Thinking about last week’s post about Gabriel Moran, several people have asked me to describe my ideal church. There are several qualities I would like to find in a church that is a healthy Christian community:  

  • I would begin my response by saying I want a church that is truly a supportive community of friends: men and women striving to live in the spirit of Christ. Not a doctrinaire, authoritarian institution. 
  • Some institutional structures of course are necessary but they should be understood as provisional. They, along with institutional leaders, should be regularly critiqued and changed. 
  • Institutional structures are tools – a means – constructed to help and support Christian communities. The innate danger in all institutions is that, if left unchecked, they cease being service-oriented structures and become hard-nosed self-serving institutions demanding unquestioned loyalty. A kind of institutional idolatry.
  • A healthy church affirms the dignity and equality of all men and women, regardless of race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. It does this not just in official rhetoric and documents but in personal and institutional behavior. We need male and female ordained ministers. IGBTQ people should be welcomed in church ministries and employment. For too long church leaders have patronized, insulted, or simply removed people who do not fit their mold. It still happens.
  • An honest and humble church must realize that it does not possess all the truth and has to collaborate with a variety of people in pursuit of the truth. It has to acknowledge as well that all church doctrines are time and culture bound. They are provisional and changeable. Some doctrines may have been meaningful in the past but just don’t work today. Others evolved more from religious fantasy and folklore. Gabriel Moran mentioned the great assumption about the Assumption. 
  • A healthy church asks questions and welcomes the questioner. Asking questions brings greater self-knowledge, a more realistic life understanding. It is an essential element in personal conscience formation.
  • All the great advances in human knowledge have come from people who dared to ask questions. Isaac Newton asked: “Why does an apple fall from a tree?” and “Why does the moon not fall into the Earth?” Charles Darwin asked: “Why do the Galápagos Islands have so many species not found elsewhere?” Albert Einstein asked: “What would the universe look like if I rode through it on a beam of light?” By asking these kinds of basic questions they were able to start the processes that lead to historic  breakthroughs in human and scientific understanding. And of course, Jesus of Nazareth asks in the synoptic gospels: “Who do people say that I am?” In John 7:19, Jesus asks: “Has not Moses given you the law? Yet not one of you keeps the law. Why are you trying to kill me?”
  • I want a church that stresses and practices tolerance and freedom of inquiry: a church that realizes that all doctrines, even RCC infallible papal declarations, are temporary. All “official teachers” must also be humble learners. A healthy Christian community rejects intimidation and realizes that conflicts must be resolved through patient and humble dialogue. It may not be easy but it has to happen.
  • I  want a church in which the higher-up ordained leaders dress and act like normal contemporary leadership people not museum-piece Renaissance princes. I just checked by the way. It costs between four and five thousand dollars to dress an RCC cardinal. I often think about the comment of Jesus in Mark 12:38: “Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes…”
  • I want a church in which leadership people are elected by the community for set terms of office, like five or ten years. They – like professors where I taught for many years — should be regularly evaluated. They should be replaced by new leadership people when their terms of office expire. If a bishop knew that he or she would only be bishop for about five years, his or her behavior would be greatly modified. Can you imagine, for instance, what would happen in places like the Archdiocese of New York? Or of course in the Holy See of Rome?
  • I want a church in which openness to the signs of the times is a key virtue rather than a closed-minded condemnation of all that is contemporary. We live in the present. God – whatever one wants to call God – is alive and closely with us right now. Not as a controlling authority but as a loving companion.
  • And yes indeed… I want a church open to the bigger questions that touch on a contemporary understanding of Jesus Christ and a contemporary understanding and experience of God. For many people today the old anthropomorphisms just don’t work anymore. God is just as much Mother as Father, but much more than that. Why don’t Christian religious leaders sit down with, pray, and meditate with leaders of non-Christian religions? God is much more than a Christian. 

It is not too late to make a few good New Year’s resolutions: To ask more questions about contemporary Christian belief and practice. To support those who question. To explore together, in respectful and earnest dialogue, the complete range of answers. More questions will arise of course. 

We are on a journey. We have not yet arrived. And a healthy Christian community is our GPS.

  • Jack

21 thoughts on “My Ideal Church

  1. EXCELLENT!! I haven’t read a more perfect description of an ideal Christian community! YES! “And a healthy Christian community is our GPS.” As Startrek’s Jean-Luc Picard would say, we need to “make it so.”!

  2. EXCELLENT!! An inspiring blueprint for a vibrant Christian community! YES! ” a healthy Christian community is our GPS.”

  3. Jack,
    A wonderful synthesis! I intend to send it to a couple of synod groups to which I belong. We are
    brainstorming on what we see as our ideal church. Your thoughts will be an excellent starting point.

  4. Jack, I would add one more related issue about church: the local community/congregation. My ideal congregation would work hard to provide many, many opportunities for community/fellowship groups where friendships can bloom and grow, support and encouragement can be offered or sought, etc.
    Examples would include, among others, small group Bible studies; pitch-in dinners; small group dinners we call “Dinner for Eight” in which a regular group of eight folks periodically, randomly determined in one fashion or another, share dinner rotating from one home (restaurant if a better option….) to another; other social gatherings with or without food; always being open to other possibilities that are determined to be more welcoming and inviting than many other current alternatives when folks want to socialize….

  5. Dear Jack,
    Phenomenal! Moses brought the people the first two tablets. You have brought us the rest of the story! I am in conversation with a minister friend of a small non-Catholic church who is observing the decline of his Christian community. I mentioned you and your astute awareness of the dynamic in the entire Christian world. I will absolutely send this wonderful blueprint of what we are all striving to find in our lives. This is incredible and should be spread for all the world to hear!

  6. Dear Jack,
    Phenomenal! I have been in conversation with a minister friend who is seeing the decline of membership in his small church as well as the entire denomination. We have shared common issues and I mentioned your astute observations of the present status of all Christian churches. I am definitely sending him this week’s incredible inspiration you have shared. Moses brought us the first two tablets…you have brought us the revised update! Thank you, Jack, for being God’s voice to us.

    1. How embarrassing! I didn’t realize that I had posted the first comment and tried to duplicate it with a second version. I am so sorry!!!!
      🙁 Frank

  7. Almost ideal Jack, it will keep me up a couple of nights pondering the good sense you have foisted on me. I think I missed the boat when it came in with answers to the questions you are putting into my head. Thank you. I needed this.

  8. Jack,

    I like points presented in your essay, but I sense Small Christian Communities (SCC) as Gabriel alludes to seems to be missing. Your point:

    • “A healthy church asks questions and welcomes the questioner. Asking questions brings greater self-knowledge, a more realistic life understanding. It is an essential element in personal conscience formation.”

    I don’t see that questioning taking place in gathering exceeding 20 people.

    The SCC my wife and I have been involved with for more than forty-five years is a reflective, questioning, and empowering community of 16 members. This week a 41 year member of our SCC, our religious order priest of 93 years of age died. His wisdom will be missed.

    SCC’s are opportunities for open dialogue on religion, faith, church, liturgy, scripture, spirituality and more, that cannot be achieved in larger “church” settings.

    Your thoughts…

    Joe Weber

    1. Joe, I like and basically agree with what you are saying. Nevertheless questioning and welcoming the questioner has to occur in the larger community as well. And it can. I once belonged to an RCC diocese in SW Michigan. With other leadership people in the diocese we organized a series of listening sessions across the diocese followed by a large group session with the local bishop that lasted an entire afternoon. It was a success and had a big impact on education, ministry, and even changing the focus of the diocesan newspaper.
      Many kind regards

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