Do you think Jesus feels invisible in today’s churches, like a guest at a party with whom no one chooses to converse? I mean, sure he was invited. We acknowledge his presence as a point of doctrine. We may even state that the gathering is held in his honor. However, is that where it ends? Is Jesus left standing in the corners waiting for our eyes and ears to turn to him?
This pondering was piqued when I noticed the cover page of the latest edition of the Anglican Journal. In dramatic bold type, the Journal heralded, “Gone by 2040?” The article references a now well-known statistic; that the year 2040 is the “0 date” for the Anglican Church of Canada. At this time, the last Anglican will turn out the lights, and the long history of Anglican theology and worship will be no more. Nothing says “Happy New Year” like a message of impending doom! The article goes on to talk about theories as to why this the case and how the church today might respond. Yet while we toss around our theories and strategies for the church’s future, I have to wonder if Jesus stands in the corner hoping that eventually will look to him.
This is not to suggest that the church today has nothing to address. Of course we do. Nevertheless, I believe we make a mistake when we overly focus on recapturing the glories of the past. When we do this, we cast our vision backwards to the days or years when the church was successful, truly established. One comments, “I remember when every Christmas service was packed to the brim!”, whereas another laments, “In my day, we had a 50 person children’s choir!” Of course, such statements may be factually true, but dwelling on such things only serve to take our attention the blessing of Christ in our midst. The church community can never be established in any reality, here and now, if we are too busy trying to picture what the church community looked like fifty years ago.
Likewise, I believe we err when we assert that the future of the church is somehow dependent upon the strategic implementation of our well-thought-out programs, whether that be “Fresh Expressions,” “Alpha courses” or whatever the newest fix-it trend may be. To do so is to believe that the future of the church must include success and societal recognition as if the Christendom of the past must be the Lord’s desire for our future. Is this not the unspoken point when we reference our percentage amid the Canadian population?
When we focus too much on the glory of the past, or on establishing the glory of the future, we tend to see the present existence of the church only as a stain on the church’s true nature. Our dreams for what the church should be dismisses what the church is. We discard the present reality of our life together, along with the present reality of Christ’s own work within the church, in favour of a fantasy. Dietrich Bonhoeffer actually speaks to this in his important book, Life Together.
Every human idealized image that is brought into the Christlike community is a hindrance to the genuine community and must be broken up so that the genuine community can survive. The one who loves their dream of Christian community more than the Christian community itself becomes destroyers of that community. (Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 36)
Bonhoeffer follows this passage with a long paragraph elucidating God’s hatred toward our “wishful dreaming” about the Church. For Bonhoeffer, dreaming about what the church ought to look like, as opposed to what the church held by Christ actually is, is rooted in pride and egoism. We base our dreams about the church upon our self-focused desire to realize our own glory and prestige. The human image of the church replaces God’s own desire for the church. The wish-dream causes us to remain inwardly focused. “They act as if they have to create the Christian community”, Bonhoeffer notes (Bonhoeffer, Life Together; 37). We look only within within for a way reclaim the glorious past. Instead of humbly accepting the Lord’s activity, we make demands upon how the Lord should work in the midst of his community. We often do this when we equate “future” with “numerical growth.” In doing so we stand against the present reality of Christ as the head of the church today. We set ourselves up as those who judge the church’s success or failure. As Bonhoeffer notes, such judgement is based on our limited view, so that “whatever does not go [our] way, [we] call a failure”, writes Bonhoeffer (Bonhoeffer, Life Together; 36). Fixating on an idealized image of the church blocks us from responding to the incarnate presence and activity of their Lord in our midst. More to the point, however, it is to mistake the fundamental nature of the church itself as a body realized by the incarnate presence of Christ. It is Christ alone who creates, holds together, and sustains the church.
Bonhoeffer calls for a radical embracement of the hear-and-now of the church community, one that I believe we would do well to heed. “The bright day of Christian community dawns wherever the early morning mists of dreamy visions are lifting,” he writes. (Bonhoeffer, Life Together; 37) We are to lay aside our idealized dreams of past or future glory in order to embrace the glory of the Lord in our midst. Christ, and Christ alone, is to be the focus of the community. Bonhoeffer writes:
Christian community is not an ideal we have to realize, but rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate. The more clearly we learn to recognize that the ground and strength and promise of all our community is in Jesus alone, the more calmly we will learn to think about our community and pray and hope for it. (Bonhoeffer, Life Together; 38)
Can we stop trying to realize an ideal and instead focus on participating in the reality into which Christ has invited us?
It may be tempting to see Bonhoeffer’s thoughts as overly theological, devoid of any real world applications. We may think that such thoughts are great for seminaries and theological books, but surely offer no word given the condemning statistics our present-day. I believe such a response is misguided. One of the reasons why I find Bonhoeffer’s words so profound for today’s church is precisely the ecclesial reality surrounding Bonhoeffer’s ministry. Bonhoeffer did not pen Life Together during a high point of church power and prestige. In fact, the exact opposite was the case. Bonhoeffer wrote Life Together in 1938, while the German church was struggling with its response to Hitler and the Nazi agenda. The Nazi Party had systematically closed seminaries throughout Germany, attempting to seize control of the church’s future. Just prior to Bonhoeffer writing this book, the secret police raided, and closed, the underground seminary at Finkenwald where Bonhoeffer had taught. Hitler’s systematic assault on the church did not stop at the closure of seminaries, however. The secret police forced many German pastors to take an oath of personal allegiance to Hitler; those who refused awaited arrested and subsequent execution.
Bonhoeffer faced a crippling reality. Nazism had a stranglehold on the church, one that did not look like it as going to subside. The national church stood silent in the face of the holocaust. Even the Confessing Church, the body that was to stand faithful to the gospel under Nazi regime, had unfortunately continually shown itself incapable to take an authoritative stance against the horrors occurring around them. Instead of a 20-year statistical projection regarding the church’s demise, Bonhoeffer saw the death of the church looking much more immanent. In response, he wrote Life Together. This book was penned precisely against the backdrop of war and holocaust, when one would be tempted to retreat into dreams about the glorious past. Instead of wishful fantasies about how great things were in the past, or about future growth, Bonhoeffer speaks to the need to embrace the church as it exists in the present.
This brings us back around to the Anglican Journal and the statistic regarding our demise in just 20 years. Bonhoeffer reminds me that the church has always faced a precarious future. There has never been a time where the church is able to sit back and claim of itself “Aha! I have arrived!” Yet despite this reality, Christ has continued to call his church into existence. This is as true to Anglicanism as it is to other denominations. Therefore, let us not be too swept up by doomsday statistics. Let us not work ourselves in a frenzy attempting to fix something that ultimately, cannot be fixed by our efforts. Rather, as Hebrews reminds us, “let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith.” (Hebrews 12:2)
*Note: All citations taken from Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, 2005; Life Together And Prayerbook of the Bible (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works Vo.5); Minneapolis, First Fortres Press,).