I believe in one holy, catholic, and apostolic church, but regret that it doesn’t exist.
• William Temple
• • •
Michael Spencer has been one of my best, most reliable guides in the post-evangelical life I now live. I find it ironic that, at this stage of my life, our experiences of church mirror each other.
It might be said that Michael never truly found a “church home” as a post-evangelical. His isolated living situation in the hills of eastern Kentucky was a main reason. There simply weren’t congregations in his vicinity that worshiped and functioned as practicing representatives of the Great Tradition of creedal, evangelical, ecumenical, liturgical faith and practice. As we heard in the podcast earlier this week, he sought that and tried to create that but ultimately decided it was prudent to participate in the little Southern Baptist church at his doorstep. Furthermore, as the Spencers entered the “empty nest” stage of their life Michael’s wife Denise was on her own journey and chose to go beyond what Michael could do in good conscience as a Reformation Christian — she joined the Roman Catholic Church.
Keep in mind that Michael still lived and served every day in an intentional Christian mission community, teaching students at the boarding school, leading chapel, giving spiritual counsel, and interacting with the brothers and sisters among whom he lived. And of course he wrote and ministered to a growing audience of people through Internet Monk, his podcasts, and the opportunities for speaking and serving that those activities brought him. He had a missional calling broader than that of the local congregation which led him into an even more intense walk with Christ and others.
So how can we possibly say that Michael Spencer had “no church home”? Such language only has meaning in a culture where “church membership” equates to putting my name on the rolls of an organization comprised of one group of Christians that is distinct from another organization right down the street which is likewise made up of a Christian constituency. More on that in a minute.
I feel similarly “disconnected” when it comes to a “church home” for my family and me. Gail and I are empty nesters, no kids around any more, and I guess I thought this season of our life might signal a return to the kind of partnership in congregational life we enjoyed before the children came along. It hasn’t happened yet. We belong to an ELCA Lutheran congregation, but our involvement is limited. Gail directs a choir at another church and has to leave during or shortly after our worship service, and so we don’t get to spend our Sunday mornings together like we used to. We both often work into the evening, so participating in meetings during the week is a problem. She attends a morning Bible study at a third church. I write Internet Monk after coming home from my chaplain ministry. We’re doing different things and it feels scattered and disjointed and it challenges my OCD preferences for an “ordered” life which contains more habits that revolve around belonging to a church family. Yet every day as a chaplain I serve in a broader parish, getting into neighborhoods and homes where any church I might join could never be found.
I guess I can’t call myself a “churchman” anymore. I love the church, am concerned about the church, think about the church all the time, and consider ecclesiology to be one of the greatest issues Christians face in our day. But the “local church” — that real organization with a building and meetings and activities — gets little of my own personal attention these days.
However, Michael’s experience (and mine) has turned this whole idea of “belonging to a church” on its head for me.
Let me start by saying that the quote by William Temple at the top of this post is dead wrong, a classic example of missing the most important point. Temple said, “I believe in one holy, catholic, and apostolic church, but regret that it doesn’t exist.” I am coming to see that it does indeed exist, that it’s all around us in plain sight, and that the real problem lies in us and the ways we fail to comprehend it, not in the non-existence of the one holy, catholic, and apostolic church.
I think I can get at what I’m trying to say by framing it with two questions:
(1) What does God see when he looks at the church?
(2) What does God require when he calls us to live as part of a faith community?
When God looks at the church, I believe he sees one holy, catholic, and apostolic church. God only has one congregation. Every single assembly within that congregation and every individual member is badly flawed, each group all along the spectrum of doctrines is wrong about certain truths or emphases, all segments of the church are poor at living out a variety of virtues and missions to which God calls them. I am not saying every group within the Church is the same, that differences don’t matter, that all streams of tradition are equally muddy or polluted. But I am saying there is ultimately only one church. It exists. God sees it. We’re all a part of it. If I am a Christian, I have a church home. I am a member of Christ’s Body. I belong to the Church.
I also belong to a local expression of the Church. I live in Franklin, Indiana and am therefore a member of “God’s Church in Franklin.” It doesn’t matter if I’m a “member” of St. Rose, Grace Methodist, Franklin Memorial Christian, Franklin Community, the Assembly of God, Good Shepherd Lutheran, Hopewell Presbyterian, Friendship Baptist, or Journey Church. Or any one of the dozens and dozens of individual congregations in our little town. Together, and along with those who don’t identify with any particular congregation, we — all of us — are this area’s local expression of the one holy, catholic, and apostolic church. No one congregation or group in our town can claim that. We are all part of the Church in Franklin, and I think God looks at us that way — just as he looked at “the church in Rome” and included in that designation groups of believers scattered throughout the city and region.
We’re all members. We may not act like it. We may not accept others as part of it. We may even actively work against some other groups within it and they against us. That’s what William Temple was getting at, I assume. He doesn’t see that one church operating in the world as it should. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Nor is its existence a mere matter of theory in some mystical or spiritual sense, as though there were some “universal church” ideal. No. The Church of God in Jesus Christ is incarnate, literally inhabited by all who by grace through faith in Christ have been welcomed into the family. It is made up of real flesh and blood people. Real congregations. Real mission groups. Real communities.
So, sorry William Temple. I believe in one holy, catholic, and apostolic church. It’s real. It exists. I regret that we don’t get it, have never gotten it, and probably won’t ever get it, but it’s there and we’re a part of it. I have a church home and so do you. So did Michael Spencer. The fact that he and I have often lamented our “homelessness” here on this blog doesn’t change that. As I have meditated upon his experiences, I might be starting to get it. No one in Jesus Christ is homeless just because they don’t get together with a group of people and follow that organization’s way of “doing church.”
So, what does God require when he calls us to live as part of a faith community? It is not about “getting involved” in a local congregation. It might be. Then again, it might look completely different than that. It is not about becoming a member of an organization, supporting its programs, attending its services, participating in its activities. You may or may not do any or all of that. You may work on Sunday and be unable to go to church. You might not have two pennies to rub together and can’t give financially. You may have commitments that keep you from going to meetings, serving on committees, teaching, or ministering in some other way. You may even decide a particular congregation is not for you (for whatever reason) and go across town to identify with another. You’re still part of “The Church in ______.” It is essential that we deconstruct the institutional mindset that keeps us thinking we’re failing God if we’re not “good church people.”
None of that really, at the core, matters. You are still part of the church, and what God asks is that you follow Jesus in a life of faith, hope, and love. That you pray in the manner of the Lord’s Prayer, recognizing that “you” are part of a “we” that is praying to “our” Father and joining with us all in asking that his will be done on earth as in heaven.
Michael and I related and served in church congregations for so long and were involved so deeply that it has felt strange and wrong to not have that in our lives in the same way and to the same extent. It feels like wilderness. Maybe it’s not wilderness after all. Maybe it is just an unrecognized path to a new and different appreciation of what the life of faith and “church” is all about.