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Church Shells

February 11, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

On Christmas eve I found myself, against all odds, attending a church service at a Unitarian church. This was done under the condition that we (myself and the person I went with) would, afterward, also attend a service at the local Presbyterian church. These two services, together, brought about in me some reflections on the cultural institution known as church, and how it differs from the Church–the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church–the bride of Christ, the people whom God ransomed for himself with his own blood in order to save them from their sins and make them into a kingdom of priests, to bring blessings to the nations, and to dwell with him forever in his eternal kingdom, to be what human beings were meant to be, experiencing his love and peace. This is the Church that Jesus Christ created, a community that he set up on earth and sustained throughout the years by his Holy Spirit.

If you are not a Christian, and you are reading this, I hope I did not just drive you away with the religious language. Really what I want to accomplish in this piece is primarily for your benefit. I don’t believe I will convince you, here, of the reality of this Church that I have spoken of in the previous paragraph. But what I do think I might be able to do is help dissolve one big thing that might prevent you from seeing it–one big thing that you and I might have a common distaste for.

That thing that I would like to dissolve is what I call a “church shell.” What is a church shell? A church shell is like a traditional church, and is what many people know church to be: a community centered around a Sunday gathering, where various things take place–readings, songs, speeches. The same community that gathers there may participate in other activities together, such as community service and outreach.

Now, these church shells accomplish many things, some of them very good. And, for many (especially the clergy), they are central in the lives of their members. They provide people with community, meaning, and fulfillment in their lives. But, there is one thing that they do not provide, something that is missing from their entire approach. What is missing? God. Church shells are religious institutions without the presence of God.

Bear with me here. I want to say that this is the objective criteria for distinguishing a church shell from the Church: in a church shell, God is gone. Thus it is not hard, in principle, to distinguish a church shell from the real thing. The distinguishing characteristic of a church shell is the lack of God. I don’t claim, sinner that I am, to be able to really gauge the presence of God in a particular situation, but I do claim that I can tell, pretty well at least, the palpable absence of God, the impossibility that God would involve himself with the sort of activity that I see before me. I think I know when God has definitely left the building.

I suppose that, if you don’t believe in God, then this might seem implausible–it might seem implausible that I could gauge the occurrence of such a non-event. Fair enough. But, at the very least, grant me this: that I can recognize that an event, a completely secular event, the only event that would ever cause God to leave a place if he was ever there, has certainly occurred in these places. I can tell that, in these places, something has happened that, if there were a God, it would cause him to leave. That event is incredibly simple. It is the following: the people in charge of the gathering, supposedly in God’s name, have no desire for him to be there. At least, they have no expectation that he be there. He is not their focus. They would rather he not get in the way of what they are doing.

In my perception, the Unitarian church is the ultimate version of a church shell, and thus serves as an excellent illustration. It is the natural place towards which all church shells are tending. Christ has been cut out in nearly every way imaginable–even the scripture passages that they (infrequently) read have been edited to remove any hint that he might be the Son of God. In an odd way, the Unitarians are deserving of praise in that they have systematically thrown out every trace of what wasn’t really there in the first place, ever since they abandoned their foundation, Christ our Lord.

But, I believe, they have one more step to take. One final step of honesty. What I would like is for them to admit that they really want nothing to do with Jesus. Then at least it would be clear where they stand. They should stop pretending he–the one who called us to deny ourselves–has anything to offer to what it is that they are trying to achieve, which is basically a project of promoting a worldly wisdom and a worldly spirituality. They are doing no one a service by not proclaiming this–not themselves, not Christians, not would be Christians, not would be Unitarians, not would be atheists.

Unfortunately, the church shell phenomenon was also in effect at the service I attended later in the night, at the Presbyterian church. Now, I am sorry if I have ever misjudged a sincere minister of Christ in saying this, but what I am describing certainly exists in the mainline Protestant churches in America. And I think this is an important thing to call out, to draw attention to. It is important because the Church, the real Church, exists to build people up in faith in the world’s only hope, the redeemer of mankind, Jesus Christ. It exists to lead them to share this good news, in word and in deed, with those around them. And it is not hard to say where this Church is, or what is required for it to exist. Jesus himself gives us the answer: “whenever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them.” When a community gathers honestly in Jesus’ name, for his sake and the purpose of following after him, for the purpose of laying down their lives at his feet and being his disciples, then he is there. If that is not their purpose than, if Christianity is true, he will have nothing to do with such a community–though he will never stop loving those even who have forsaken him.

