Go to Church
On Sunday mornings, my mother would wake me up and say, “Get up, honey! It’s time to go to church!” Why do we go to church? I’m not entirely convinced American Christians know the answer to this question. They might have an answer, such as, “It’s just what you do.” Others, upon further reflection, might say they go to church to get something out of it. Neuhaus describes this mindset: “Talk about right and wrong or true and false is out. Talk about what ‘meets my needs’ is in” (Neuhaus, 3). This matches my own experience with evangelicalism.
I grew up in American evangelicalism. How I thought about church in my childhood is how I believe many evangelicals think of church today. I always describe my childhood as growing up in a Christian family but not growing up in the Church. This is because there were periods in my childhood when we did go to church every Sunday, but longer periods when we never went to church.
I grew up with Christian values and parents who are believers—although hardly any talk of God in the home—but I barely spent any time in the Church. Thus, I never learnt why we are supposed to go to church. I simply thought it was “something you’re supposed to do.” Consequently, when we didn’t go to church, I was confused and felt guilty before God.
As I got older and began to get more serious about my faith, this question was still mostly unanswered. Yet from my experiences with mainline Protestantism, I learnt through evangelical behaviour that we go to church to “feel good” about ourselves (essentially moralistic therapeutic deism).
I learnt from evangelicals that the purpose of church was to meet my needs, as Neuhaus correctly observes about evangelicalism. American consumerism has infiltrated Christianity; church has become about consumption—about “feeling good.” Evangelicalism is the “church shopping” culture, or what Neuhaus calls “church-hopping.”
For a large part of my young adulthood, my entire Christian experience was church shopping. I was constantly looking for a church to suit my needs. I didn’t even know what those needs were; I did not have them defined. Something was always missing, and I could not find a church to fill the void. So, I hopped from church to church searching for the “right church” that would meet my needs I didn’t even have defined.
To keep the story short, I never found the “right church” (because there is no “right church,” minus those that have the means of grace) until I became Lutheran. A significant part of this problem was the evangelical belief, which still persists today, that in order to be a Christian, you need to have “a specifiable experience of being born again” (7), to “accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Saviour” (essentially decision theology garbage).
Every church I hopped to would eventually have their infamous “altar call” service. At these services, they would call on anyone who has not “accepted” Jesus as their personal Lord and Saviour to come to the altar and do so. I cannot recall a single service where I did not walk up to the altar to “accept” Jesus. Every time I did, something was still missing. At each altar call, I would walk up to the altar, close my eyes as directed by the pastor, and listen to him pray as he guided us to pray along with him. Sometimes, the pastor would even speak in “tongues.”
Every time I walked up to the altar and left, I felt nothing. I never had that specific “born again experience.” So, for most of my young adulthood, I ended up doubting my salvation because as I listened to many evangelicals telling their conversion stories that were amazing emotional experiences, I never had that experience and as I continued searching for that experience, the farther the experience would be from me.
So, I thought, I was simply doomed to be damned since I could never “feel” Jesus as my personal Lord and Saviour and I could never pinpoint a specific conversion experience filled with raw emotion. It wasn’t until I became Lutheran that I realised the true altar call is the Eucharist, where Jesus graciously invites us to partake of His body and blood for the forgiveness of all our sins without us having to “accept” anything but merely receive His gift.
Church as Our Mother
This is a long way of me saying what church truly is, or at least what it’s supposed to be. Neuhaus defines the Catholic Church as “the gravitational center of the Christian movement through time” and “all the people who are in communion with a bishop in Rome” (16, 19). I would reconfigure the first part of his definition and utterly change the second. Of course, as Lutherans, we see ourselves not as the big C Catholic Church, but as the little c catholic church—the universality of all Christians throughout all time.
I agree with the first part of Neuhaus’ definition, except I would define the Church this way: The Church is the people of God taking part in God’s Story fulfilled in Jesus Christ throughout all the ages in the timelessness of His Word. Neuhaus’ second definition, however, needs to be entirely erased and rewritten.
The Catholic Church, as an institution, might be connected ultimately to the Pope in Rome, but the little c catholic church—every Christian that has ever lived, currently lives, and will live—is in communion with our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, the cornerstone of His Church. We are not all in communion with a single human being on earth; we are all in communion with Jesus Christ.
The fault of evangelicalism, and even the Catholic Church, is that it makes church about me. Neuhaus brilliantly says, “The Catholic Church is not about me. She is in her isness grandly and blithely indifferent to the tangle that constitutes my state of incurvatus est. Like a mother, she takes me in” (65). Yet by saying the people of the Catholic Church are all in communion with their bishop in Rome is still to make the Church about me. Thus, Neuhaus unknowingly contradicts himself.
Church is not about us; it is all about Jesus Christ. Church is not about having a specified conversion experience, how the Church might meet your needs, or about some old man wearing a funny hat in Rome claiming to be the one and only Vicar of Christ. Rather, Church is about the person and work of Jesus Christ entering our lives in Word and Sacrament as He forms and transforms us to be a people of His kingdom.
Neuhaus’ analogy of the Church as our mother is helpful. The church fathers used the same language, so it isn’t surprising Neuhaus borrowed their analogy. St. Clement of Alexandria, for example, once said, “Calling her children about her, [the Church] nourishes [Christians] with holy milk, that is with the Infant Word” (The Instructor of the Children, 1:6:42.1). Two Scripture passages come to mind here:
- 1 Peter 2:2, Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation.
- Matthew 23:37, “How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”
In the Lutheran Church, we often and rightly say the Church is wherever there is the proclamation of the Gospel and the right administration of the Sacraments (AC VII). In this sense, then, the Church truly is our Mother. She gently guides us underneath her wings like a mother hen to gain nourishment from the Word of Christ. She calls forth the Father’s children to be renewed and restored with Word and Sacrament through Christ in the Holy Spirit.
This still does not make church about us, even though we are the object of God’s action through Word and Sacrament. God is a verb and we are the direct object of His grace, mercy, and love. Church is all about what God is doing for us through Christ in His Church. The only specified experience a Christian needs for his or her salvation is Jesus Christ on the cross.
The Church then participates in obedience, which is “a love that obliges” (76), or what we understand as the new obedience, “that such faith yield[s] good fruit and good works as God has commanded for God’s sake but not place trust in them as if thereby to earn grace before God” (Ap VI.1). Church, then, is never about me, but about what Christ has done, is doing, and will do as well as the welfare of my neighbour.
Neuhaus, Richard John. Catholic Matters: Confusion, Controversy, and the Splendor of Truth. New York: Basic Books, 2006.