Let’s Clean House

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.

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  14 comments for “Let’s Clean House

  1. gailsongbantum
    September 22, 2014 at 11:04 am

    I’m with you, Michelle. I’m also beginning to wonder if “leaving the building” is tempting because it’s actually easier. Easier because it’s always more messy having to worship and be among a group of people you don’t necessarily get to choose. Without a common space of having to engage in confession and repentance in communal worship, how would one be able to extend and faithfully/honestly shed light on the notion of reconciliation – with God, ourselves, each other, and the world? How would this play out if everything we choose to do, including our lives of discipleship, becomes self directed and not accountable to anyone else? The hypocrisy is scary, actually. #cleanhouse

    • gailsongbantum
      September 22, 2014 at 11:17 am

      I also heard a funny but convicting statement once that said: Believers leaving the church because of all the messed up people in it is like saying you don’t go to the gym because there’s too many overweight people in it… as if! We all need that reminder, that centering treadmill, that reminds us that our lives as disciples of Christ is a journey and we’re in it together. Ok. I’m done! 😉

    • Michelle
      September 25, 2014 at 11:35 am

      Thank you Gail! I’m sitting in a lecture listening to Beverly Gaventa (Pauline scholar) discussing how worship and ethics are integrally related. When we aren’t giving thanks (not just individual, but corporate) to God and distinguishing between ourselves as creatures and God as Creator, it leads to all kinds of idolatries (insert what you will – racism, pride, egoism, injustices of all kinds). But it also can lead to the idea that we can “fix” these things. So, as you’ve also said, we need both! I do have a hard time with not choosing my church and people, though, because there are so many levels of commitment, different identities of who we are in Christ, and political views (both church politics and social politics). How do you navigate this as a pastor?

      • gailsongbantum
        September 25, 2014 at 3:13 pm

        YES! I hear you and that sounds like an amazing lecture!
        As to your last question, I think I’m pressing this “choosing” more from my recent experience pastoring people through a growing idea and belief that says small intentional communities, apart from the building, function more truly as “the church” – that the ongoings inside of the building are what become idolatrous and self serving (seems to be a very common belief in the new monastic movement?). I’ve found this movement to be more prevalent among young people as well, and it is precisely the danger you speak of in your post. This concerns me because while we may be doing the work of Christ, leaving the building doesn’t allow us to ever be disrupted by difference on a personal and real level. Because, within this model, we are the one’s who hand-select our community and then choose who we’ll minister to or help fix.

        I believe that the beauty of “the building” is found in the tangible open door. We don’t get to choose who walks through those doors from week to week. Yet, we’re bound – we must serve each other, sing together, sit next to the stranger, dip our hands in the same font they dipped theirs, eat from the same bread, confess and forgive, and so much more.

        All that said, we can and should certainly choose where we worship based on everything you mentioned. I think the challenge for all of us is not so much in asking CAN or SHOULD we choose but more in HOW should we choose. As followers of Christ, how are we allowing ourselves to be dislocated and disrupted? How am I allowing God to show me the fullness of who God is apart from what I know and am comfortable with? What a challenge!!

        On a totally unrelated note: Brian’s going to be at NP for the Theo conference this weekend 🙂

      • Michelle
        September 25, 2014 at 3:49 pm

        Wish you could join him!
        So – everything you say is so good, Gail, and it’s what I believe, and yet is the act of choosing the church you attend, for example, analogous to doing the small group thing that you mention? In my ideal world, I would want neighborhood, church, daily life, etc., to be integrated, but that is not the norm. Most of us drive to church. So, if we are choosing AND driving, then it makes it difficult to get what you so rightly propose: be dislocated and disrupted! Because we’re not there long enough or visible enough when we’re not in the building.

  2. September 22, 2014 at 11:43 am

    I have a congenial feeling about most of this essay. My suspicion, however, is that for many, believers and non-believers both, the building itself is the stumbling block – the physical building and the spiritual building. The physical building symbolizes the Church’s capitulation to American culture and it’s insistence on certain forms of control. The spiritual building is the ego-driven American response to a delusional ‘gospel.’ I think that a lot of the anxiety within the Church about current trends comes from the fear of losing a preferred place in the culture and from the fear that ego needs will no longer have priority in the life of the Church. We must clean house, no doubt. That cleaning may need to be followed by an open house…a house free of idolatry and egotism.

    • September 22, 2014 at 9:35 pm

      I live and serve on the north Oregon Coast where only a small percentage of the local population (one of the smallest %s in the nation) attend Sunday morning worship. To say that a small percentage of America who faithfully gather in a church building to worship their Lord Jesus are caving into an “ego-driven American response to a delusional gospel” seems pretty forced and harsh. I prefer to celebrate those faithful saints who gather in spite of the majority of America who resist the local church, resist meeting together, resist God’s call to gather and live in community.

