Friday, November 23, 2007

The Church Next to the Godiva Chocolate Shop

At lunch today, my wife and I were discussing ecclesiology. (Does that happen only in our family?)

The subject came up because we had both read an op/ed by Kyle Wingfield, an editorial page writer for the Wall Street Journal Europe.

Wingfield lives in Brussels, and he wants us to know that, for many of the Europeans he has met there, “it's not God who is dead to them as much as it is The Church—the official, often state-supported church, be it Catholic, Anglican or Lutheran.” He then shares his personal experience with a nontraditional church called The Well.

The Well, with its rock-oriented music, would in some ways feel familiar to many American evangelicals. But here’s what wouldn’t feel familiar: it doesn’t meet in its own building, but it uses several decentralized meeting places—including a restaurant called Jesus Paradise and a tavern called La Chaloupe D’Or, billed on the church website as “close to the Godiva chocolaterie.” (Well, count me in!)

The entire 120-member church meets together for worship only once a month. The rest of the time, they meet in these satellite sites.

In a tavern or restaurant, just anyone can happen by. And, Wingfield says, such serendipity is much more likely to occur in the settings chosen by The Well than if the group were to meet in a designated church building.

It's far less intimidating for newcomers to visit a public space with a dozen or so other people than a normal "church" with pews and a steeple and a hundred strange faces. In the course of our gatherings, we also meet people who were just going out for coffee and probably wouldn't have wandered into a sanctuary along the way.

That’s where my wife and I started talking about ecclesiology. “Is it church when confused people get together to discuss religion?” she asked. “Or does church require belief, commitment, and participation in worship?”

I said, the church should fundamentally be a gathering of the committed. And those who are committed should be trained to help the confused sort out their questions.

This tension between meeting the needs of the confused and the nurture of the committed is, of course, not new. It was present in the mid-1970s rise of the seeker-sensitive church, which minimized elements of traditional worship in order to appeal to the unchurched. The tension continues in mainline denominations that want to be so inclusive of everyone and so tolerant of everything that they can’t tell the difference between hospitality and inclusion. (See my review of Good Fences: The Boundaries of Hospitality and my interview with author Carolyn Westerhoff for more thoughts on this mainline Protestant trend.)

From Closed Doors to Public Square

The early church met behind closed doors. That made sense in a truly hostile culture where being a Christian could cost you your life. When it was finally able to meet in public, the church became not only a sacred institution but a civic one as well, with its meeting places prominently located on piazzas. In that new role, what the church gained in openness it lost in distinctiveness.

In a comparatively indifferent culture, some kind of alteration of the barriers makes sense. Barriers to inclusion shouldn’t be erased, of course. The Well’s website says that “at its core, church is people, coming together, becoming more like Jesus than they were before.” True, but not complete. At the heart of Christian life and Christian community, there are things that don’t make sense without study, commitment, and participation. Christian communal life cannot exist apart from common prayer, common confession, and Communion. These are things that unbelievers cannot join in. Because of the nature of the church, there will always be insiders and outsiders.

Placing key elements of church life out in public view is an important part of Christian witness in a secular and indifferent culture. A group like The Well can maintain its distinctiveness from Europe’s post-Christian culture. It can be open and welcoming at the same time. Maintaining that tension consciously and conscientiously will be an important challenge, because without the things that make Christian life distinctive it may be a great opportunity for discussion, authentic sharing, and witness. But it won’t be church.

Nevertheless, bless The Well and similar groups across Europe for engaging in this experiment.

* * *


Article 4 of the Call for an Ancient Evangelical Future defines some of the essentials of the church’s worship.

The Well is a project of Christian Associates International, which has church plants in 15 European countries and aims to have planted 50 “high impact churches” by 2010.

1 comment:

Andy Rowell said...

I just finished a paper on the relevance of Rowan Williams's theology for the emerging church movement. I would be thrilled to have anyone interact with it. My paper is posted at my blog post: The missional ecclesiology of Rowan Williams.

It gets at this question of The Church Next to the Godiva Shop.

Love CT and watching your blog on Google Reader.


Andy Rowell
Doctor of Theology Student
Duke Divinity School
Durham, NC
Blog: Church Leadership Conversations