A fallen church?

18 Nov

At a recent diocesan youth workers meeting, we discussed the way that the Church is at present and how we can look to influence change for the future.

As part of the discussion, we pondered over the words of a reading (Dallas Willard – The Divine Conspiracy) where it suggested that the Church had been bowing to societal norms for the last 1500 years. When thinking on this, I took it to mean that it was a reference to when Constantine made Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire.
And as I thought about it I started to remember what I learned from Latin classes and what I read about the classical world, about how many temples they had to all the various gods, shrines for the household gods and so on. And then I started to think about the change we see in the way the Church ran before and after.

Before the Church became established as the state religion the services are thought to have been quite short, mainly because the weekend didn’t exist so they had to work most if not all days of the week. They may well have met every day and services would regularly have included prophecies, teaching, singing and reading from the Scriptures (or Old Testament to you and me).
The early Church also didn’t have it’s own buildings, with the earliest designated church buildings only coming after 200 AD. This also meant that church sizes were generally under 30 as most houses were not particularly big.

All of this makes me wonder where the idea of a church building came from and the only conclusion I come to is that the Church got the idea from the surrounding pagan religions and a complete misunderstanding of what Jesus’ death meant for the Temple in Jerusalem.

On the first point, as I have already said the Roman gods all had their own temples. The practice of worship was to go to the temples and make sacrifices there. Then when you got home you made sacrifices to the household gods at their shrines. Everything was set in it’s place, including these supposedly all-powerful gods. They could all be worshipped when people felt like going to worship them and could all be influenced by actions done to and for them.
And now we see that with the advent of the Church being adopted as the official religion of the Roman Empire they decide that they need to start making buildings to go to to worship God, rather than continuing to meet in homes. We see the Church start to be a source of persecution through the state as Roman citizens are told they must change their religion. We see the Christian Church not so much breaking the pagan faith as merely supplanting it.

And as a result of this building obsession we also see the Church completely missing one of the key aspects of the Cross: the tearing of the Temple curtain. With this one act God makes it clear that He was the one that did it (it was torn from top to bottom, not bottom to top) and that the old understanding of God’s relationship with the world was wrong. Rather than a curtain being used to separate God from His people, He removes it and shows the world that He is everywhere and can be worshipped anywhere, not restricted to any buildings or geographical locations.
So we see that the continued church building can lead to the hallowing of geography, again, instead of realising that worship is independent of it. With this we start to see that worship becomes more focussed to a particular day (Sunday), rather than meeting every day in people’s houses. And the impact of this can be seen in how people in Church relate to each other. This is not to say that all churches get it wrong, but how closer and more intimate would our relationships be with others in our church is we were meeting in houses and sharing a meal every day? How much more would we share our troubles, worries and fears? How much easier would it be to invite people to church if it was at someone’s house, rather than some cold, lonely building?

And here, I believe, is a key aspect of where the Church struggles today. Evangelism to bring people to a building just doesn’t work to building relationships, which is what the Christian faith is about. But invite people to your home to share a meal and have a chat and a sing (well, maybe the singing would be a bit strange nowadays) sounds far more friendly and accessible. And, if churches are based in homes it means that planting churches simply needs people to open up their home to a new group, working in the same way that the Cell model works today.
Just think how that might look! A church that is reaching out to it’s (very) local community and growing through close, personal relationships. Can you imagine what the world would look like if this was how the Church had remained?

But instead all we have are the remnants of pagan worship practices, blended in with Christian theology. I do not want this to be the legacy that I leave to future generations. I want to see the Church growing and loving and building relationships, not worrying about getting to church on a Sunday. I want the Church to be seen as something for all the community to be a part of, every day of the week!


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Archbishop Cranmer

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