When you come to church, what kinds of things do you expect to do?
Sing hymns? Say prayers? Read from the Bible? Hear a sermon? Receive Communion?
In our denomination’s Book of Order (part of the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church), we have a list of ‘the Elements of Worship’ and they are:
- the reading and proclaiming of Scripture,
- the Lord’s Supper,
- Self-offering, and
- Relating to each other and the world.
All of these things are pretty normal things to have happen during church services. We’ve come to expect them. If there was a church somewhere that said, “We’re not going to pray or read the Bible anymore during our services,” we would wonder about that church (*Side Note: I’m particularly delighted to see that more and more Protestants are including the Eucharist in their list of things that are central to Christian worship).
If there was a church somewhere that didn’t do any of the above things, most of us would probably want to ask, “What then, makes this gathering a Christian church?”
It might be a perfectly good social group, activist organization, or educational institution, but most of us would have a hard time seeing it as a church (as people typically understand the term) unless there was some part of its communal life that was specifically devoted to worship.
It was that way in the ancient world too. People in that culture expected certain elements to be part of their worship experience. One of those elements was sacrifice.
It was widely believed in the ancient world that deities fed off of the sacrifices offered by the people. These sacrifices could be things like bread, wine, animals, or even people. The general idea was: the more precious the thing sacrificed, the more pleased the deity would be. If you really wanted to get on a particular deity’s good side, you sacrificed something really valuable to you. In return, that deity would then grant you favors related to his or her sphere of influence (e.g. fertility, harvest, war, etc.).
To the ancient mind, that’s just how religion worked. They could no more imagine worship without sacrifice than we could imagine a church service without hymns.
Human sacrifice, in particular, was just one of those accepted elements of worship. It sounds horrifying to our 21st century ears, but the idea that God would ask someone to sacrifice their firstborn child was not all that unusual for people in Abraham’s culture. That’s why we don’t hear Abraham raising a fuss when God asks him to sacrifice his son Isaac in this morning’s reading from the book of Genesis. Asking for the life of his firstborn would have sounded like a perfectly normal request for God to make.
Yet, this is a very shocking passage, to ancient ears as well as our own. The shock, for Abraham and the early Jews, was not that God would ask Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, but that God would stop the sacrifice from happening at the last second.
“Wait a minute,” they would have said, “do you mean to tell me that God didn’t want Abraham to sacrifice Isaac in the end? Do you mean to tell me that God actually interrupted the sacrifice and asked for a ram instead? What kind of God would do such a thing?!”
It would have been amazing and unheard of for them. It would have upset all their conventional religious ideas in favor of something new that had never been seen before. People in that culture might have even had a hard time imagining how such a religion would work; for them, it would be like church without hymns, or prayers, or the Bible, or Communion: it just wouldn’t feel like church.
Abraham stood at the forefront of a revolution: a radical shift in his culture’s understanding of God. His God would no longer demand human blood in exchange for favors. Only animals would be sacrificed from that point on. This move was a step in a particular direction.
Later on, the early Christians would do away with the practice of animal sacrifice as well, proclaiming that the death of Jesus had put an end to the need for sacrifice altogether. That was a step.
In the sixteenth century, our Protestant ancestors, Martin Luther and John Calvin (among others), started another revolution when they proclaimed that membership in the Church of Christ depended on one’s personal faith, rather than loyalty to the Pope. As we already know, this idea blew people’s minds and shattered their cultural expectations of what church was all about. That was another step.
All of this leads me to wonder: What is our revolution? In what ways is God calling us to be radicals? How will history look back at us and say, “Wow, those really stood at the forefront of a new understanding of God/church/religion”?
Let me be clear that I really do believe they will. I really do think that we live at one of those turning points in history: one of those moments that influences the shape of things to come for centuries. Just like the ancient and medieval ages before it, our modern world is now coming to an end. We’re entering what many academics are calling the postmodern era of history.
As we make this shift and the world is changing around us, we Christians are asking some pretty big questions about things like church, God, and religion. Some of us are questioning old patterns and forms of worship; some of us are questioning old dogmas and concepts of God that were based in assumptions about the universe that people in the 21st century no longer hold; at the end of the iconoclastic modern era, some of us are returning to more ancient and medieval practices with a new set of spiritual eyes. Most of these questions are bound to make us uncomfortable. Like most of our ancestors who lived at similar turning-points of history, people in the postmodern world will probably end up keeping some things from the past while they change other things. That’s just the way life works: nothing stays the same forever, and nothing is totally independent of that which came before it.
Time will not permit for me to talk about all the different questions and changes that might be coming our way in the near-future (I highly recommend the books of theologians like Stanley Grenz and Brian D. McLaren, if you yourself are interested), but there is one current shift that I would like to briefly touch on:
The Christian Church, ever since the days of the Roman emperor Constantine in the 4th century, has long been at the center of Western European and North American society. Even where Christianity wasn’t established as the official state religion, the church (as an institution) nevertheless enjoyed the benefits that come with considerable money and power. Church membership was culturally expected as part of what it meant to be a person of a particular nationality (e.g. English, Italian, or American).
In the past half-century, all of that has begun to change. Our society is becoming more secular. People no longer assume that their neighbors go to church anymore. Neither our pews nor our offering plates are as full as they used to be. The Church has gone from being at the center of society to being out on the edge. Christianity exists in the margins of society at this point in history.
Many people are saddened or even frightened by this shift. Looking at the empty buildings and smaller budgets, they long for the “good old days” when the Church was more culturally central and enjoyed the money and power that came with such privileged status. Some folks even think they might be able to re-create that imaginary Golden Age, if only their church had the right kind of pastor or Sunday School program.
But I don’t think that’s going to happen. Just like Abraham, Jesus, and Calvin, I think we’re living in a time when ideas about God and Church are changing on a radical level. The Church of the future will look very different from the Church of the past.
I see Christianity becoming a religion that exists at the margins, made up of people who live at the margins. I see us becoming a Church of the poor, for the poor, and by the poor: a home for the homeless, a family for the outcast, friends of sinners, a community of prophets that critiques the values of the dominant culture instead of underwriting them.
When I imagine the future, I see a Church full of people like Abraham, who was so open to hearing God’s voice that he was able to stop the sacrifice of his son Isaac at the last possible second. He looked instead at the ram caught in the thicket and imagined, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, a new way of doing things, a new way of practicing religion, a new way of being Church, and a new way of understanding God that had never been conceived before.
I believe that we, at North Church, already have a head-start on that future. We are already a small church of the poor that exists on the edge of society. I believe we have something special to offer our brothers and sisters in the mainline churches. We are showing them where they are going. In our life together, we are living proof that the future is not all doom and gloom, but light and hope as the Church-at-large returns with its whole to heart, not to the good old days of money and power, but to that which really makes us the Church: our passionate love for God and one another in Jesus Christ our Lord.