The Church is not here to make us better people

A few years ago I was privileged to meet and be taught for a day by Andrew Root. Root is probably the best theologian going, in my opinion, and while he is ostensibly a professor of “youth ministry” the work he does truly blew my mind open about my own ministry as a “regular” pastor.

Drawing on the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Root fleshes out a modern application around the doctrine of incarnation as opposed to the modern fascination with influence. Here’s a 15 minutes video I recorded with Andrew about this very idea:

So, given that, here’s the question I want to ask:

Is the Church as the Body of Christ living up to the expectation set by the “body” of Jesus of Nazareth regarding “place sharing”? If the entire point of ministry is for us to be “with and for” one another, how are we doing?

I have this bad habit of expecting life to operate with some measure of consistency. Nothing makes me more batty than seeing a person or an organization profess a purpose or mission and then operate in ways that are counter to that profession. If I say that my goal in life is to plant beautiful gardens, but spend my time on the couch playing video games, there’s a problem. Worse yet are the subtle deviations such as said gardener spending all their time just reading gardening books. True, a case can be made that education is necessary, but every teacher I know will tell you that the best lesson plan is an experimental, open-ended one. We learn by doing. Most anything else is work avoidance.

In the same vein, the logical inconsistency I see regarding the Church is this: If we profess to be the Body of Christ, called and created to carry on the work that Jesus of Nazareth did; and if that work is the work of place-sharing through the power of the incarnation, I’m not sure we’re doing to well.

Granted, we can always name an exceptions to the rule, but the fact that we acknowledge them as “exceptions” is telling. I believe that much of what we do in the life of our congregations (and, to a lesser extent, other levels of our denominations) is highly-refined work avoidance.

When you walk out of worship, do you feel like you have had an experience of God as one who has just shared your place? Not every week, perhaps, but almost every week?

When you finish a Sunday School class, what is the net result? Is it that you’re smarter?

What is your feeling when you return home from spending a day serving at a social service organization or a short term mission trip? Do you utter the oft quoted “It changed me more than it changed them”? Wow. I hope that’s not the case.

Don’t read me wrong. I think that a certain amount of “preparation for ministry” is good, but mostly what I see is Christians practicing spiritual work avoidance. When I think about what it is that the Church typically does, I must admit that I see most of of what we do as “influencing” behavior – behavior designed to make us (think we are becoming) better people. But if the Gospel is to be believed, and if incarnation is true then it seems that we need to be arranging our gatherings for a very different purpose.

How do we order our common life if the purpose is not to influence do-gooders, but to share the place of the widow, orphan, and stranger?

5 thoughts on “The Church is not here to make us better people”

  1. I’ve read Andrew Root to say that the purpose of the incarnation is exactly to make us better people. The incarnation of Jesus Christ not only demonstrates who God is, but also demonstrates for us what it is to be truly human.

    I just wanted to accentuate that incarnational ministry is not about being a better person, but about being more human.

  2. Landon, Bonhoeffer said, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” I spent twenty-seven years of ministry in rural Ohio where the sunlight arrives two days late and in inner-city Philadelphia where churches bring their teens for mission trips and where some of my teens witnessed murders. Do you know where you are going to go when you get around to dying? Or is this just talk and no walk? Just reading Andrew Root doesn’t count. Bruce Becker

  3. That’s precisely the point of the whole Jesus thing, I fear. But the “better person” is, as you note, not the one who simply knows what it means to be better. They have to manifest that ethos in the way they move in creation.

    Learning and teaching and praxis are kinda sorta how we do that. If we choose not to let those things work into us, then so be it. If it’s just rote and process and empty sparkle, it’s nothing.

    But you can walk out of a worship, and feel reinforced in the Way. You can leave a Bible study, and come away with not just data, but a new perspective you’d not had before. You can be a caring presence to those struggling and sorrowful and broken, and come out of that experience transformed.

    We Presbyterians absolutely rock at Jesus work avoidance. I concur there. Perhaps we should form a task force to explore it. Ahem.

    I’m just not sure that our worship, our mutual study of our sacred story, and our living into Christ’s call to love the broken are anything other than what we’re s’posed to be doing.

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