As I have pondered the challenge church presents particularly to people who did not grow up with any communal/institutional expression of faith, I have begun to wonder what it really is that keeps so many people so firmly planted outside of church.

I believe that most of us who find ourselves reasonably regularly inside church fail  to take seriously enough how remote our practices are for people who lack any exposure to a corporate expression of faith. It is difficult, I think, for those of us on the inside, to fully appreciate how strange the inside is for those who have not grown up with church. Our language sounds odd. Our rituals feel foreign. Much of our history is profoundly objectionable. The barriers are pretty high.

But notice what this is not saying. This is not saying that people outside of church keep away because do not share deeply the values and even the worldview that we in the church seek to embody and cultivate. We in the church must avoid ever thinking that involvement in church gives us a corner on the market of good, life-giving values. Many people who would never think of crossing the threshold of a public place of worship live with deep care and compassion. They are committed to walking gently on this earth and advocating strongly for the well-being of our planet and all its inhabitants. They long to be responsible, kind, and respectful towards all forms of life. People who conduct their lives far outside the church are often much more able to embrace diversity and respect difference than many of us who situate ourselves within institutional religion. We could learn much from the spiritual practice of those who are not infected by some of the narrow belligerence that sadly characters much of formal religion.

Sharing in public worship does not bestow upon church-goers the slightest right to claim moral high ground. Church is not a lofty height from which to look down in judgment upon anyone. The truth is that most of us who share in an outward expression of public worship are probably in church because we were raised with this practice.

The challenge for those of us on the inside of church is to ask ourselves how we might maintain some measure of common identity while at the same time, embodying the deep openness and welcome that Jesus always exhibited to those who sought to be in relationship with him. Jesus did not dismiss his tradition. Jesus said,

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. (Matthew 5:17)

To “fulfill” “the law” and “the prophets” is to honour the past, respecting the received traditions and wisdom of our elders while seeking to point to the true meaning and liberating depth that these traditions seek to embody. Church does not exist to create new truth. We aim to embody the ancient wisdom of our forebears in ways that might speak authentically to a new generation. This means we must be willing to examine every aspect of our shared life asking how this practice might help or hinder the truth to which we seek to be faithful.

A deep and robust faith is not well-served by simply jettisoning the past as if it was just so much useless baggage. We are called to a deep humility that recognizes that enlightenment did not come into existence with our recent arrival on the scene.  We stand on the shoulders of many who have gone before us and who sought in their time to give expression to and nurture an awareness of the deeper mysteries of life and to grow in their ability to live in love. The great tapestry of history bears witness to truth that transcends time, space, geography, and culture and yet seeks to manifest within the unique particularities of every time and space. Truth is bigger than the present moment. The deep mysteries of life are approached not simply out of our present privileged context. Our grasp of truth is deepened when we seek to live in  continuity with past attempts to grapple meaningfully with the deepest formulations of truth that have shaped the human enterprise.

It is a difficult but worthwhile challenge to seek to balance our faith in universality with our commitment to particularity. This is the journey of corporate faith. It requires, but is not limited to, the voices of our past. To abandon the struggle of continuity is to be diminished as people and to forsake the deep richness of our heritage as part of the grand span of human history, thought, and worship.