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Experiencing God Through the Church

Editor’s note: Last week’s RELEVANTmagazine.com article "Experiencing God, or Church?" drew responses both pro and con. Here is one reader’s response:

Some may think of “Church, or Experiencing God?” as postmodern, Gen-X and anti-institutionalist, but we owe Leslie Herron the church planter more than the presumption that he is simply anti-Church. Instead, his work is the sort of jarring blow that some might need to dislodge themselves from the gullet of a voracious North American evangelicalism; and at the heart of his piece we see a poignant longing for purity in faith, simplicity in practice and honesty in our hearts. His courageous critique of the Church is the equivalent of a boy running alongside the royal parade declaring the emperor’s nudity. But what we must not think is that he is absolutely right.

While it’s true that we Canadians haven’t had to endure the same sort of confusion between the cross and the flag that our American friends have, we, like all Christians everywhere, have had to struggle with what it really means to live the Christian life in a hostile—or worse, indifferent—world. Retreating into the comfortable but hollow shell of Churchianity like many do is obviously not a viable solution, but neither is blowing it all up in favor of an ecclesial golden age that never was and never will be. Instead, we should work for the true and constant reform of the Church from within while accepting the fact that what we truly desire and the relationships for which we are made will not know fullness this side of Heaven.

It is tempting to believe that Abraham and his family are paragons of what it means to experience and then follow God—and yet, even as much as Herron is good enough to mention the failure of the modern Church to keep people from living immoral lives, Abraham et al weren’t much good at consistently living in the light of Christ either. Instead, what grips me when I follow the plot of the entire Bible is that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is also the God of sinners and losers like me. It has always been God’s intention to bless “all peoples on earth” through Abraham (Gen 12:3), but part of the wonder of God is that instead of choosing the best and the brightest to bring this blessing to the entire world, He chooses broken folks who don’t get it right the vast majority of the time. Like Abraham, who sold his wife to save his skin not once, but twice; or like Isaac who gave away his familial blessing for a bit of tasty meat. In fact, our God is exactly the kind of God who chooses to work through the most unlikely of things—including the institutional Church with all of its desiccated dogma and ritualistic rigmarole.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that the Church is beyond critique or reformation. But even though we may seek to carry out this work of renewal, we need to be aware of what has gone before so that we may learn from the triumphs and failures of our forebears. To be sure that we do not repeat the mistakes that lead to a calcified and inhospitable tradition, we need to keep the good in our churches while reforming the bad, and we do this by paying attention to history. To attempt an ahistorical reformation is not only to wrench the Church from its theological moorings, but also to take one step closer to forgetting that the glory of God is played out in an astonishing drama that stretches from Adam all the way down through the centuries to us. In our modern hubris, we risk relegating people such as the Quakers to mere oatmeal-makers instead of thinking of them as people who shook with the Spirit of God.

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When we live ahistorically, we live aimlessly because we are a people who have lost the context that provides meaning to our own stories as they come together in Christ. And once we have lost this context, we begin to buy into a culture that espouses an experiential and individualistic interpretation of the Christianity that instead of invigorating the Church will lead to its decay. It is through narcissistic lenses that we might begin to idealize Abraham as an unreligious, antinomian and completely liberated follower of God—but if this is true, then I wonder what compelled Abraham to circumcise himself or offer Isaac on the altar. Perhaps the way forward is not to pine for days that never were, but instead to rejoice in the fact that God works in and through the lives of the broken and bedraggled.

I’ve been a churchgoer all my life, and a Christian for some of it. Although I’ve witnessed the ungracious people and hackneyed religiosity that are a part of the Church, what keeps me excited about the entire thing is that it still works at all. Despite all the ways in which it could possibly work better, one of the wonders of life in the Church is that people keep repenting of their sin, keep asserting the Lordship of Christ and keep doing their best to love God and each other. And ultimately, the greatest miracle of Church life is that God chooses to work through such an inglorious vehicle at all, not so that we can claim victory for ourselves over ourselves, but that at the end of the day we can weep for joy at His goodness.

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