It is not permissible to designate as “unchurched” those who have become alienated from organized denominations and traditional creeds. In living among these groups for half a generation I learned how much of the latent Church there is within them. –Paul Tillich
Jesus doesn’t just live in the church.
...I hope we know that.
I hope we know that when we call the church the “house of God” we really don’t mean that God is confined to the four walls of the church. For that matter, neither is God confined to the theology of the church–our rules, interpretations, and doctrines. God is bigger than us and no amount of knowledge about God can ever presume to possess God. So the church—the community that, by grace alone, can be called the “body of Christ”—cannot be possessed either. No church (small “c”) can make claim on the Church (big “C”). So none of us are an authority on who is “in” and who is “out.”
I hope we know that.... but I am afraid we don’t.
Too often I hear laments from “church people” about the institutional decline of the church as though the problem is with the people leaving it. It’s as though we think that God is with us and that when they leave our churches, they must be leaving God.
Too often I hear of churches actually alienating people over theological disagreements as though they own the truth.... as though if someone doesn’t buy in to the trinity, or the virgin birth, or the authority of Scripture, or the existence of angels then they are not to be associated with... as though “heresy” is contagious.
Of course, as a religious person, I think it’s important to be part of a church—to have partners in ministry and learning. We need community and there’s no authentic expression of church without community. But as a religious person, it would be flat wrong for me to assume that God is closer to those who are inside the church than those who have been alienated from it.
Of course, as a person of faith, I think theology and doctrine are extremely important. It matters that we continue to learn and be challenged. It matters that we hold ourselves up to the mirror of the bible and take an audit of our belief. Doctrines like the trinity and the divinity of Christ are of utmost importance and it matters that we continue to reflect on them, understand them, and encounter God in them. We might even be right to defend them. But as a person of faith, it would be flat wrong for me to assume that God is closer to those who think like me and share the holy texts I read than those who are not compelled or convinced by the traditional doctrines of Christianity.
When we assume that God is with us and that they are far from God, we fool ourselves. And when we approach people as though we have what they need, we have succumbed to arrogance.
God is alive and well outside the church and outside the borders of defined Christian dogma. So as Christians, we need to learn to expect to find God outside the church. We need to expect that when we come upon someone who has rejected our faith and is alienated from our religion, we will have something to learn from them.... indeed, even something to learn about God.
Some people have left the church for the right reasons.
As Christians, we need to engage the world not with judgmental arrogance but with humble curiosity. Whenever we encounter another person—whether they’re an atheist, a fundamentalist, a witch, or a heretic—we are encountering someone whom God loves, for whom God died on the cross, and with whom God is surely dwelling even now.
What if we saw people that way? What if we respected people enough to ask questions? What if we expected God to be outside the church? What if we rejected the idea that we’re in and they’re out.
We might find that the church is actually much bigger than we think.