Without God, does church still matter?
I enjoy the company of atheists and agnostics. Some of my best friends are agnostics.
What’s more curious is that they enjoy my company. As a self-proclaimed churchy guy, you might think they would find me annoying in my faith. However, I spend more time talking about what I believe with those who don’t claim a faith than I do with those who identify themselves as Christians.
Sometimes I feel like these friends of mine are intrigued by what I get out of being a part of church. Our move halfway across the country to start a new ministry in our living room made no sense to them. I’ll be the first to admit it doesn’t make sense; after all, faith itself doesn’t find it’s foundation in logic. It’s faith, after all.
Trying to explain what keeps me committed to church is hard sometimes. I, like many people, have been hurt both by individuals within church, as well as the systems that drive them. But I wouldn’t walk away because of this any more than I think divorce is a reasonable response to a family argument.
Church is flawed because we humans are a part of it. This is not a condemnation of our job as church members, but rather an acknowledgement that we bring all of our baggage with us to church. Sometimes, we screw it up. But sometimes, we get it right.
For me, the first need that church fulfills is worship. This time that is set aside every week helps renew me, and puts my own life – including my own seemingly big problems – in perspective. It helps me remember what really matters, and gives me time to reorient myself toward those efforts that give me life, rather than take it away from me.
The question inevitably arises from my friends about how I would feel if I suddenly realized that there was no God. Am I sure, they ask, that my prayers are not simply mental exercises? How would my church be different if I knew that the Almighty didn’t exist?
Fortunately, church offers more than insight into scripture, time for worship and prayer. At its best, church serves the world of which it is a part. It is an extended family to which we can return that celebrates and mourns with us. It opens itself up as a united but diverse body, breaking itself open and giving itself away to those in need, without fear of not having enough.
Sure, church gets caught up in membership drives, capital campaigns, and novel programs. It also has at its core the most fundamentally redeeming characteristics of humankind: love, compassion, service and humility.
God is at the essence of our individual and collective nature, but these characteristics also serve practical purposes. We’re not the fastest or strongest species on the planet, and so it’s from our social systems that we find our strength. Church helps provide this community for which we long.
At its worst, however, church forgets its obligation to the world around it, and even to the faithful within its walls. It becomes so intent on building itself up that the humble beginnings of our church at Pentecost are forgotten. It becomes an institution rather than a movement. In these moments, the church is no more about God than any other local service organization.
Can the church do good work without God? Yes. Can we serve the community simply as a practical exercise? Sure. But every time we fall into the pattern of placing ourselves, or that which we have accomplished, at the center, rather than keeping our focus on something greater, we risk fulfilling the question, “What would the church be without God?”