by Donald Schell

If I’ve framed this question as I mean to, it will probably sound nonsensical to two quite different groups –

            – One group includes post-Christian atheists, agnostics, apathetics, and “spiritual but not-religious” people, many of them my friends.  To them, the question will sound nonsensical coming from me, a priest of forty years, now an itinerant teacher and workshop leader, but still going to church every Sunday and happily covering as a supply priest in a variety of church settings as I’m invited.  They might tell me that they don’t have a clue what church is for, but don’t expect me to be asking the question, though maybe not.  Maybe knowing I don’t mean to provide an abstract doctrinal answer would make the question interesting to them.  Maybe it would get them wondering how church compared with other purposeful organizations and gatherings.  I hope so.

            – The other group that might find the question nonsensical includes clergy and lay people who attend church (and ‘do’ church) most Sundays.  At least what I feel from a lot of these friends is a shrug that seems to say, “come on, we’re here, so don’t we know what church is for?”  Or if they frame an answer it will be something static like “being the body of Christ,” or something so global, high and holy that it’s impossible to tell if we’re doing it or not like “bringing in the Kingdom of God.”  Either way when church goers have answers, their church-going assumptions make their answers unassailable.  And to guarantee that, I’d expect to hear, “well, we don’t do it perfectly,” so “it” remains idealized and evasive. 

If what we’re up to when we gather to do church matters to humanity and the world we live in, we should be able to tell people what we’re doing and make sense to them without coercing their agreement (or silence) by us invoking our belief system and grand theological language that even we can’t explain without using more grand theological language.  (What theological language is good for and how to keep it grounded in recognizable human experience is something I’d like to write about another time.)

A shoemaker can describe his work so people barefoot or shod can understand what he does.  A hospital emergency room can tell people in good health or ill what the work is.  In fact, they can speak to those outside their practice and experience because to communicate, they can put themselves (pardon this) “in the other person’s shoes.”   In other words, they can speak simply and directly to a perspective outside their work because they know that there’s wisdom and intelligence both inside and our. (On the question of workable theological language, I’ll offer this hint – shoemakers and hospital ER staff do have their own ways of talking about their work, but they can also speak to anyone in everyday language about what they’re doing.)

Church attending (and non-church attending) makes a different sort of divide, or at least can.  We could ask why beliefs (faith or assumptions/hypotheses about how the world is) keep framing themselves as “necessary” to talking about church.  That’s another worthy inquiry.  Maybe later.  For now, I’d like to try to talk about church in ways that will make sense to almost anyone, whether they “have faith” or not.  I’m going set myself the task of making functional, ordinary language sense so that even if I say something about God or Christ or the Spirit, those names or powers show up in a story or process that anyone can see and, as story or process, anyone can understand.

So, that last criterion moves me (with no reluctance) to discard that we go to church to please God or get right with God.  How would we know that?  Because it pleased God to tell us how to please God if we were listening and believed that what we were hearing was God speaking.  Multiplying incomprehensibles won’t move us toward mutual comprehension. 

So, without hypothesizing what might delight a playful God or appease a wrathful one, I’ll be looking for human learning, forming or changing of human relationships, or shaping of human character.  Some sisters and brothers in faith might challenge me immediately on reducing worship to “merely” human interactions.  I will admit that the learning and transformation of human relationships and character I’ve experienced and am looker for sometimes feels miraculous, astonishing, mysterious, and mystical.  We can certainly provoke awe in one another.  But I want to look where even one who can’t or doesn’t want to feel wonder can see that we hope to make a difference to ourselves, to the gathering and to the widest human community.  And while I value feelings, intuition, and the heartfelt, I want to look beyond a change of heart or feelings.  I’m reminded of Garrison Keillor describing a church meeting in Lake Wobegon where “we were moved to a consensus of concern.”  Without diminishing heart and feelings claim on us, I want to answer the question of what church is for in some way that manifests observably. 

Actually, with some of my agnostic and atheist friends, I’d caution that without action that costs something and makes moral sense, history warns us that religiously formed heartfelt solidarity has moved people to shun those outside or even to act in violent solidarity against them.  Some of what’s done “in the name of God” has been pretty horrifying. Solidarity, consensus and shared feeling aren’t enough.

I moved to San Francisco in 1980, the year after nine hundred people ‘drank the Kool-Aid’ in Jonestown because their Christian pastor told them the end had come and was time to do it.  He’d rehearsed them and they were ready for mass suicide.  The negative solidarity the Rev. Jim Jones produced is actually a very useful clue.  We’re looking for what graceful (good, true, beautiful) difference “doing church” makes in our choices and in our actions.  It can make a wholly opposite, destructive difference. 

So let’s consider testing the trustworthiness of any inspiration by the sorts of actions it inspires.  You may notice that I just slipped in a hint of Spirit in language of “inspiration,” but with or without “Holy Spirit,” inspiration seems to make sense to most people.  And any of us who have been glad to welcome inspiration also know it’s got to be tested.  What sometimes looks good in the moment of inspiration can prove folly or worse.

So ranging from Jonestown and the fatal folly of mass suicide, I want to draw a very different positive clue from combining a couple of sayings of St. Paul with advice from jazz great Clark Terry.  From St. Paul, I’d like to hold these two sayings close  “We have the mind of Christ,” and “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” as Clark Terry tells us the way to make jazz is three simple steps – “Imitate, Assimilate, and Innovate.”  

