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April 23, 2012

Wesley Hill: Stay put

Anyone who’s spent time in a languishing institution will recognize the impulse to ditch the problems of lethargic bureaucracy and strike out on your own. Is the management at your organization or company failing to develop your aptitudes and potential? Best to start looking for a position elsewhere. Are your coworkers hindering your productivity? Maybe it’s time to bail and explore your options.

Christians aren’t immune from these quandaries. “What should we do when we’re out of step with our spiritual siblings?” we often ask.

A friend and I have been getting together to discuss Fr. Richard Rohr’s book “From Wild Man to Wise Man” over coffee. During last week’s meeting, we came across this passage:

“Jesus forms a healthy community of men as a living alternative to the dysfunctional ways that men usually organize themselves. The church was supposed to be that alternative society, it was intended to be God’s ‘new world order.’ But if you cannot find that Jesus energy in your church or parish, gather with a group of honest brothers who can protect you and affirm you…. You cannot do it alone.”

For folks like Rohr, the solution is straightforward: if your church isn’t living up to its name, perhaps it’s time to check out. Or as Andrew Sullivan put it in his recent “Newsweek” cover story: “Forget the church. Follow Jesus.”

Other Christians, sharing Rohr and Sullivan’s cynicism about the institutional church, have advocated for a kind of rebranding. Go ahead and keep meeting together and doing the usual churchy stuff, these folks say, but drop the name “Christian.” Marketing strategists have advised countless companies about the benefits of name changes, and often this tack is a good one. Maybe “Christian” has become too tainted, too freighted with offensive baggage. Maybe it’s best to opt out of the wreckage of church history and begin afresh as “Christ-followers” or “Jesus people.”

Talking about these questions with my weekly coffee buddy, I found myself recalling a post published here at Call & Response a few years back . Understandably, we’re often reluctant to persevere with the flawed, sometimes petty, frequently spiteful community called the church. But can we really leave that community behind and still keep up with its Founder? Here’s Jason Byassee:

“It is striking just how popular Jesus still is. It still seems to make sense to love Jesus while hating the church. This view assumes Jesus popped into history fully formed as though from the head of Zeus, with no history, no people, no story. But Jesus is a Jew. And the effort to uproot Jesus from the church makes as much sense as loving someone’s head, but not their body; or admiring Thomas Jefferson and sneering at the Constitution. Jesus is the foundation and cornerstone and head of the church. Without the people Jesus comes from, without the people Jesus births into the world, there is no Jesus. The people Jesus births into the world are called ‘Christian’.”

Of course this doesn’t solve our problems with the church. We may still lament the lack of “Jesus energy” (as Rohr puts it) in our parishes and parachurch organizations and large institutions. But instead of questing after that energy in new places, maybe we can learn to revisit the broken places and seek to revitalize our churches from within.

It’s happened before and it can happen again -- but only if we stay put.

Wesley Hill is a PhD student in the Department of Theology & Religion at Durham University in the U.K. You can follow him on Twitter at @wesleyhill.

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