At a lunch stop in Pennsylvania, a discussion broke out amongst the BikeMovement group as we were planning for that evening’s church conversation. “I feel we’ve been misrepresenting what this trip is about,” said one BikeMovement member. “We go into these churches, and they come away thinking that we are a group of young adults excited about saving the church. Well I don’t know if I even want to save the church.”
Others joined the discussion and, while our personal intentions in regards to church differed, most agreed that we had not been completely honest in the churches we had visited about how we felt as a group.
During that lunch discussion, I was reminded that each of us came from different church experiences and therefore had differing definitions of the word “church.” Four weeks earlier, during a vision meeting in Idaho, I realized that each of us had very different reasons for joining BikeMovement. Despite our different goals and motives for the trip, we all agreed that we were seeking to create a meaningful place for open and honest dialogue to happen. Out of that meeting we penned our vision haiku:
Looking back at my notes, I noticed I had written: “community = church???”
Can we interchange community and church? Coming from a positive experience of church, I thought we could. After all, church should be a relevant community where honest conversation happens. However, I quickly learned from many of my peers that church hasn’t been that for them.
All of us had gone to church as kids, but to some, it had merely become a religious institution. Church members used “God” language in the Sunday meeting, however the way they lived the rest of the week didn’t always align with Christ’s radical teachings.
Many BikeMovement members had discovered this hypocrisy after returning from a cross-cultural experience. They came home changed and filled with questions, but soon faced the reality of a home church that had not changed. When they did ask hard questions, their congregations did not know how to respond. Some were even told not to ask those questions!
Is this what Christ intended for His Church? I think we are missing the mark when church becomes a building where we meet on Sundays to be entertained by an overworked pastor. “Oh, but what about the relationships and potlucks?” you ask. While food and fellowship are indeed positive things, the danger is that church becomes a social scene for those who are related or fit into the correct mold. But even for the “in” crowd, what happens in this social scene can hardly be called conversation.
At church, are we truly honest about our struggles and questions? Or are we really good at playing the church game and pretending that we have it all together? Despite our well-rehearsed biblical language on Sunday mornings, if we are not practically modeling what it means to walk in Christ’s footsteps, then church is not a relevant place, especially for those who are earnestly seeking, but do not fit into the social mold.
What are Christ’s intentions for his church? I believe Christ calls us to follow him, not figure it out on our own. Church should be a community of believers who are discerning together what it means to be followers of Christ.
The early church as described in Acts was a group of believers living this out. “All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need” (Acts 2:44-45 NIV). They believed this is what Christ meant when he commanded us to follow him.
Church today should not be any different; it should be a way of living together, not a once-a-week social gathering.
Like my BikeMovement friend, I am not interested in saving church – if church remains defined as the dying social institution it has become today. My vision is to cultivate relevant communities where we struggle together, learn to love our neighbors, work for peace, take care of the world we live in, and learn together how to best live Christ’s message in the 21st century. A key step toward this vision is to begin having honest and open conversation with each other, especially with people who are very different from us.
Intergenerational learning is important, because we can learn what it means to be a follower of Christ from someone who has lived it, and has faced similar questions. Intercultural learning is equally important because we get fresh perspectives into what it means to practically follow Christ within a context different from our own.
I wish I could call what I described above “church.” But in order to do that, I think we need to examine traditional Sunday worship, and redefine church as a way of living together as a community of Christ-seekers. We need to be open to new ways of doing “church” and think bigger than Sunday morning worship. In doing so, we can cultivate a relevant church community through conversation.
Denver Steiner participated in the 2006 BikeMovement trip across the United States and currently is completing a documentary film on the experience. His reflection is taken from an upcoming issue of Missio Dei. Published by Mennonite Mission Network to invite reflection and dialogue about God’s mission in today’s world, Missio Dei (Latin for “God’s mission”) is a series of biblical and theological essays on the work of mission. Single-copy subscriptions are free and can be downloaded from the Mennonite Mission Network Web site.
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