In C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, the eponymous demon tells his nephew, “We want the Church to be small not only that fewer men may know the Enemy but also that those who do may acquire the uneasy intensity and the defensive self-righteousness of a secret society or a clique” (33). This pitfall looms large before a shrinking Church in an increasingly indifferent Northern Hemisphere.
But there is an even worse trap, and much of the Church is already in it: being a self-righteous clique that acts as if it is not a quasi-secret society, and indeed that acts as if it is appropriately responsive to the culture. The sure sign that part of the body of Christ has fallen into this trap is when, as has happened over long years of liberal Protestantism, the Church’s agenda follows the world’s (usually far enough behind to seem more of a pastiche). Lots of younger Christians simply aren’t going to have this anymore.
I enjoyed this little article making the rounds lately: “Um, The Church is called to be churchy, so deal.” Nobody ever complains, Samuel Kee charmingly reminds us, that a “donut shop is too donutty.” So the Church needs to be churchy as donut shops need to be donutty. In this provocative reflection from 2012, Robert Hendrickson emphasizes much the same thing. One too many arguments against churches seeming like museums had gotten under Hendrickson’s skin. Why not strive to be more museum-like, he wonders?
I actually find myself wishing that the Church was more like a good museum. Museums are places that generate excitement in us but may, on occasion, also inspire dread.
Indeed, but I have one concern with this train of thought. I happen to like museums, and so I seek them out. But I do not like donuts. I know what donut shops have in them, and I stay away. Churchy churches, therefore, are absolutely the right kind of churches, but simply possessing this identity may not be enough to get people into them. Sometimes, people know (or think they know) what’s on offer in churches, and they want no part of it. So, Kee takes it a step further with four imperatives:
Stand firm. Be churchy. Be Jesusy. Be the light of the world.
In other words, it’s all well and good to open up the old curiosity shop, but perhaps an indifferent world might respond to new curiosity shops — not churches, but the places where Jesusy people work and hang-out in between trips inside the holy of holies. This is the kind of place in which Rod Dreher revels (accompanied by James K.A. Smith) on a recent trip to Wichita (“Making Christianity Weird Again”). A friend of mine drew it to my attention in a text message that simply said “You should like it because it rejects contemporary youth ministry.” That it does, and more. It says to me that the Church has a different program ahead of it: taking churchiness to the world.
Dreher notes that when he embraced the Christian faith in the 1990s, his friends in Europe were surprised “but weren’t the least bit bothered by it…. If I had told them I had converted to Zoroastrianism, I would have gotten the same reaction, most likely.” Christianity was his thing, and that was fine; but his friends certainly weren’t interested in accepting invitations to worship the Trinity. But what about a place for a zealous Christian to show off the faith’s strange and potentially captivating wares in his or her own life? Where can Christians be compellingly authentic outside of Sunday mornings, and among people who have no idea what we’re talking about?
Dreher lauds an establishment in Wichita called Eighth Day Books, where lots people from the local Orthodox cathedral (and other churches) hang out alongside non-churchgoers amid row after row of precious literary artifacts. In my own city, I frequent a coffee shop called CREDO, which is always full of younger people working on their laptops and chatting in a place that deliberately contrasts with the Starbucks around the corner. It’s all about quality, and it’s cool. And right there on the sign the place makes itself known to those with eyes to see. Credo (“I believe”); it’s like the old secret society ichthys marking a spot won for the kingdom of God, but now welcoming unwitting outsiders to catch a glimpse of it while sipping a specialty pour over.
Eighth Day Books and CREDO both provide opportunities for Christians to do what James K.A. Smith argues so compellingly in Desiring the Kingdom is the task before us: to show people what and how we love, which is the basis for what we think and believe. People need to see this not only in our coffee shops or book stores, but in our social media feeds and real-life interactions. It’s good old-fashioned infection, a kerygmatic way of living that hangs “Credo” or the ichthys over our own heads and announces our allegiance to a world unseen. Dreher concludes:
Maybe the thing to do is to own our strangeness, in all its mystery and glory. What do you think? Bo Bonner says one way to start is by talking about death — this, in a culture that is terrified of death, and goes out of its way to deny it. “We pray in cemeteries,” he said, “and that is weird.” This is not a bug, but a feature. Re-enchant the faith, re-enchant the world! A disbelief in the reality or the possibility of enchantment is a means of social control. Fight that power, and you might save a soul.
The right leader, engaged followers (however many there are), and the right authentically Christian, counter-cultural vibe taken out in public may turn the whole tide. “Quality has a quantity all of its own,” says Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, and the world sure needs lots of high-quality everything to contrast with all the low-quality alternatives. Why shouldn’t Christians be the ones to offer it?
Maybe some enchantment will follow.
The featured image of Downtown CREDO in Orlando, FL was supplied by the author.