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🚨 URGENT: Mere Orthodoxy Needs YOUR Help

The Point of Church Isn't to Make You Feel Whole

June 23rd, 2023 | 5 min read

By Jake Meador

On a spring day in 2007, I was baptized and joined a Presbyterian Church in America congregation here in Lincoln. For the past 16 years, the PCA has been my (and now my family's) home. What that means is that I was around for the young, restless, reformed craze when the PCA was the hot new thing. And now I've been around to witness a similar dynamic with the ACNA.

In both the PCA and ACNA, I have seen a stream of evangelical converts flowing into the communions for what are familiar, fairly obvious reasons—we were writing about this way back in 2014, after all. They recognize, rightly, that American evangelicalism is generally rootless theologically, liturgically vapid, and frequently leaves its members on a choose-your-own-adventure spiritual odyssey. They want something different. And so they end up in "high" church traditions, by which they usually mean a more formalized liturgy with real historical precedent, perhaps even working directly from a historic prayer book, while also having confessional standards of some sort that shape how the church reads and reflects upon Scripture.

That's all to the good, I think. A more historically rooted and serious liturgy, deeper theological ties to the catholic faith, and fixed practices of piety are all badly needed. And yet there's something slippery that often happens for people as they move into these new communions. Specifically, I think because evangelical liturgy centers on individual experience, former evangelicals coming into the PCA or ACNA carry those assumptions with them into their new ecclesial homes, and this precisely inverts the way that we ought to think about church life and public worship.

Because the PCA or the ACNA (or, in more pronounced cases, Rome or Constantinople) seems to fill all of these gaps in your Christian experience, people come to interpret their new ecclesial home in those terms: This tradition has helped heal some of my personal wounds and I expect that it will go on doing so in the future. It's actually approaching traditional liturgy in the way that Warren and Hybels taught us to approach contemporary liturgy—does this create a memorable experience that feels relevant to my personal story and desires? When this happens, the ecclesial communion and the tradition to which it belongs become a kind of therapeutic crutch for the individual. Moreover, if this isn't corrected and the individual advances within the local congregation or denomination, perhaps even becoming a pastor, that individual will then start presenting their church home as a crutch when they speak to others about it.

The result of this is you eventually end up with a critical mass of long-standing denominational members (and now leaders) who chiefly interpret the denomination in terms of how it relates to their felt needs and experience and who are shockingly indifferent to the life of the church itself.

Though this descriptor is sometimes used unfairly, there is a very real sense in which these PCA and ACNA members are less Presbyterian or Anglican in any broad and pervasive sense and really are still biblicist evangelicals who now baptize babies and may or may not like bishops. There is no apparent churchmanship in how they relate to their fellow elders or their broader ecclesial communion, there is often a palpable disdain for huge swathes of the denomination, and there is an alarming readiness to set the communion aside the moment it begins to infringe upon their desired experience of church. When this spirit becomes commonplace amongst denominational leaders, the problems compound still further. The bloc of leaders who think of their denomination in this way will be shockingly ineffective on a church politics level. Why? Because they alienate not only their political opposites—which is sad, but not surprising or even necessarily bad in some cases—but they alienate would-be allies as well who recognize their indifference to the communion and recoil. The result is that the entire denomination becomes less effective and healthy as the institution is held captive by the vanity of some of its leaders.

At the bottom of this problem, I think, is an under-developed ecclesiology. What begins with a genuine, life-giving experience of church filling certain felt absences calcifies with time into a tendency to view the church as existing chiefly to heal one's own personal wounds and help one to fulfill certain desires or goals. So the PCA or the ACNA is asked to do that—and when the PCA stops doing that, they exit (often in dramatic fashion), and reinvent themselves in a new ecclesial home.

But the ultimate point here is not to say something about the PCA or what seem to be similar issues that crop up not irregularly in the ACNA. When I say the problem is an under-developed ecclesiology I'm saying that one substantial part of the solution is a healthier ecclesiology. Start with this: The church is God's community doing God's work and it exists to glorify God. Obviously our hearts are restless and only rest in thee and all that, so it's to be expected that as we encounter God in the church we do experience a kind of spiritual consolation or satiation. That's good. But that isn't really the final, ultimate point.

The church is called into being by God, it is sustained by God, it is preserved by God, and it is brought to its final state by God. Within the life of the church, we have these administrative structures called denominations that help us to be the church in healthier, more accountable, more rooted ways. We also have things like prayer books and hymns (and Psalms, which of course have the added benefit of being Scripture!) and Sacraments and other fixed liturgical practices that all aid us in our Christian discipleship. They remind us of what's real, they help burrow into our brains the truths of Scripture, and they anchor us as we face life's storms. But they aren't accessories to your Christian lifestyle; they are not hipster accoutrements that demonstrate how far you've come from your evangelical roots. They're gifts and we receive them as such. But if we become fixated on them, and especially if we begin to imagine them as some sort of magical property that exists chiefly for our own benefit, we lose a great deal of the gift.

None of these things belong to any one individual congregation or ecclesial fellowship, let alone one pastor or leader. It does not exist to help him fulfill his ambitions or desires or to feel significant, and none of it is ultimately about making him feel whole as an individual person or to make any other person feel whole. Indeed, church life is often brutally difficult as sinful people seek to follow Christ together. There are many times when church won't give you good feelings or assuage the wounds you brought with you into worship. And that's OK because ultimately it isn't about you at all. Church is where we go to most routinely, consistently meet with God and fellowship with him, so that he can transform us into what he wills us to be. And sometimes (often!) that process is hard and painful and difficult.

As we enter what is likely to be a radically different moment in American Christian history, it will be vitally important for us to understand that the church isn't there to help us feel better about ourselves or to feel whole; it's there to bring people into encounter with God. In his kindness, God often gives us a part to play in that drama, but it's only ever a part. And the moment our part has ended, we need to get out of the way and allow God to continue working. We water, but God gives the growth. The moment our eyes drift away from God and center instead on our own work, ambition, and needs is the moment we lose the ability to do even the small things God does call us to.

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).