Beyond the God-Box

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

Where is God? Where, that is, do you expect to meet God, to experience God, to participate with God in God’s ongoing work? Really. I’m honestly curious about how you would answer these questions. I’m also interested in how the folks in your congregation would answer them if you asked them the same questions. Because I have a hunch that there would be a noticeable difference in the answers.

Preachers — and church professionals in general — are likely to talk about God at work in the world and the invitation each of us has to participate in that work. These convictions come from our theology of vocation — the belief that all Christians are called (vocatio) by virtue of their Baptism to participate in God’s work to care for all creation. This theological category is incredibly important to us and, as a rule, we are committed to teaching and preaching a vibrant theology of vocation. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that when you talk with most of our people, they have a hard time imagining that what they spend most of their time doing in the world “counts” as a call. That is, they believe that most of their lives — at home, school, work, volunteering, civic responsibilities, etc. — aren’t particularly worthy of God’s attention or the church’s. Not sure you believe me? I understand, it seems outrageous that something that is so obvious and important to us hasn’t sunk in with our people. So I’d suggest that you go and ask them. Ask them about where they feel they are called. Ask how they connect their faith and their daily life. Ask if the ordinary things they do are as important to God as the things they do in church. Ask where they see God in their lives.

I’ve had hundreds of these conversations and have found several things pretty consistently:
1) Most of our people believe they are leading their Christian lives most fully and visibly when they are at church or doing church-related things. The next place is when they are “helping people,” whether through their work, volunteering, or more informally. But most of the “regular” work they do doesn’t seem particularly connected to their faith.

2) Our people typically understand “living your faith in daily life” to mean “witnessing” or “sharing your faith,” and almost immediately after naming it this way they feel guilty because they don’t do this as much as they believe they should. The second most common way of understanding living your faith is in terms of character and ethics — doing a good job, being an honest person, etc. Very few people can imagine that they are living their faith in the regular and mundane activities of work, school, family life, etc.

3) The clearest mark of being a Christian is going to church. Sunday, in short, is the highpoint of the Christian life. Again, volunteering and helping others comes in second. Most of the rest of our lives — including how we spend our money and time –doesn’t seem to connect clearly to our faith in any meaningful way.

Depressed? I used to be. Now, however, these kinds of conversations actually motivate me. Because the truth is that there’s a huge opportunity here. We wonder why fewer and fewer people are coming to church. Well, I think these conversations indicate that it’s probably because their faith impacts most of their lives so superficially that it’s hard to justify giving one hour during the most unscheduled part of the week to something that hardly impacts the other 167 hours of the week. That might have been okay — at least in terms of church attendance — when most people did a lot of things just because they knew they “should” or because their parents did them, but those days are over.

Which is why this is such a huge opportunity. I mean, it’s not like our lives are easier than they were for our parents. We still struggle with decisions about careers; we still work hard to balance our multiple roles as parents, spouses, children, friends, employees, and the rest; we still agonize over how to make the most of our time and money; we still search for meaning, identity, and a sense of purpose. None of this has changed. And guess what: the Christian faith has a lot of helpful, important, and relevant things to say about all of this.

Now, please hear me: I know we are working hard — very hard — already at connecting faith to life, but somehow it’s not getting through. And I think the reason is that we tend to think about God and God’s work in relation to church; that is, in relation to our church buildings and our Sunday activities in those buildings. That’s understandable — church is the place we come together to hear the Word and receive the sacraments. And in honoring Sunday worship we are keeping the commandment to honor the Sabbath. We, of all people, know how important it is to gather together in fellowship and be encouraged in faith.

But I think the unintended consequence of this salutary emphasis on Sunday worship and church in general is that we’ve unintentionally given the impression that church is this great big God-box where people should come to experience God. I mean, think about: almost all of our evangelism efforts in recent memory have been geared toward getting people to come to church. (And the gauge of just how strong the impulse has been is your immediate and unconscious reaction — come on, be honest 🙂 — of initially wondering what else evangelism efforts could possibly be about.)

And, truth be told, for the last century or two (at least) this has been pretty effective. But somehow we’ve lost the sense and confidence that God is always out ahead of us, at work to bless, save, and love this world, and that God is beckoning us to join God in this venture. Church, from this point of view, is the training ground for our life in the world. Church is the way station to find rest and nourishment before going back to the main mission. Church is the “vocational counseling center” that helps us discern just where and to what and whom God is calling us.