      • September 23, 2014 at 12:10 pm

        Actually, I did not say “that a small percentage of America who faithfully gather in a church building to worship their Lord Jesus are caving into an ‘ego-driven American response to a delusional gospel'”. I am sure there are many faithful Christians doing just what you describe your congregation doing. I was speaking about how many people perceive the Church – with some justification. Faithful saints are to be celebrated. At the same time, we also need to develop a capacity for self-reflection that acknowledges the extent of the Church’s unfaithfulness. It is not a pleasant task, but it ought not be avoided for that reason…

    • September 23, 2014 at 10:52 pm

      I’m not sure what you mean by “the spiritual building” except people who follow Jesus within a local church. Paul and Peter both describe followers of Jesus as a spiritual building: Paul as “the Temple of the Holy Spirit”; Peter, as “living stones”. So when you write of the spiritual building as a stumbling block, yes, I agree, many of us Christians who worship weekly within a physical church building have been a stumbling block a times to non-Christians, and sometimes are ego-driven, following a delusional gospel. That being said, as someone who has shepherded a local congregation in a local village for 21 years, I also know that the spiritual building, the people who gather for worship are anything but ego-driven or delusional. So, I basically disagree with your simplistic and blunt description of the “spiritual building” if by this you are referring to people who love Jesus and gather for weekly worship.

      • September 24, 2014 at 11:30 am

        That is not what I meant by ‘spiritual building’…I was highlighting both the physical and spiritual aspects of what troubles many about the Church. The physical building of the Church represents one sphere of difficulty, and the spiritual life of the Church represents another sphere of difficulty. I just continued to use the building metaphor for literary reasons, and was not drawing upon any biblical references in doing so. Again, I agree with you that many faithful saints gather weekly. Thank you for your acknowledgment that the Church can be a stumbling block – and not in the way Jesus is a stumbling block. As someone who shepherded local congregations for 30 years, while grateful for faithful saints, I am concerned they are far out numbered by those less than faithful…

    • Michelle
      September 25, 2014 at 11:31 am

      I like the idea of open house – and perhaps the doors are open in some way every day for people to gather, pray, commune!

  3. September 22, 2014 at 9:30 pm

    Thanks Michelle for this post. You’ve reminded me of 2002, when my wife and I visited San Damiano monastery church near Assisi, Italy for a 7:15am worship service. The people gathered were from a dozen or more countries. The service was in Latin and Italian. Go back nearly 800 years, to the year 1205 and discover Francis praying at this same San Damiano church which at the time was a broken down church building badly in need of repair. Francis saw a vision of Christ crucified calling to him “Francis, don’t you see my house is crumbling apart? Go, then, and restore it!” He began to rebuild this church building, but soon thereafter, realized his mission was to rebuild Christ’s Holy Church, the people who follow Jesus. He affirmed living fully for Jesus, by letting go of our empty pursuit of personal pleasures, affirming ascetic spiritual disciplines, and celebrating God’s glory.

  4. gailsongbantum
    September 25, 2014 at 8:02 pm

    I think I get what you’re asking Michelle. The whole driving and choosing question is a beast to navigate based on context, city, economics, and denominational ties in a lot of ways. More on this later…
    But, one thing I believe your question convicted me of was to be honest about who I was imagining and speaking to in my post. The people I imagined when I wrote what I did earlier are some of the justice minded and typically young white Christians who intellectualize their way out of the building toward a gathering as a small group of friends (as their church), in an attempt to remove themselves from having to bend to difference or challenges in the larger church community through the guise of being missional on their own terms. That’s dangerous and even unfaithful.

    In response to your question, I do think this scenario can be similar to choosing a church community IF that choosing doesn’t allow us or ask us to be confronted by disruption or dislocation of any kind – be it ethnic, economic, generational, cultural, etc. I think it also begs the question, why do we live where we live and why did we choose a church so far away?

    However, I think this is a difficult question too for me because I wouldn’t necessarily press or believe this for certain other communities of people. I know some folks live a life of constant and painful dislocation every day. Thus, church (communing and worshipping together) becomes their space of solidarity and familiarity – I even imagine the Israelites in this. I guess what I’m trying to say is that for some Christians who feel the freedom to leave the building so readily, that freedom typically arises from a privileged location. To choose is privilege. To choose and drive is privilege. It’s not a bad thing as long as we’re mindful of and truthful about what it is.

    • Michelle
      September 28, 2014 at 10:19 am

      Love these points, Gail – thank you! Great discussion.

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