When I come to Greenville for liturgy three times a month from Raleigh, I take U.S. Route 264, which brings me right by the town of Wilson, N.C. The few times I’ve stopped there for gas or food, I’ve been impressed by its small-town charm, and have prayed that someday there will be an Orthodox Church there.
For several months, I have noticed a certain billboard as I pass by the town. It is for a Church that has campuses in both Wilson and Greenville, and it states boldly: “Redefining Church.” I am suspicious of slogans in general, but all the more so when they are related to Church. When they express an idea that is incorrect, I feel frustrated.
That is exactly the feeling I get each time I see this billboard. I want to make it clear that I do not judge the sincerity of the Church’s pastors and staff, and I have no desire to disparage any good work they may be doing in their community. For this reason, I will not name the Church. But I do feel an obligation to point out where this message falls short of the Gospel of Our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ.
What do Churches like this one mean by “Redefining Church,” anyway? Often they arise in reaction to what they perceive as the stuffy, spiritually dead atmosphere found in mainline Protestant congregations. Just as in the 16th century, Martin Luther was faced with the Roman Catholic Church, which had replaced a personal relationship with Jesus with a formalistic, cold religious system, our modern Churches believe that even Protestantism has now become formalized and stuck in the past. The process of Reformation must continue.
Along with the idea that personal relationships have been replaced with formalism comes the idea that the Church has become irrelevant to the people of today. Old hymns and sermons that focus on sin and judgment, and the fear of Hell, don’t serve to motivate and change lives, but make people dejected and stifle God’s blessings in their lives. The past century has seen several social upheavals, and Church attendance rates have gone down. The only way to solve this problem is to get back to the basics, to cut away the formalities, and allow God to speak to us directly and to our community, powerfully, and directly. Church must be redefined away from old rituals and forms, and be made relevant to this generation. Church needs to equip people to live successful, God-centered lives, where they bear fruit and experience God’s blessings. In order to counteract a society that often describes itself as “spiritual, not religious,” the Church must present its spiritual power, and tone down the references to doctrine and intellectualism.
Looking at the website of the Church in question, one does not see any detailed theological statements or confessions of faith. The vision page refers a few times to imagery of plants being watered, with Bible verses being selected to highlight this theme, with no context given. The world has become a dry, dead place, and the Church is going to offer the living stream of God’s spirit. While the sentiment is nice on a basic level, there is no indication from the website or from the sermons posted on the website, that this congregation moves too far beyond this generic, “seeker-friendly” level of presentation. The “What We Believe” section offers a drive-by presentation of some core Christian beliefs, again in a superficial manner.
This Church, and many like it, seems wedded to the notions of stripping away the accrued formalities from the essentials, and making the message relevant to “this generation” (another statement on the Vision page mentions the belief that we are living in a generation where “real power and anointing are essential”—as if the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is not essential in each generation?) The slogan “Redefining Church” summarizes this whole problematic attitude. But why?
Simply stated, we don’t redefine church—the Church redefines us. What does it mean to be redefined? It means to be converted like St. Paul, who went from a murderer of Christians to the preeminent preacher of Christ. It can mean to leave behind one’s doubts and go to a faraway land like India to preach the Gospel, such as St. Thomas did. Being redefined is what led St. Constantine the Great, the first Christian Roman Emperor, to abandon paganism for Christ. Being redefined means to become a saint, a holy person, who witnesses Christ’s presence. In the Orthodox Church, we sing a hymn on various days that states: “O Son of God, Who art wondrous in the Saints, save us who chant to Thee, Alleluia!” We are reminded that “as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Galatians 3:27).
Is our critique unfair, though, given that Churches like the one in our example do speak of a new start, of conversion, of following God, of experiencing His power in our lives? Here we come to the root of the issue; when we attract people with the slogan that we are redefining church, we are explicitly saying that Church was the problem before, not ourselves and our sins. That is not to say that there have not been problems in the local Churches, or that some Churches have focused on sin and judgment to the exclusion of God’s grace and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. We cannot respond to one extreme with another, however, which is precisely the case here. If we are ultimately trying to redefine ourselves in Christ’s image, how can this be accomplished, when we entered on the premise that a group of people have already redefined Church? How do we know that they have redefined it properly, or have redefined it enough?