Jim Jones could rightly claim he knew how to make people of one mind, but that mind had little to do with the Jesus who made sense to Gandhi or the dozen St. Francis’s that Lenin from his deathbed said his revolution had lacked.  Clark Terry offers a solidarity that leads jazzmen playing together to shared creativity and personal discovery.  Innovate.  Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.  Authority and resources to innovate.   Clark Terry begins a jazz moment in imitating, a ground of solidarity, and from imitation we internalize something from the group we’re part of and we make it our own, and once it’s our own, we step into creative freedom.  St. Paul and Clark Terry are addressing the human dilemma.  How do we find personal authority and freedom to act?   

Some churches seem determined to equip people for action by offering a detailed guide for facing every situation.  People I know well, whether inside church practice and outside church practice, agree that real-life guidelines that clear and simple aren’t much use.  Clark Terry isn’t just telling us how to make jazz (and St. Paul isn’t just telling us how to worship).  They’re telling us how to make the music or say the prayers so we learn to take a pattern, a melody, a gesture from someone else and make it so completely our own that we can fit it to the unexpected.  An imitation-based learning process takes us to freedom. 

So, St. Paul and Clark Terry see creative freedom is born from discovering a common, acting together until what’s ours in common becomes mine and then finding in what’s mine possibilities none of us have every seen before and trusting them when we need to act.  Contemporary culture doesn’t expect Christian faith to make people creative because church hasn’t been jazz.  Without the Kool-aid it’s been more Jonestown, preaching conformity to suppress freedom.  But if we take a longer view or look to the edges and for the unexpected, despite the familiar voices of legalism asking mindless obedience, a very significant part of Western culture was born from Christian faith and practice.  We can all name those who’ve been shaped and inspired by this tradition – for me Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, J.S. Bach, Dostoyevsky, and Desmond Tutu come to mind quickly.

Freedom.  What do we need for freedom?  We need to know that we have personal authority (resourcefulness and ability to act) and courage (being willing to act when we can’t guarantee an outcome).   If I say that this is what church is for, I think can make good sense to anyone.  We can declare what we’re up to and expect to be held accountable for doing it.

And we’re aiming for something humanity and our present moment desperately need.  People who tell themselves they’re powerless to act and are afraid to step out exempt themselves from relationship with others and diminish all of our humanity. They’re less than the people we need.  I don’t mean that we should all found religious orders, write breath-taking Spanish poetry, compose the Art of the Fugue, write The Brothers Karamazov or stand up to a racist oppression and help rebirth a nation.  Sometimes power and stepping out is simpler and only noticed close up. 

A simpler way to grasp the difference between this kind of common mind and genuine courage and the Rev. Jim Jones convincing and compelling nine hundred people to drink the Kool-Aid shows up in another horrifying story, this one of inaction.  In 1964 Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death in New York in two prolonged attacks by the same assailant.  Thirty-eight of her neighbors saw and heard parts of the crime on the street below and didn’t understand what was happening or were afraid to act.  Whether intervening or phoning to save a life or giving directions to a stranger who is lost downtown, compassionate action requires sparks of creativity and courage. 

Do I mean that church is where people are exhorted, scolded, taught, and inspired to act creatively and with courage?  Actually, no.  I think it’s simpler and deeper than anything we’re told to do or think about.

Frequently today religious leaders and teachers (including church leaders) invite us to notice the religious or spiritual practice in what we do together in a religious assembly.  For some Westerners, “spiritual practice” brings to mind Zen practitioners sitting or Sufi dervishes whirling.  Both are pictures of people engaged in practice, but so are other particular repeated ways we gather, listen to one another, tell stories from our tradition, offer our hopes and fears to a compassion bigger than our own, sing, move, touch one another, and eat together are.  Almost anything we imitate and assimilate to make our own can be spiritual practice. 

Much that we do in church looks to me like vestigial spiritual practice, gestures and offerings that could have some power, but aren’t done deeply or often enough to engage creatively beyond people’s complacency and fears.  When we’re looking for practice, we’ll find thinking about the “how” of practice becomes inevitable.  How is the idolatrous lockstep and emphatic unison singing of Hitler’s Nuremberg rallies different from Clark Terry’s jazz session and how do we shape church gatherings more like a jazz session (whatever kind of music we use).  This looks to me like a lifelong, experimental inquiry.  I expect it will make us look freshly at received practice traditions to see what in them (and which of them) move through imitation to innovating freedom.

But back to the question that began this, “what is church for?”  In the church assembly, simple, repetitive actions take us to the discovery that we can act freely; finding freedom to act gracefully and compassionately is what church is for. 

We’re doing church well when we make a place of actual discovery of holy courage and blessed creativity.  Church community is doing its work when people risk generously and compassionately in what they do together in church, and then continue acting generously and compassionately in the unexpected moments and situations they live outside church.   Yes, it might be in writing a Mass or a novel or in facing life-threatening violence to lead others to freedom.  But it could also be in the simplest acts of kindness and simplest words of truth spoken courageously and creatively in the some ordinary moment of life.  What church is for is, I suppose, to please God, but not to please God’s vanity or appease God’s wrath, rather to engage one another in our holiest place so the habits, patterns, and hope we learn and practice there will en-courage us to act in any place.   

Donald Schell founded and developed the urban congregation of St. Gregory’s from an organizing dozen members to a parish with national recognition for its innovative approaches to liturgy and mission and its teaching contribution to the wider church. In 2007, Donald joined All Saints Company full time in order to teach, lead workshops, consult, and publish on the discoveries made at St. Gregory’s. Donald has written My Father, My Daughter: Pilgrims on the Road to Santiago and has contributed chapters to Searching for Sacred Space, to What Would Jesus Sing? and to Music By Heart: Paperless Songs for Evening Worship


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