“I can’t come to church–it’s too welcoming, too persuasive.” That’s the line I heard from a skeptic friend recently. Marco is a bright, inquisitive mathematics student. He has come to the church I pastor in Rome a few times and has become a good friend. A great guy.
After a few months, however, he started to come less and less. He would still come to our seekers group and would meet me for lunch to talk about spiritual matters. But he was no longer going to come on Sundays, he told me, although he really enjoys those. The reason? Church is too warm, too nice, too convincing for him. He likes the people, likes the service, and that’s a problem. Marco explained to me over lunch that he is afraid he will accept Christianity because of the community, because the friendships and the atmosphere are cozy. He would rather search for God or whatever there is by himself, maintaining his objectivity. He doesn’t want the warmth of the church to influence his search for God. His will be an individual, autonomous path.
I have never heard that objection before. Church is too nice? One the one hand I’m glad that this is his experience; our effort is indeed to be a community where seekers can investigate Christianity in their own terms and discover, I hope, how compelling and transformative it is. On the other hand, I didn’t know how to reply him. Worsen the service, maybe? Ask people not to greet visitors, preach insipid sermons?
I found his longing for autonomy and control even as he investigates something by definition personal and overwhelming–God–quite curious. It is symptomatic of the spirit of our age, I think. It reflects our prizing of the independent, rational, autonomous self. Charles Taylor puts it this way in A Secular Age:
We have moved from an era in which religious life was more ‘embodied’, where the presence of the sacred could be enacted in ritual, or seen, felt, touched, walked toward (in pilgrimage); into one which is more ‘in the mind’… official Christianity has gone through what we can call an ‘exarnation’, a transfer out of the embodied, ‘enfleshed’ forms of religious life, to whose which are more ‘in the head’.
As I struggled to answer Marco, however, I couldn’t escape the importance of the church. I would suggest books and would meet him one-on-one, I told him. But if you want to search and know God, his church is crucial. The first reason is quite practical: to absorb anything substantial you need a community of people on that same journey to guide and encourage you along the way. You can of course learn mathematics all by yourself, for instance; you just need the books. But if you want to master it, to really learn it, to not get discouraged before such a massive body of knowledge, you need to attend an university, sit next to other students, be tested, move from the more basic to the more advanced subjects. The same thing happens in the whole of life: without becoming part of a community, even if for a season, you won’t have the stimuli to focus on seriously investigating something amidst life’s distractions. Nor will you be challenged; you’ll probably end up with a personal faith that is just a mirror of your preferences.
The other reason why God-without-church is not viable is more crucial still. According to Christianity, knowing God is something profoundly personal. It’s so intimate that God has provided an incarnation of himself. According to Christians, Jesus is the embodied image of God, and he has left the community of this followers–the church–as the body of Christ on earth that when animated by his Spirit makes Christ, and therefore God, uniquely visible, concrete, and graspable. A community of people makes concrete claims that can become too abstract, too easily molded into whatever you like. Paradoxically, it gives you the clarity, the objectivity we so long for. It challenges you with its ugly parts as well as its nice ones.
Even when too nice is a problem.
 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2007), 554.