“Rudeness is a weak imitation of strength,” Eric Hoffer once said. We know all about imitations these days: Splenda replaces sugar, online classes imitate on-site ones, virtual reality can be made to look almost like actual reality, and children mimic the behaviors of their parents as a crucial method of learning. Sometimes imitation improves upon an idea, as when Facebook took a page out MySpace’s playbook and then surpassed it. But other times, the imitation can’t compare to the original. Would anyone rather have pyrite than gold?
That is why we have the saying, “Often imitated, never duplicated.” Some things are just irreplaceable. Well, I want you to consider the possibility that the church is often imitated, but cannot be replaced. How do people try to replace the church (whether they know it or not)?
- Fellowship is a crucial purpose of the church. We need other people for survival, love, unity, joy, to pursue something bigger than ourselves, accountability, loyalty, inspiration, and education. And we will use all sorts of different communities to get such things, whether sports teams, groups of fellow soldiers, nations, gangs, bars (“sometime you want to go where everybody knows your name”), workplaces, hobby buddies, ethnic groups, community organizations, political groups, parties, etc. Of course, some of these would exist even in a world in which everyone was in the church and many of these have value. But apart from the church, people will try to meet these social needs in other ways. Robert Jenson, whose essay inspired many of the reflections in this blog, put it this way:
“The church is the communal home of humanity, and . . . all other communities live by acknowledged or unacknowledged longing to be the church. Which brings us back to Luther on Genesis: had we not fallen, there would have been just the church and her members” (“Anima Ecclesiastica,” in God and Human Dignity, ed. R. Kendall Soulen and Linda Woodhead [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006], Kindle loc. 1025-7).
- Worship is an obvious purpose of the church. We acknowledge God’s greatness and express our appreciation of His generosity to us. But if God is not the most important being to us, you can be sure we will sing the praises of someone or something else. In our culture, that would be romance, sex, money, fame, and feelings. Our songs reflect what we love most, and what we love most is usually love. Not the loved one herself, but the feeling of love and being loved. When she doesn’t love anymore, we leave her and find someone else to supply that feeling. Love is now our idol and we sing to it incessantly. In fact, our songs often make passion out to be heaven, the greatest possible experience. Examples abound: “Too Much Heaven” (The Bee Gees), “Heaven” (Kane Brown), “Heaven” (Warrant), “Heaven is a Place on Earth” (Belinda Carlisle), “Disco Heaven” (Lady Gaga), “You Give Love a Bad Name” (Bon Jovi), and (ironically) “Highway to Hell” (AC/DC).
- Instruction is important in churches, as preachers inform and inspire people so they can flourish. But now we have TED Talks to do the same thing. They are mini-sermons (not from the Bible) and some of them are good. But they are an obvious replacement for church preaching. For some, it’s political speeches or commentary from our favorite conservative or liberal pundit. Or classroom instruction or TV preachers. One way or another, we seek truth to light our way—or at least look for someone to tell us what we want to hear.
- Related to instruction is the fact that the church functions as the moral conscience of its culture, pointing away from evil to the good and often holding people accountable through both formal and informal methods. Here is one way Christians have most misunderstood the culture around us. Christians have often thought that non-Christians throw out all moral standards and now anything goes. Not so. Non-Christians simply substitute some other standards, some other ways to be virtuous, for the Christian one. In fact, they often borrow certain of Judaism’s and Christianity’s standards like the Golden Rule (“do to others what you would have them do to you;” Matthew 7:12). But obviously we must be rid of those antiquated, arbitrary, repressive, unevolved, unenlightened sexual standards. In fact, if you want to be virtuous, stand up against those who hold those standards as if they are oppressing those who don’t. Then signal that virtue to the world on Twitter. In that way you can be ‘salt and light,’ influencing (or better, pressuring) others around you to conform to the standard. Quote “Do not judge” (Matt. 7:1) while judging those you deem judgmental. Shame those you think shame others. It is not about refraining from judging and shaming, it’s about the new righteous (the evolved progressives) replacing the old righteous (social conservatives) as the moral conscience of our culture.
Viewed this way, it would seem that we are obsessed with the church. Though usually imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, it is not so in this case. Why? Because people don’t recognize that they are imitating the church and more and more people dislike the church. The second reason might explain the first because you don’t want to admit that you imitate someone you don’t like. If we want to replace God with an idol, we want to replace His people with some other group of people who function the way His people had functioned: as the idol’s ambassadors and priests who guard and spread the idol’s gospel. I should add that even Christians who do not seek to replace God sometimes replace the church, but that is just imitating the world (aware or unaware of what they are doing).
One might wonder if replacing the church with some of these things is like replacing MySpace for Facebook, a vast improvement on the original idea. But replacing the church is not an improvement for several reasons.
- Jesus Himself established the church, saying the gates of hell will not prevail against the (spiritual) onslaught of the church (Matt. 16:17-19). Does a similar promise accompany each of the church’s substitutes?
- Distancing church from God (as happens with the substitutes) gives us opportunity to re-imagine God in novel, supposedly more evolved ways. Someone once said that if your God never disagrees with you, you might just be worshiping a divinized version of yourself. True accountability to God is best served within church life.
- The church at its best keeps the Creator rather than creation as the object of worship. Church-substitutes and God-substitutes often go hand-in-hand and fail to lead people to joy and flourishing. This is so even though idols are usually good things that buckle under the weight of fulfilling us apart from God.
- When people try to get what truth they need from TV preachers, TED Talks, and other means, they forget that giving of your time, talents/gifts, and tithe are as much a part of the church experience as is getting something. People who skip church cannot edify other believers in church. If the retort is that you can encourage other Christians outside of church, I wonder when the last time was that you gave a message in tongues or prophesied outside of church?
- Sending and receiving prayers on Facebook is not the same as joining hands or laying hands on someone and praying through something. I have seen the human element of hugs and tears alone reassure people of how much you really care, to say nothing of the power of groups praying together.
Like replacing the Creator with creation, replacing the church with other people is to reject what is best for what is good but not best. We should view replacing the church less like replacing MySpace with Facebook and more like replacing gold with pyrite.