What really holds up churches and keeps them together? Do we dare to find out?
Many have long affirmed and loudly proclaimed their supportive structure as: “The Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ, our Lord.”
Yet, our modern expressions of congregational life often prove that affirmation and proclamation to be untrue.
During my campus ministry years back in the 1980s, college students and I endlessly played a game we called “Takaradi.” Later, it was branded more widely as “Jenga.”
The game’s simple concept involves each person, in turn, removing one piece from a stack of uniform wooden blocks and replacing it atop without toppling the whole structure. The skills involve making a wise choice and then acting with the proper care.
Removing an essentially supportive piece – or otherwise disrupting the foundational integrity of the structure – leads to a game-ending crash and one’s designation as the loser.
It’s easy to voice the prioritized affirmation that “Jesus is Lord” and “The Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ, our Lord.” It is more challenging and revealing to continually prove it.
What would happen if a few blocks – one by one – were removed to reveal what really is holding up most congregational expressions of Americanized Christianity? What nonessentials, even conflicting elements, might we dare take out that would cause the structure to fall?
Several years back, I learned of a highly regarded, historic congregation that went through a long transition in pastoral leadership. During that extended time, the church kept things going.
But they didn’t participate in the Lord’s Supper. They forgot, and no one noticed.
However, someone moved the American flag from the sanctuary for a Saturday wedding and failed to return it for Sunday worship. And, as reported to me from someone there, “All hell broke loose.”
Ignoring or downplaying Jesus is not nearly as risky in many (perhaps most) churches as removing the block of white nationalism or American exceptionalism or patriarchy or white privilege or cultural dominance.
Just pull one of those and see what happens.
If Jesus is, indeed, the one foundation, then why do challenges to other, supposedly lesser, priorities tend to cause the structure to teeter and even fall?
Churches do not function apart from the cultural realities outside their walls. In fact, Americanized Christianity is largely shaped by the ongoing baptized blessings of political ideologies garnered from media choices throughout the week.
Therefore, there is a clear parallel between those Americans who don’t want to recognize the harsh realities of this nation’s founding and developing history – and those within the church who prefer building blocks other than the priority of following Jesus.
Realities (rooted in truth) are really not of upmost importance to many Americanized Christians. Just pull a few substitute foundational and supportive pieces and see what happens.
Congregational challenges to being truly rooted in Jesus are increasing – and being increasingly exposed. Many church leaders would rather not face up to the failures of their declared foremost allegiance.
Yet, our religious sandcastles cannot resist the crashing waves of cultural and technological changes that keep testing our priorities and purpose. And when those tides recede, we can see what really is (or was) holding them up.
Life provides the opportunity to be givers or takers in various forms – with Jesus calling us to give generously, even sacrificially, in the interest of others. Sadly, however, many Americanized Christians are now emphasizing what one can get or retain based on a falsified concept of freedom.
Too often, the focus is on how to stay in power, get a bigger slice of pie and resist efforts to share power and other resources with those who have less. Much of conservative Christianity is now embracing political ideologies at odds with Jesus while focusing on what can be denied to others.
Church-going legislators – empowered by many preachers and pew sitters – are engaged in all-out assaults on equality and equity. They seek to deny broad access to health care, equal rights to LGBTQ persons, justice for minorities, respite for desperate refugees, convenient voting for all citizens and religious freedom for those whose religion is unlike their own.
Remove any of these blocks of political self-preservation – often built on misrepresented history or other lies – and many versions of Americanized Christianity would come crashing down.
In fact, just stating clearly what Jesus, the cornerstone, actually said and did, and still calls his followers to be and do, is disruptive. Try it and see what happens.
Nothing seems more threatening to the stability of many churches than the gospel truth that God loves all creation equally and extends grace, love, peace and mercy more broadly and fairly than within our own tents.
Jesus showed us how to do that if we dare. “From heav’n he came and taught us what perfect love can be; through life and death he sought us, and rose to set us free.”
Yet, when we jingle the Jenga of our shared expressions of faith, we will likely find more temporal things to be propping us up. Please prove me wrong.
Executive editor / publisher at Good Faith Media.