Yes, the primary purpose of the real Church, the Church that I know, is to lead people into faith in Jesus Christ, and worship of him. It is a place to throw yourself at the feet of the incarnate Son of God. If a church is not that, then I have absolutely no interest in it. I wish it would go away. And it makes me cringe to think that places with no interest in Jesus Christ are what people associate with Christianity, and thus with me when I tell them that I go to church. It makes me cringe to think of people imagining me going to a church shell every week.

Like I said, church shells accomplish some good, and are quite meaningful in the lives of many–and that is why I am wary of criticizing them. I know that the person I attended service with, on Christmas eve, derives a great deal of personal fulfillment from her Unitarian church. That’s fine. I don’t, in the least, want to deprive her of that, except to the extent that it would lead her away from seeing Jesus. But I have to say something about the predicament it creates for me, for one who thinks that faith in Christ is more important than all religious ritual. It is too important a thing to let this slide by. Church shells confuse people as to what Church, in the Christian sense, is. This is my problem. Many people in this world grow up without an idea that church could be something other than a church shell, and this is a tragedy.

God, though, has not given up on these people, nor on the ministers who refuse to acknowledge him. He may withhold his presence, if we hide ours from him, but his love for us is never extinguished.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. February 11, 2011 at 12:14 pm

    Nice post. I grew up in the Unitarian church. Even though I had become an atheist by the age of 7 (Ididn’t know what contemplation was; I think if I had been told I never would have thought I was an atheist), it wasn’t hard to figure out there was no “there” “there” in the Unitarian church. But where do you find God ina contemporary church? In the “New Life” megachurches? In the Catholic Church where I was choir director for 10 years? AT least one of the priests who worked there – a remarkable fellow who had a deep sense of the Presence of Christ – didn’t think so. But I’m not sure I can see – perhaps I misunderstand you – how it can be narrowly defined. I find God and Christ rather profoundly present in the meditation group of which I’m a member – a group drawing primarily on Indian spiritual sources, though deeply respectful of Christ – if not His shell-like churches.

    And what about here, on your website – it’s not necessarily a shell – is it not a church if we commune together in Spirit?

    • February 11, 2011 at 6:37 pm

      I don’t think this blog is a church for a variety of reasons…but I do hope it is a service to Christ’s church.

      I’m not sure whether your experience was of church shells or not, but I do worry that you have a more fundamental issue: whatever it is you are seeking, the real spirituality that you don’t find present in churches, wouldn’t even be found in the places I’m talking about, the places Christ actually shows up. It seems to me that you promote a spirituality that is not fundamentally focused on Jesus Christ or his goals, as I understand them; I base this on the comments you have made and also the video that you linked to once. You say that your meditation groups are “respectful” of Christ, but what does this mean? I know very little about what goes on there, but I know that the Christ of the New Testament seeks obedience, submission, and love from his followers, not respect; he is looking for disciples, not people who are willing to say that he’s just someone who fits pretty well into their spiritual system, and therefore deserves an honored place as one of the great spiritual thinkers. Please understand what I mean by this: I am pretty well convinced that what I think Christ is cannot, by definition, be compatible with the sort of thing that it seems to me you promote. If he is compatible with it, then I am wrong about what I think he is.

      So, if you’d like, we can talk about who Jesus is…we ought to settle that first. I have a question to start: when you say that God and Christ are present in your meditation group, what do you mean? Please describe for me what it is like for him to be present there…

  2. February 11, 2011 at 12:15 pm

    PS I’ve never got confirmation that you are receiving these comments. Please write at donsalmon7@gmail.com if these notes are getting through. Thanks!

  3. February 16, 2011 at 2:53 pm

    Interesting points, Phil. I actually posted something along similar lines the other day when I came across an article written by a woman who identifies as a pastor (I believe in the Unitarian church) making what I believe to be ludicrous claims about Scripture and Christianity. My point, I think, was ultimately the same as yours: Those who seek to change or eliminate Christ’s message, character, and spirit ought not to call themselves Christians at all. They do no favors for anyone seeking a better understanding of our faith, ourselves included. Alas, false teachers will always be around, and unfortunately, they are usually much louder than the rest of us.

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