The church has sometimes been compared to a country club when it becomes primarily a social activity, but as I have become aware of some of the broader trends in the church over the past generation I began to realize that this derogatory reference missed the point. You see a country club is a social and entertainment function, and while it may connect with work and family it often remains one isolated segment, but one of the major movements in Christianity has tried to become something much more. When I first started thinking about this my first thought was to use the term ghetto, which Wikipedia defines as “a part of the city where a minority group lives, especially due to social, legal or economic pressures.” But the more I thought about it, the more I realized the inadequacy of this provocative term because the church is not a minority group, and unlike minority groups in a ghetto which may not have a choice to reside within the area they are confined to, the church has over the past 30 years increasingly walled itself off from the outside world. Many processes of developing a culture of the programmatic church have become more and more church-centric, where we train people to participate in church activities which are separated from the rest of their life in the world, where people can listen to exclusively Christian music, watch authorized Christian television and videos, read Christian approved books, shop in Christian bookstores, date on exclusively Christian matching sites and become more and more isolated from the rest of the culture that has little or no interest in the predominantly conservative Christian sub-culture. It is a mindset where the rest of the world is filled with evil influences and it is a church against culture mindset that has been manipulated and played by both media and political forces for their own gain. As Reggie McNeal insightfully states:
The idea of what it meant to be Christian became synonymous with what it meant to be a committed church person. Further, the measure of personal devotion to God was the degree of one’s separation from the world outside the church. This meant centering one’s life on the church and its activities, usually pulling away from people who weren’t willing to do the same. The primary focus of evangelism was converting people to the church culture. (McNeal 2009, 42f)
We have created our own gated community, a place where we can stay and not have to venture out into the world very much. More and more portions of the Christian church have pulled away from the rest of the world in a reaction of fear. Yet it doesn’t have to be this way, nor was it ever meant to be this way but this is not new, it has been a process that has taken place over the long history of the Christian church. Until recently mission work entailed converting the people you were doing mission work among to not only Christianity but also the broader culture that the missionaries were coming from and the work became linked with colonialism to the point where the “three C’s of colonialism” were Christianity, commerce and civilization. (Bosch 1991, 305)
Perhaps there have been moments in time where a predominantly Christian in title civilization existed, although I have yet to see a civilization truly based on love of God and neighbor, and perhaps many long deeply to a return to some mythic Christian age, but the reality is that we live in a thoroughly secular age in a pluralistic and post-modern world. There is an increasing sense that at least some churches have moved to a footing of church against culture, rather than openly going out and engaging the culture the is out there in the world. Success in this view of church meant creating ‘full-service’ churches with exercise gyms, day cares, schools and coffee bars. Now there is nothing wrong with any of these things and in a purely attractional model of church where people see what is going on and they naturally want to be a part of this it sounds great. But what happens when people don’t want to live in gated communities with homeowners associations? What happens when the people within the gated communities view the outside world as a danger? What happens is isolation.
The other problem is that the gated community model of church looks very unchristian, at least as far as it relates to Christ. When Christ was constantly moving beyond the boundaries of what the religious people of his own day considered acceptable, and the early church found itself being pushed farther and farther out into the world, much of contemporary Christianity has been content to shelter behind its own wall creating bigger and better programs. Unfortunately Reggie McNeal hits on the head some of the things I have heard from people outside the church:
The program driven church has produced a culture that is despised, not just ignored, by people outside the church. Their antipathy for what we call Christianity exists for all the wrong reasons. Basically it comes down to our failure to demonstrate the love of Jesus, passing by people not like us on the other side of the road on our way to building great churches. (McNeal 2009, 93)
Many of the things that we do as church are very good things, and I am fortunate to serve a congregation that is increasingly active in the midst of the world—but as a programmatic church we do struggle with this. How do we begin to shift the measurement from how much time people spend doing church activities within the walls of our church to the manner in which their time within the walls of our congregation equips them to be a blessing to the world around them. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told his followers:
You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. (Matthew 5: 13)
Salt is not just for seasoning, in Jesus’ time salt was for the preservation of foods-but it only preserves if it is rubbed or somehow absorbed into the item that is being preserved. We may forget that it was predominantly the Pharisees as they were portrayed in the gospels who were worried about being contaminated by the outside world, that the contamination of the outside world would dilute their own righteousness. In Jesus we see just the opposite, a movement outward where holiness and righteousness become a blessing and transform those primarily kept on the outside of the walled cities of his time or excluded from the synagogues. Think on how many times a person who is unclean (like lepers or the woman with the flow of blood) or sinners and tax collectors are mentioned within the gospels. Perhaps we too need to learn how to take down the barriers we have set up to isolate ourselves and be willing to see where Christ is already at work in the midst of the rest of the world.