There was a dream that was Rome. You could only whisper it. Anything more than a whisper and it would vanish, it was so fragile.Marcus Aurelius, Gladiator
Nice pocket square.
That was my first thought after playing the video in which iTown Church’s pastor described their reopening the last weekend of April.
Pulling attention from bespoke wardrobe to spoken words, I learned that Christians were now “officially in a position in which your religious freedoms are being removed in the interest of public health.” The pastor continued, “I agree that we need to follow the data, we need to listen to our doctors, we need to protect those in our community who are the most vulnerable. But I do not agree with our fundamental rights to worship being revoked.”
As the video played, I noticed myself running the full gamut of reactions: sartorial appreciation, laughter, eye-rolling, cynicism, and finally, anger.
That last one really surprised me.
Aren’t I beyond this? I thought. Why am I disappointed in a church I don’t attend and angered by a pastor I don’t follow? Let them do what they want and I’ll do what I want. Really, I laughed to myself, this season has simply shown churches how “non-essential” they actually are.
And yet still I raged, sharing the video with friends and family who commiserated with me, then gleefully took to social media to debate the post on their own feeds. I laughed at their responses but found my stomach still churning. A line from the movie Gladiator came to mind: the General Maximus, incensed and exasperated by his forced-participation in the bread and circuses, screamed, “Marcus Aurelius had a dream that was Rome—this is not it!”
I thought of the Church,1 of my abandoned project to reform its worship through my own ministry––and of my many and absolute failures. I thought of my friends, most of whom have similarly given up on their own reformation projects––except one one who has continued the fight: reaping anger, depression, and financial ruin as a reward.
There was indeed a dream that was the Church I thought. And this? This is not it.
I cannot enumerate all the ways in which the church has failed. Rather, I hope to simply urge followers of Christ to fulfill their calling as the Church . . . By leaving it.
Really. We have been addicts and the institution has been our dealer, and we have a brief space in this lockdown to get clean.
After millennia of attempting to “reform” or “restore,” to resuscitate the institution’s cold corpse, we must accept that it is in fact dead; all that now lives are the unwitting flailing of nerves, like a crushed spider’s twitching legs. But soon even that movement will cease and the institution as we’ve known it will be swept into the dustbin of history.
There is no saving the institutional church. Christ has indeed sent it “prophets and sages and teachers.” Some of them have been “killed and crucified” while others have been “flogged in the synagogues” (or the social media equivalent) and “pursued from town to town.” Too long has it feasted while others have starved, and separated itself when it ought to have been the yeast spread throughout the societal dough.
The church has fashioned for itself a gilded cage for its people to be held, coddled and safeguarded, while good pastors are run out or run down, and the bad ones grow fat. Nearly all denominations and traditions have at one time or another allied themselves with Caesar in order to forward their own agendas, enriching their coffers and cultural power.
So now, when many find the cage’s gates forcibly locked “in the interest of public health,” congregants addicted to its supply, are set adrift, becoming “spiritually sick.” As Pastor Pocketsquare said, “People who are physically strong are growing emotionally and spiritually sick, and I believe the solution to this problem is the physical gathering of the church.”
But sometimes that “sickness” may be incipient recovery.
He goes on, reminding us that “church” is from the Greek word ecclesia,2 which means “those called out from their homes to a public place.” While others more learned than I could give a full explanation, suffice it to say he is using a very narrow interpretation here that miraculously results in “butts in the seats.”
But the Church ought to exist as the “called out ones,” spreading throughout the world, not sequestering themselves in a single place.
And so we must call out the Church from the church. We must fulfill the Body of Christ’s namesake and call the Church out from its place of privacy into the world.
As it is, however, we are in a position of people feeling “spiritually sick” because they have not performed their acts of public worship––as though God has withheld blessing and life and protection because their rites have not been fulfilled. But if we only live in the presence of God while publicly worshiping, the church has failed us. If our only community is within the walls of the church, the church has failed us. If we don’t know our neighbors and can’t stand being near our family, the church has failed us.
I would counter that, rather than being our primary place of worship, community, and family, church is primarily intended to function as a reminder—a sacramental moment that reorients our vision to what is always true, everywhere. An important reminder, yes. One that offers the healing balm of personal contact, yes. But it is to be a staging ground, not a destination. A reminder of the point, not the point itself.
And this is why we must call out the Church from the church.
For those of you accustomed to a weekly service, have you begrudgingly noticed that you . . . just maybe . . . don’t actually miss it as much as you thought you would?
Sure, there are aspects we miss, but they are not without resolution. And that’s my point: breaking our addiction to church does not mean abandoning the Church. All that is most weighty can be found outside the walls. Some may wish to keep going to a weekly service, but (again) as a reminder more than the point. I wager, if we step away long enough, we might just see the bloated institution for what it truly is, and realize that the Church’s relationship with the church has for too long been one of addict and dealer, and that in seasons like this when we are forced into detox, we begin to see clearly just how dependent we have become.
The ending of Gladiator finds Maximus killing the usurper Commodus in the arena, and attempting to reinstate Aurelius’s dream of Rome. But this is, of course, pure fiction. No such thing happened: no general-turned slave-turned gladiator saved the decaying empire. The few who held the dream died or left, their territory dwindled, and the Roman Empire slowly fell—like the buildings that now haunt the Eternal City—into ruin.
And so we must call out the Church from the church. For if we do not, the few remaining who rightly see their participation in a local congregation as an added privilege, rather than the point, will continue to leave their faith in the same buildings they abandon, never to return to either. Yet if we succeed in calling out the Church from the crumbling facade of its institution, perhaps we can finally scatter into the world we’ve been sent—into our neighborhoods, jobs, and (obviously) local pubs—and awaken and remind the world of its true nature.
And if we succeed, we ourselves can fully become the Church: the living reminder that “Christ is all and is in all”—that each and every human being is filled with the same “same Spirit that raised Christ from the dead” and suffuses the cosmos.
So if a short lockdown can help break the addiction, then pass the hand sanitizer.
1. I’ll try to carefully indicate whether I’m speaking of particular churches or the mystical Body of Christ, the Church.↩
2. Because every announcement video needs a little Greek sprinkled in.↩