Being redefined spiritually is a difficult process, which requires effort. Just as one does not go from overweight to physically fit in an instant, one does not go from self-willed sinner to saint in a moment. This process of being redefined is sometimes painful, and requires great trust. It is learned by doing. Those who have come to a knowledge of Christ and have been transformed were taught by someone before them, who were taught by someone before them. Tried and true methods of spiritual growth were followed, such as prayer, reading of Scripture, fasting, and almsgiving. Each new generation has to be exposed to this—to the Church—in order to be saved. When we reject the Church before us to strike a new path, we are in effect making God in our own image, instead of allowing the image of God implanted in us to guide us in our quest to regain the likeness of God (what some Christians call sanctification). It’s easier to say that the Church needs to be redefined, rather than admit that perhaps smaller congregations are the result of less people in this world being willing to put in the effort required for walking with Christ.
Of course, it might also be stated that the Church, as the Body of Christ, is not being redefined, but merely our experience of it in one local context. This creates a division, however, between the Church as a whole and the local community, what we might also call a parish or a congregation. We might say we are “redefining the local parish” then. But this division is not found in Scripture, or the lived experience of the Church over the past 2000 years. The universal Church is lived in each concrete, local community, and this community is one with similar, neighboring local communities. They share a common heritage, a common way of doing things, because the way of Christian life is a publicly-transmitted set of beliefs, practices, and techniques that will bring us to salvation and becoming like Jesus Christ.
To experience our redefinition in Christ, then, we must break with the idea that things went wrong and the Church needed to be redefined. As more and more people ceased to be redefined, the culture fell from God. Christendom—the society of Christians built around their common faith—is virtually dead. The solution is not to redefine Church, but to more strongly redefine ourselves, and stop seeing the Church as a means to getting what we want, whether that be a good feeling, more friends, or a vague sense of spiritual comfort. We will quite probably remain a minority, but by following Christ’s will, we will have a faith that moves mountains. We will vanquish the enemy as did David over Golliath.
While these seeker-friendly Churches do a good job at getting people in the door, it is often a revolving door, or those who stay are often fed milk instead of meat, even when they are ready for the full truth. This parallels our society keeping young people in the home longer without responsibilities, and shows these Churches have become servants of our popular culture, rather than antidotes to them. We will be redefined, and move beyond the milk, taking the meat and the greater responsibility upon ourselves, growing and becoming like Christ in ways that the Church “redefiners” cannot imagine are possible.
My words will not be popular, and I will not fill our Church with visitors by preaching against this dumbing-down of worship, teaching, and Christian living by those seeking to make it all relevant. Each generation, in its attempts to make the Church more relevant, is losing a bit of the “formula” for spiritual growth, is rejecting a little bit more its connection with the apostolic, New Testament Church, by introducing novelties. How much longer can these Churches even remain Christian? We see people like Joel Olsteen on television without even a Cross on his stage, and we have our answer: Christianity has ceased to be practiced in many Churches now. Christianity without a Cross is not valid, even if it is relevant and emotionally-stimulating.
If you’ve come across this article and have made it this far because you share my concern with the appropriateness of redefining the very thing that is the “pillar and foundation of truth” (2 Timothy 3:15), then come to the Church which has never been redefined, in its 2000 year existence: the Orthodox Christian Church—the original Christian Church. We were not redefined in 1054, 1517, 1968, or at any other time, but simply continue to do things the way we know works. As we chant in our service: “We have seen the true light. We have received the heavenly Spirit….” 2000 years of saints have shown what the power of God can do for man, and they have shown us how we can attain this as well. It is not through rock bands and slick, slang expressions thrown in to sermons, but through a life of obedience to God, reading the Scriptures, fasting, praying, and doing charity, by being personally humble and self-sacrificing. This is not an easy message, but it has an advantage over all the others: it is the truth.
We invite you to start on the path of redefining yourself, alongside us.