By Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom
Instead of leaving the building, let’s clean house. The current trends of lowered church attendance have many causes. Some say that worship caters too much to the idea of relevancy and that people actually want to be challenged by a rich Christian culture that may not be exactly relevant. Conversely, some believe that there is a disconnect between the church and society (not relevant enough!). Still others argue that there are more Sunday options pulling attenders in other directions (e.g., sports, Starbucks, and sleep).
I say, for all of those reasons and more, the church has left the building, and that is unfortunate. Even unfaithful. Now, leaving the building could be interpreted as the people, out in the world engaging in social justice, empathizing with the un-churched, and being missional. This is essential, it’s the way the church is visible in the world. It is what Micah calls: acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly. Or what Amos describes: seeking good, loving good, maintaining justice. Or in Isaiah words: defending the oppressed, taking up the cause of the fatherless, and pleading the case of the widow. I appreciate this interpretation, but it’s missing an important part of the picture–the part of the picture that the prophets were most concerned about: worshipping God regularly and well. In other words, you can’t separate God’s mission from God’s glory.
In hashing out questions about God, the patristics attributed activities such as mission, love, mercy, etc. to the economic trinity or ways God is revealed in history. Another way to talk about the economic trinity (oikonomia) is through the image of God cleaning house. This image is in contrast to the mystery of God’s inner life and relations. God’s inner life is utterly undivided, eternally immutable, and divinely simple. Trinitarian theologians would not have dreamed of separating God’s economy from God’s being because to do that would mean separating salvation and mission from God’s being, power, and glory. It would mean to lose the whole point.
Cleaning house isn’t only about justice and mission—they are only part of the point. Cleaning house is utterly connected with glorifying the author and power of the house—the triune God. The prophets’ agenda was equally, if not more, centered on good worship (yes, there is such a thing as bad worship, says Amos, Isaiah, Micah, and the rest…). Readers might be led to believe that that the prophets were against everything about worship, including the buildings, the priests, and the rituals. But, as my friend in Old Testament studies Danny Carroll says, anyone who knows the ancient world knows that communal faith without ritual that glorifies God makes no sense.
Gathering regularly to praise God is an end itself; and it also gives shape to mission and our place in it. For the Israelites, worship reminded them who they were (and it was not God!). Without worship, it becomes all to easy to lose sight of the point of justice, mercy and compassion—namely reconciliation with God, one another, and all of creation. I agree with the prophets. I don’t think justice, mercy and compassion are possible if the church leaves the building. Or if they are, they’ve lost their context as priestly acts (as opposed to merely good works) and, more importantly, acts that glorify God.
We cannot leave the building, but we need to clean house.