Richard Sennett notes in his book the Fall of Public Man that as our culture secularised, instead of looking for meaning in the transcendent realm, we looked to the immanent and the immediate. Relationships became one the main arenas to which we looked for a sense of purpose. In contemporary culture the world of relationships, of sex, friendship, family, and marriage must now provide the solace and transcendence that God and religion did in the past. Sennett writes
‘When the relations cannot bear these burdens, we conclude there is something wrong with the relationship, rather than with the unspoken expectations.’
This is one of the factors behind the contemporary high divorce rate. A spouse must be intimate best friend, provide the emotional support of a therapist, be a supplier of constant sexual fulfilment, posses the economic security of a banker, and the moral guidance of a priest, whilst allowing enough relational distance so as not to impinge on their lovers personal autonomy.
As I read Sennett I began to wonder if we had done the same thing to the Church. Do we now attend Church with unrealistic expectations? Today there is a set of expectations that float around in which Church is meant to be mind blowing, to offer us incredible worship, life changing preaching, transforming community, intimate relationships, and awe inspiring opportunities for service. Ministers and Pastors feel this pressure, and increasingly their time is taken shaping Churches which promise us the world if we only will attend. This dynamic does not fulfil the great commission to make disciples, instead it only creates fickle consumers of religious goods and services and insecure, anxious and exhausted Pastors.
As I pondered all of this, I could not but help think of that classic old seventies feminist horror flick The Stepford Wives (don’t even bother with the remake) in which a small town society of men turn their wives into robotic objects of perfection. The women are shaped to become nothing but conduits for their husbands desires and wants, are eventually fully objectified, no longer human but robotic. Their is no chance of true relationship only a master slave dynamic.
Could we have done the same to Church? Have we turned the Bride of Christ into a Stepford Wife? Have we objectified Church? Do we now look to Churches as tools to aid us in our quest for therapeutic self actualisation rather than to Christ himself for Salvation?
To contemporary sensibilities it seems ludicrous, but in the past people attended Church through a sense of duty and responsibility. A decision to attend Church was not made with individual wants, desires and needs in mind. Rather Church attendance was part of the fabric of spiritual discipline. Worship was God focused, not individual focused. Maybe we need to get back to an understanding of Church which bluntly is not about us. Maybe we need to understand that the Bride is not there to make our individual dreams come true, but to teach us patience and self discipline.
The book of Acts does not present us with a pristine image of the Church, only a few chapters after the triumph of Pentecost we are present with the treachery of Ananias and Sapphira. Paul’s letters illuminate a Church which struggles with sin, with disputes and false teachers. The New Testament Church is imperfect because it is filled with imperfect people. But this is precisely where grace enters the picture, the Bride although imperfect is chosen through grace to enter into covenant with Christ who is perfect.
We need Christ’s grace, but we also need to show grace to our friends, our spouses, our children and our families. We must relieve them of the unrealistic expectations that we place upon them to be the sole conduits of meaning in our lives. I think that we also must offer the Church grace, removing the unrealistic expectations that we have placed upon on her. Instead of approaching her expecting to be satiated, stimulated and entertained, we must approach as servants and worshippers. Instead we must look to Him him offers perfect grace, then maybe the Church will have a real chance as she is allowed to be what God intended her to be.