of the word, has changed dramatically for me over the past several years. For these reasons the following interaction between Hybels and Bono frustrated me somewhat:
Much in the same way Bono called out the church in 2006 to do something about the fight to end global poverty and AIDS, Hybels turned the tables to question why Bono has not been publicly connected to a local church. Hybels asked, "A while ago, you applauded the church and said it's doing better. And yet you yourself have stayed at an arm's distance from a local church. It is very frustrating to me. For some of us you have become such a proponent of it, it just seems like your allegiance to it and your actual engagement in it would be higher than it is. It seems contradictory." As Hybels finished his question, summit attendees were applauding, drowning out the beginning of Bono's answer.
Bono responded first by saying that he fears denominationalism, but then gave a much more in-depth answer: "My father was Catholic and my mother was Protestant, and that's unremarkable anywhere other than Ireland, where I grew up. And I've always found myself equally comfortable or uncomfortable in any churches, and I go where the life is. When I am in New York, I'll go to St. Patrick's Cathedral, a big Catholic cathedral, and I'll go sit in a corner and look at the stained glass windows. If I'm in the southern states of the United States, I'll go to a Baptist church. If I'm near Saddleback, I'm going. If I'm in London, I'll go to an Anglican church. I can get into the formalities. Again, I go where the life is. But, you know, equally, I'm happy just walking down a beach or a road. But what I find really hard to take is a lifeless ceremony and I've seen a lot of that in churches. If I feel there is honesty there, truthfulness; doesn't have to be a charismatic preacher – doesn't have to be the most super-intellectual teaching – but if there is honesty and humility, and a place where everybody's welcome no matter what they look like or how they act even, then I feel comfortable. I'll go."
(Bono Returns to Willow Creek, atU2.com, August 9, 2009)
My first admittedly flippant reaction is to say that if Bill doesn't think Bono is part of a church, he obviously has never been to a U2 concert. But in all seriousness, that actually hits the nail on the head. Bill's church and Bono's church are two different things completely. I don't want to put words in either man's mouth, but this is what I see: Bill's church is an organization, a structure, an institution, a place to belong, where Bono's church is an ethic, a worldview, a life to live, supplemented by occasion visits to "Bill's churches". There is the dichotomy, right there in plain sight. Don't get me wrong, Bill's church is not a bad thing, it's a good thing. I'm just not sure that it is going to change the world, and I'm equally uncertain that it is what Jesus had in mind.
The same day that I first heard about the Bill/Bono thing, I read this from African theologian Emmanuel Katongole:
"...by showing how the various social problems arise out of a particular social imagination, one is able to see the church, more clearly, as a set of stories and practices that reflect an alternative or at least a different imagination and vision of society." (A Future for Africa: Critical Essays in Christian Social Imagination, p. xvi, emphasis mine)
Alternative... Different... Instead, I wonder how often the church is used as a vehicle to make us feel better about adherence to the standard vision of society? Katongole goes on to say that the church is the vehicle which shapes Christian social imagination, and a key ingredient in that shaping is the "formation of truthful lives." Again, I wonder if the church is more comfortable forming submissive lives, that is, submission to the status quo. In short, is the church somewhere to go on Sunday, or is it (to be) an alternative worldview, or even an alternative reality?
I may once again be exercising my spiritual gift of hyperbole, but I suspect that the Bill/Bono exchange will come to be seen as something of a watershed moment.
Church: Is it a place to go or a life to live?