Many churches today are going through rough times. Scandals, in-fighting, and a perceived lack of relevance have shaken the traditional church-centered picture of American life. In many mainline denominations, attendance and membership are down. But polls show that interest in spirituality is on the rise. What's going on?
As a lifelong churchgoer, I, too, have sometimes asked myself, "Why bother with church? Is the effort to love and connect with these people really worth it? Can't I have a fine relationship with God and keep good relationships with my neighbors without a formal organization to belong to?"
In her seminal work, "Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures," Mary Baker Eddy wrote about church in its spiritual and practical meanings. There she describes Church as "The structure of Truth and Love; whatever rests upon and proceeds from divine Principle." She continues, "The Church is that institution, which affords proof of its utility and is found elevating the race, rousing the dormant understanding from material beliefs to the apprehension of spiritual ideas and the demonstration of divine Science, thereby casting out devils, or error, and healing the sick" (pg. 583).
Three words from that passage jump out at me: "Church ... is found ...." They keep reorienting me away from some pretty lousy ways of thinking I've had about church. I know firsthand that disappointment with church can be one of the most corrosive influences on my life.
This corrosion might begin as subtly as feeling a little lazy and not wanting to go to services or be consistent with the discipline of daily prayer and spiritual study. Or maybe someone at church has disturbed us in some way. We can't stop thinking about it, and then we start to equate that person's behavior with the whole church.
Whatever the cause of this disaffection, people can find themselves feeling disconnected from the very place and people who are there to support one another's spiritual progress.
For me, those three words "Church ... is found" break through negative thoughts I may have about church. What does "Church ... is found" mean? To me, it means that Church is here found right here, now not somewhere else, not at some other time. Church is vital and energized now not outdated and irrelevant, resting only on yesterday's glories.
In fact, Church is doing right now what Mary Baker Eddy described: It rests on and proceeds from divine Principle, God. Church, in its higher meaning, is not just a building with wood and plaster, stained glass windows, and a pulpit.
Church is an idea, a concept, that finds expression in countless ways, meeting countless needs, because it is a spiritual concept. Consequently, as Church is experienced and practiced in our lives, it is continually "elevating, rousing, casting out error, and healing." The blessing happens almost in spite of our resistance to it.
What does this spiritual idea of Church mean in practical terms for you and me? It means that you, the reader of this article, at this moment, are experiencing one aspect of Church just as I am experiencing Church as I write this. The power of Church is nudging you to consider your relationship to the wider family of God.
What's so troubling when we feel disconnected from Church is that we feel discarded, as if we don't fit in. Yet we can rely on the fact that God has organized His universe in a way that each of us fits in perfectly. His plan isn't hidden. God's order of creation emerges constantly, in ways that allow us to see and appreciate each one's precious, indispensable place in His great love.
While it's true that different theologies and religious practices have been used to justify conflicts throughout the centuries, a higher, more spiritual view of God's family shows that Church itself is not the problem. Church the power of love supporting all of God's children is, in fact, supporting the solution to world conflict. A deeper understanding of true Church tempers the extremes of the human mind and moves civilization forward.