All of which brings me to today’s Gospel reading — finally! — which is all about where God is. We know this story — it’s in all four gospels. But John does something remarkably different with it than his synoptic siblings. Rather than place it at the end of Jesus’ ministry where it serves as a catalyst to the arrest, conviction, and crucifixion of Jesus, John places it right up front. Indeed, in John’s hands this is Jesus’ first foray into the public. And what a foray it is, as he overturns tables and drives out moneychangers with words and cords. Again, we know this story — particularly via Matthew, Mark, and Luke — so it’s easy to miss another twist in John’s version: Jesus, in the Fourth Gospel, doesn’t decry the Temple as a “den of robbers” — likely accusing the moneychangers of defrauding the poor — rather, he says the Temple has become “a market place” (2:16).

But that’s what it had to be! You needed certain animals to obey the laws of sacrifice, and because average worshippers didn’t carry around doves or rams, they bought them at the Temple. So what Jesus is asking for is well nigh impossible. So why does he do it? Because the Temple — from the Johannine Jesus’ point of view — is obsolete now that he has come. (The synoptics make a similar move near the end of the story in the tearing of the curtain — Mk. 15:38, etc. — John just does it right off the bat.) This is why the cleansing of the Temple comes up front in John’s account. Because the Word that was with God and is God and now has become flesh, the Son that is close to the Father’s bosom and makes the invisible God known, has come onto the scene precisely to reveal God. As Jesus will say to the Samaritan woman two chapters later, “the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem” (4:21). Why, because God is present in Jesus and, after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, God is present everywhere to believers through the Holy Spirit.

Which means — you guessed it — that we don’t have to come to church to experience God. In fact, our churches can’t contain God any more than the Temple. Why, then, come to church? Because at worship in church we can hear God’s Word proclaimed in a way that helps us see and experience God in all of life. But the point is to learn to see God everywhere, not to come because church is the one place where God is. Which means that the “gravitation pull” of our congregational life should ultimately be outward — from church to the world — rather than the other way around, and that evangelism is more about sending people out from the church to see, identify, and partner with God in the world rather than trying to get them to come where we are.

So how do we help people see and believe that God is a part of all of their lives? Three quick suggestions:
1) Start the conversation this Sunday. Ask people where they see God and whether they assume — consciously or unconsciously — that God is pretty much to be found at church. Talk about this passage and our understanding of vocation. Invite them to talk with each other about what it would be like to move beyond the God-box version of church to look for and discover all the other places God is, and ask what it would take to support each other in doing this.

2) Start visiting people in their “vocational arenas” (that is, in the places they live the majority of their lives!). Take a day of week and make appointments to visit people at work, at home, in the places they volunteer and recreate, and at their schools. When you visit, ask about what God might be up to at this place to help care for and sustain God’s beloved world. Be prepared to shoulder a little more of the conversation until people have some practice in thinking and talking this way. (Whatever else happens, trust me, this commitment and discipline of visiting people outside church will transform your preaching.)

3) Invite people to share photos of where they see God at work, and start putting those photos on your website, in your newsletter, and on bulletin boards at church. The photos can be of just about anything or anywhere that points to where God’s presence is being felt, seen, and made real through the lives, work, and faith of your people. As this collection grows, so will your collective ability to identify the presence and activity of the God who cannot be contained in the Temple of Jesus’ day or in our churches today.

This is a lot to ask, Working Preacher, I know that. But I think it’s worth it — in fact, I think the immediate future of our congregational life hangs in the balance of how well we help people see God outside the box.

Thanks so much for your faith, your commitment, and your creativity. What you do matters — now more than ever.

Yours in Christ,

PS: I started my new website “…in the Meantime” precisely to engage clergy and everyday Christians in the conversation about how we as congregations can support people in making sense of their lives in light of their faith and making sense of their faith in light of their lives. I’ll link a couple of the articles in this direction below and provide a link on that site to this piece as well. Thanks, again, for spreading the word:
Rob Bell on Calling
What Are You Counting?

PPS: My colleague Karoline Lewis has been one of my main “tutors” in reading John: she’s got a great riff on the John 2 text in this week’s Brainwave.
Check it out if you want more commentary on the passage in this light.