Why it might be good that the church is no longer at the centre of society

A few decades ago, it would have been expected that you would go to church. This was the culturally respectable thing to do and the only issue in dominant Western society was which ‘brand’ of Christianity you were part of (Roman Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox etc).

The question of why you would go to church wouldn’t have really come up – everyone did.   In this setting the way for people to claim dignity, to gain status, to gain respect and honour in society was to be a part of a church community. Some people in church today look back with longing for those days, when churches were full, when Sunday schools were overflowing and when the church was at the centre of society.

I don’t.

You may wish to label me as cynical but I am pretty sure that whole swathes of people who went to church in this period were not going to church to explore questions of faith, or to investigate what Jesus’ way meant in how they lived, or to worship the Divine or to pray for the world. They were there because it was culturally expected to be there: to be ‘respectable’ you had to go to church. In some countries, and regions, around the world this remains true (across faith traditions), but not in Australia any more.

There is no expectation that people go to church here. At least in Victoria there is much more cultural expectation that you have an AFL Footy team than that you go to church. If anything people who do go to church are viewed suspiciously.

There is strange gift in this.  Now those of us who continue to attend church are no longer there for obligation, or to gain social standing (or if people are there for this reason they are going to be disappointed).

We might not be able to easily articulate why we front up to church but I suspect it has something to do with the heart conviction that there is more to life, or that we have a yearning for the Divine, or that this Jesus continues to pull at our hearts.

Together with churches around the world, we have been reading Mark’s gospel over the last few months. Throughout recent readings Jesus has been talking about radical reversals: if you want to be first you need to be last, become like a child, give away your stuff to the poor, and that the ‘son of man’ came not to be served but to serve.

Despite Jesus’ repeated emphasis upon radical reversals those around him, including James and John who we read about last week, don’t seem to get it. They want Jesus’ way to bring glory, and status and honour and ‘victory’ for Jesus and for themselves (Mark 10:35-45).

I think many people in the church today, in our postmodern, post-Christendom context, are the same. They long for what they think were the ‘glory’ days, when the church had status, when to be a Christian, or a Church leader, was to gain instant respect and importance. But to think like this is to be just as trapped as the disciples in their ego driven bubble.

That is not what Jesus’ way is about.  Despite Jesus’ way being twisted into all kinds of corruptions of ego and wealth and power by the world wide church for centuries, the gift and freedom of this moment in history is that these lies are easier to put down now.

Because Western society no longer buys the lie that the church should be at the centre of society, that we should have all the power and status, we can put down the lie too.

The way of Jesus – as Jesus makes clear in Mark’s gospel – is about a living into a way of ‘un-power’ and ‘un-status’: living into a way of radical hospitality, humility and compassion.

I think what Jesus is talking about is, bit by bit, slowly being unbound from our dependence on our egos, our need to gain approval or status, to be first, to get it ‘right’ or to be liked, and discovering again and again ourselves as beloved of the Divine here and now.

It is from this, slowly, slowly, that we can begin to be liberated from the prison of our own egos: the need to be important or ‘seen’, and instead live into the flow of Divine grace which Jesus embodies, sharing this compassion gently from the margins.

Rev Dr Sally Douglas