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The essential parts of our faith are the adaptable ones
Churches are essential for Trump because Evangelicals are
Last week, the President declared that houses of worship were essential and advised the CDC to offer those churches advice on how to re-open. He told governors that he would override them (without saying how he legally could do this). Not only did most experts think this was reckless, some Christians even pushed back. But Trump doesn’t regularly worship and only thinks churches are essential because Evangelical support, which is wavering, is essential for his re-election.
Christians should be concerned when the state declares our “service” as essential. For the state, the church is only essential when it maintains its subservience to the state and encourages its adherents to do the same. That is to say, the church is only useful for the state when it create citizens that keep the state functioning. And obviously, Christians have been employed to keep the state functional for thousands of years. When we were supposed to be the alternative, too many Christians just fell-in-line and became agents of the state. Though we don’t need to lead a revolution against the state and create our own empire (the Catholics already tried this), our alternative community’s existence is state resistance.
This pandemic has created a clear circumstance in which Christians can no longer subsist on the bounty that the empire has provided for them (largely to keep them quiet in protesting the state’s sins of violence and hatred and oppression), and has a chance to really bring us back to our radical roots. The church needs to be an alternative to the state, a threat to the state, not essential for it.
Unfortunately, Christians are essential for Trump. And though Trump’s self-serving actions are not unusual for him, the whole ordeal did bring to mind exactly what is essential about our faith and what isn’t.
What is essential for the church?
The church is not essential for the state, but more than that what is essential for the church? I’m afraid that one of the reasons that the president’s words resonated with so many Christians isn’t because they support the man, but they really do think that in-person worship is essential for them to function. In some cases, it is, especially if you think “going to church” summarizes how you participate. When there’s no plate to pass around (that’s another thing we haven’t ever done, by the way), how do you collect the weekly offering from the congregation? When there’s no chance to sing together, how do you worship? How do you take communion with no priest to give it to you? How do you get baptized with no holy water?
If Christians prove that they cannot flex these essentials, or these fundamentals, during this time, we have to wonder how short of a life our faith will have. Adaptation is how we survive, and species that don’t adapt simply die off. I’m working on being a part of a Christian movement that brings the Gospel to the present with great flexibility.
Though they never think of themselves as having much in common, it seems to me what many Christians have in common is that they can’t flex their traditions very well. Even though they sometimes adapt socially (LBGT inclusion), or liturgically (yes, you can play drums), they hold onto precious idols in their faith that will eventually threaten their very existence. When we hold them looser, I think they are better off. And this applies to sacramentalists, fundamentalists, and progressives; none of us are off the hook here.
Common objects of love show us what we need to let go of
Christians who want the church to survive in this pandemic and in the ages to come need to adapt the Gospel and hold loosely what they love, because of Who they love. My friend Wes put it well to me as we were discussing the disappointment we share when our mentors and leaders in their faith show falter in the most wicked ways (John Howard Yoder was the subject). Wes said, “my desires and loves are what pull me through my faith, and sites of wrestling and struggle with those loves are where my faith is developed.” And he went on, “as we wrestle and groan over the slandering and despoiling of our common objects of love, we come to understand our relationship with our idolatry.”
The call here isn’t to reject what we love, but hold it loosely so that we can let it go if we need to. Isn’t this exactly what Jesus is teaching in Matthew 16?
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?”
The essential parts of our faith are only essential if they are adaptable. If they can’t survive adaptation, they are idols. And I think that should cause us all to question what precious memories we hold onto that we can’t let go of?
If it can’t be adapted, it isn’t essential
I’ve been telling people for a long time that we are the church, that the people are the church. The church isn’t a building or something you go to. This is elemental to how we are the church in Circle of Hope, and so moving our meetings online in mid-March, ahead of the shutdown orders, never signaled that the church wasn’t “open for business,” just that we wouldn’t meet in person. We didn’t imagine what the future would look like, but we were certain that we’d be able to adapt to the circumstances. As it turns out, we did well enough that we aren’t in a rush to reopen, as a result. Our flexibility made it easier to be compassionate and loving as we continue to isolate in this pandemic.
We baptized people virtually. We took communion that way. We even welcomed in new members. And we’re figuring out how we might change in the future based on this tragic circumstance.
I have appreciated how we’ve adapted, but I don’t feel immune from holding on to the precious memories of how we’ve always done things. A few years ago, the idea of having a cell meeting over an online video call would be unthinkable; now it’s common place and will continue to be after this crisis. Our leaders were just imagining how we might include someone into our covenant who only connects to us remotely. Once again, unthinkable last year, and totally a live question now. Essentiality and adaptation go hand-in-hand.
The “incarnational” quality of our ministry is proving that it can also be adapted. What else can we adapt in our faith without losing it? What is the content of our faith and what is the container? What are the forms of our faith, and what is the meaning of our faith? These are good questions to ask and answer if we want our faith to grow. Like Paul writes to the Thessalonians, “test everything; hold fast to what is good.”
This question of what is essential about our faith isn’t a new one. When Jesus is asked it, he summarizes the entire law in two commandments in Matthew 22:
“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
When Paul answers it, he simply says “love” in his famous chapter in 1 Corinthians: “It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” And he goes on, “We can't let our traditions get in the way of sharing Jesus so that everyone can hear it.”
How do we express love, what John describes God as being, during this time and during every time? That’s the question the church must ask. What is essential about the church is that it remains committed to love: loving our neighbors, loving our God, loving the world. If we love our traditions more than we love God and love our neighbors, we will lose our faith. We needn’t fear, though, because if it can’t be adapted it isn’t essential. Hold loosely what’s precious to us. Allow it to adapt into what it needs to become next.