In Praise of Ordinary Church

In Praise of Ordinary Church
Brian Zahnd

Sometime in late modernity Christians who had deeply, though mostly unwittingly, imbibed the heady cocktails served by the high priests of the Enlightenment (Voltaire, Hume, Nietzsche, et al.) conjured the drunken idea that Jesus had given a writ of divorce to the church. In an age of suspicion committed to the critique of tradition how could it be otherwise? Surely the compelling figure of Jesus of Nazareth could have nothing to do with the tired institution that is dismissively referred to as “organized religion”? This secular assault upon the church found a surprising resonance among many Christians — especially pietists, revivalists, and rugged American individualists. Thus was born the modern idea of Jesus as personal savior (which really means private savior), leaving the church as little more than an optional common interest club for the more socially inclined. Jesus was essential, but the church was optional, or perhaps irrelevant, or even a hindrance to Christian faith.

Today this kind of thinking is in full bloom. But what should we make of it? Or perhaps a better question is, what would the first followers of Jesus make of this development? I have no doubt at all that they would scratch their heads at this strange new private religion with its stunning capacity to misunderstand Jesus and his message.

What was Jesus’ message? What was his mission? Quite simply it was to inaugurate and establish the kingdom of God. Everything Jesus ever did — his preaching, his parables, his miracles, his table practice of radical hospitality — was an announcement and enactment of the kingdom of God. Jesus called upon those who heard his gospel announcement of the arrival of the kingdom of God to believe the message, rethink their lives, and to be baptized as a public testimony that they now belonged to this new way of being the people of God. Jesus was not offering private or postmortem salvation — Jesus was offering salvation as being personally gathered into the kingdom of God.

A close reading of the Gospels reveals that Jesus used the concepts of salvation and kingdom interchangeably. For example, when the disciples asked Jesus whether few would be saved, Jesus spoke of how many would “recline at table in the kingdom of God.” Salvation is best understood as a kind of belonging. To be saved is to belong to and participate in the kingdom of God — a kingdom where Jesus is King (Christ). This is why in his itinerant ministry Jesus called people in the towns of Galilee to band together and live out the kingdom of God in assemblies he called “church.” We should never forget that the church originated as Jesus’ own idea. The church was not an optional addendum to the mission of Jesus, but the very heart of it!

The Christian life is not a solo project and it was never intended to be. Christianity is not primarily a set of privately held beliefs but a shared life. Nevertheless the rise of Christianity as private pietism has obscured this truth. Much of the ethos in American Protestantism is sadly captured in the film The Apostle when the preacher played by Robert Duvall baptizes himself — an act of privatized spirituality that would have been utterly absurd in Apostolic Christianity, but is an accurate icon of Americanized Christianity. “I don’t need the church, I’ll just baptize myself.” It’s in the sense of salvation as a kind of belonging that the saying of the Desert Fathers is true: “One Christian is no Christian.”

None of this critique of private spirituality is an attempt to paper over the glaring failures of the church. The failings and infidelities of the church are real and need to be acknowledged and repented of. But as disheartening as the failures of the church may be, they are nothing new. One of the strange truths about the church is that there has never been a golden age. Never. Not during Apostolic times, not during Early Christianity, not during Christendom, not during Medieval Christianity, not during the Reformation, not even during times of modern revival. No, there’s never been a golden age, the church has always been plagued by problems because it has always been populated by sinners. And yet it survives and somehow gets on with its task of preserving and passing on the message of Jesus. So if you have a personal relationship with Jesus, you can thank the church for making it possible. Without the church there is no sacred text, no sacred memory, no preserving of the faith, no passing on of the gospel, no knowledge of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Though I’m honest about the persistent shortcomings of the church, I am not cynical. In the end I think Origen’s ultimate defense of the church against the attacks of the pagan critic Celsus is still valid: “Come see our churches.” Despite the fact that churches are comprised entirely of sinners, Jesus has never and will never divorce his bride. The church remains the most visible expression of the kingdom of Christ. You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one, so let me just say it. There’s no place on earth like the church. A place where Matthew 25 is just a normal day — a place where the poor are fed and clothed, the sick are helped and healed (who do you think invented hospitals?), a place where the immigrant is welcomed, and the prisoner is given dignity. A place where everyone is saint and sinner. A place where a judge and a felon can sit side by side on the same pew with equal status in Christ. A place where we not only carry each other’s burdens, but when necessary carry each other, because, despite our vast differences in education and opportunity, opinions and politics, we are learning to love one another like Jesus loves us — unconditionally. Yes, I know I’m speaking like a dreamer, but I’m dreaming with my eyes wide open, because I’ve seen everything I’ve just described in churches all over the world.

This is why I love Ordinary Church: A Long and Loving Look by veteran pastor and keen thinker Joseph Beach. Joe has been writing this book for as long as I’ve known him. And that’s why it’s more than a book, it’s really a love letter. Pastor Joe loves the church because he loves the church’s Lord. Pastor Joe doesn’t love the church as an abstract concept — love in the abstract is always cheap and easy — but as a pastor of one congregation for almost four decades. Decades-long pastoral longevity is something Joe Beach and I have in common — that and our fanatical obsession with the music of Bob Dylan. So when Dylan sings, “‘Come in,’ she said, ‘I’ll give you shelter from the storm,’” we both instinctively think of the church. The church at its best is the compassionate bride of Christ who offers comfort and shelter to those “burned out from exhaustion, buried in the hail.” I know this is true, because I see it in one way or the other every single Sunday.

Ordinary Church is an excellent book because it is both crisp and clear in its arguments, as well as kind and compassionate in its delivery. Joe Beach is too much of a pastor to merely offer theological critiques of the “I’m so done with church” sentiment. This book about the church (and clearly written with “dones” in mind), is written in a kindly, pastoral way. Ordinary Church is a pastor talking tenderly to people he loves about the church he loves. I sincerely wish that every pastor of a church, every Christian who loves the church, and especially every Christian who thinks they’re done with the church would read this beautiful book.

I’ve heard newborn babies wailin’ like a mournin’ dove
And old men with broken teeth stranded without love
Do I understand your question, man, is it hopeless and forlorn?
“Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm”


This is the foreword I wrote for Ordinary Church: A Long and Loving Look by Joseph Beach. I highly recommend this brilliant and timely book!

(The painting is The Church at Auvers by Vincent Van Gogh, 1890)