I wonder what leaps to mind for you when you see the question “Is the church is disappearing?”
Perhaps it is the numerous financial, membership, and leadership challenges facing churches after a two year global pandemic. In fact, you may be experiencing such challenges personally, and I’d by no means underestimate the pain and difficulty of the prospect of this disappearance.
Alternatively, it may be the broader question of the disappearance of the church (heralding its possible reappearance) in the cultural moment in which we find ourselves in the post-Christian, secular West. Whether this disappearance is hailed as a missional opportunity, or something to be lamented and chafed against, all of us have had contact with the way the church and Christian faith seems to be increasingly squeezed towards the margins in Australian society. Here, too, the pandemic is significant, albeit as a revealer and accelerator of existing trends.
However, in this article I want to draw attention to a different disappearance—although one that is, once again, tied to the pandemic. Over the past two years I have noticed something curious. What I have noticed is that the church—and specifically the reality of the church—tends to disappear from the way we talk and think about Christian community by many within the church, including many of its leaders.
This tendency for the reality of the church to disappear from the way we understand and talk about our Christian communities has reared its head every time a lockdown ends or we lurch to the next phase of pandemic management. The current furore over vaccine mandates and “passports” affords an acute example of this.
Where I am in Melbourne, many church members and leaders have raised their voices about the injustice and “overreach” of the State government’s decree that only fully vaccinated people, who are willing to disclose their status, can return to full participation in church. Unvaccinated people, or those unwilling to disclose their status, are excluded—or at least their participation is limited to gatherings with tighter restrictions (strict size limits, density quotients, etc.) befitting an earlier stage in the pandemic. Of course, this is part of a broader government insistence that full participation in society and the economy depends on such exclusion—for the present and the foreseeable future. The merit or lack of merit to this broader case can be debated, although that is beyond my scope (and above my pay grade). What is within my scope is the way, in the case of the church in particular, the government’s requirement to draw a sharp line between vaccinated and unvaccinated people is often understood to strike at the unity of the church.
It is in relation to this concern with church unity that the reality of the church begins to disappear. It disappears in two ways—one sociological, the other theological.
Sociologically, the reality of “the church of parking lots and potluck dinners”, to borrow a phrase from theologian Stanley Hauerwas, disappears when church unity is regarded as threatened by vaccine mandates like those in Victoria. What is understood to be threatened here appears to trade on the notion that church unity consists in everyone who is part of a church—along with any visitors—gathering physically within a single room for a defined duration, participating together in the church service. But this is a far cry from the actual experience many people have of turning up to church even in the best of times.
For example, when my family arrives at many churches, we rarely all get to be present in the room with everyone else for the whole time. If there’s a children’s program, my children go out—or my wife or I take them out. If there’s no children’s program, then there is every chance one of us end up outside or in another space with one or more of my children for at least some of the church service.
Even for those without children, there are all sorts of prosaic reasons why not everyone gets to be in the service at the same time for the whole duration. Some are rostered on various programs or ministries. Some are waylaid speaking with the homeless person who has shown up part way through. While others need to remove themselves briefly for more prosaic reasons.
Moreover, crushing as many church leaders may find it, not everyone engages fully with every word and action in the entire service—including the sermon! People tune in and out. A text message or notification buzzes on someone’s phone and they are distracted, even if they don’t pull it out and check.
At one point, are the people of a church not all having a uniform and unified experience of engaging with the Lord in the company of his people when they gather? Or, in fact, they are, but in reality, this experience looks and feels diverse—and completely unlike the romantic fantasy of it that we nurture.
Theologically speaking, even on those—vanishingly rare—occasions when everyone is present and participating fully, it is not mere participation, but meaningful—even transformative—participation that we are after. We are after spiritual reality, whether that’s expressed in the “outsider” falling down and confessing that God is really among the people in the gathering, or in Christian people being encouraged and built up as they draw close to God in response to all he has done to draw near to us.
Intriguingly, such transformative engagement with God cannot be limited to a singular Christian gathering. We intuitively recognise this. That is why we have small group ministries, promote (with varying degrees of vigour) disciplines and practices for pursuing God individually, and draw people into service of one another and the world. These are the mundane and yet massively spiritually significant realities of church life. And many of these remain more than readily accessible to people no matter what restrictions are placed on our gatherings—just as the challenges remain preventing us from experiencing such engagement in uniform way even when we are entirely unrestricted.
Underpinning all of this is the conviction that the unity of the church is a reality by grace. It is not a product of human action, either of the church’s leader/s or the concerted—even liturgical—action of the group. Rather, it is a gift. It is something we receive. We are of course called to make every effort to preserve it (Ephesians 4:3)—although, in the context this appears to have more to do with the way we show humility and patience in bearing with each other than it has to do with all being under the one roof. And we are to not to neglect “to gather together, as some are in the habit of doing” (Hebrews 10:25)—although, it is doubtful that this contains an expectation about the form in which we regularly gather with other believers to “provoke” each other to live lives of love and good works. Christian communities in the early centuries met in a variety of ways and it was not always possible to gather under one roof at the same time.
Nevertheless, when we confess that we believe in One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, we reflect something about the reality of our unity: this unity does not depend upon us being physically proximate to each other (otherwise, it would be a lie every time we say the words within the context of our geographically and temporally distinct congregations). And we must not let this reality disappear from our rhetoric and thinking about the church.
Chris Swann is Director of Training, City to City Australia