When I write abuse, I don’t mean it in the contemporary sense of the word. I mean it in the traditional sense, like when your grandfather abused those old work boots by wearing them in and putting them to work over the last four decades, boots scarred from a hard life forged in the protestant work ethic.
When I say I abuse my church, I refer to the challenges that push it beyond familiar comfort zones.
Jesus asked his disciples to bear the cross in order to follow him; without a few crosses to overcome, the church cannot have celebration. Where there is no grave, there is no resurrection, according to theologian Karl Barth.
In this context, abuse is a part of discipleship.
There are several ways I abuse my church. For one, I abuse my church when I challenge it to bear the cross of intergenerational ministry. In a culture that caters to every age group, some churches separate the generations in worship and ministry.
Large congregations cannot get around this model of ministry. Nevertheless, the notion that families need a break from one another when they get to church is overrated. Research proves that families can grow in faith more effectively by following Christ together.
Holly Allen and Christine Ross, in their bookIntergenerational Faith Formation, demonstrate how this type of ministry benefits families. Since all people yearn for belonging, it is “the best way for people to link narratives, communities, mentors, traditions, and practices” of a common faith. It is “essential to Christian formation and the development of mature faith.”
I also abuse my church by making it bear the cross of responsibility. Sure, I can preach sermons that provide all the answers to life and tell parishioners what to think, but this program of indoctrination only goes so far. Indoctrination may dispense useful information, but it rarely teaches people how to think theologically and critically for themselves.
We ministers are not able to return home with churchgoers and read the Bible for them. When we pass on and get to the pearly gates over yonder, our pastors will not be with us to help answer Peter’s quiz questions. We need to hear directly from the Holy Spirit, not just words about the Holy Spirit from a third party.
Once responsible, I abuse my church by refusing to put on a performance during worship. Quality worship is born from within. Nor is worship about “getting fed” (notice, this phrase is always in the passive tense). Worship is about celebrating where God is at work in our lives, a response to the grace that we have witnessed.
No amount of Bible study, singing, preaching, or ministry activity can “feed” you. Only Jesus is the Bread of Life and the eternal wellspring that quenches our longings for the Divine — and our worship to God flows from a soul filled with love and overwhelmed by the Holy Ghost.
It was the philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, who noted that all of us are worshiping God whether in the pulpit or the pew. God is our audience. Clergy are the mere conductors of the orchestra of the saints.
The last way I abuse my church is to beckon it to bear the cross of missions. God calls the church to reach beyond its own walls and avoid becoming an escape from the rigors of life. Again, we confuse function with intent. Church is intended to be a resource for the journey, a mere launching pad for reaching out to share the gospel with others in the world. It is not intended to be either a final destination or a social club.
Every church can take the broad way that looks comfortable, but it is the way that leads to destruction. The narrow way of discipleship, which leads to life, is strewn with crosses, risks, and demands for vulnerability. Like Grandpa’s work boots, it exhibits a journey of abuse and hard work, of ownership and maturity.