Frank Schaeffer: A “Better” Church or a “Different” Church?

Frank Schaffer has a provocatively titled article, “Progressive Christianity is Broken Too,” (  He makes this seemingly global sounding claim:  The problem with North American Christianity is not the window-dressing– it’s the whole package.”  He further claims that without the steps listed below progressive Christianity will simply repeat the errors of the traditional and evangelical church and implode as many of them have.
  • Mystery and open-mindedness when it comes to theological content: uncertainty is good
  • Rediscovery of Eucharistic sacramental tradition when it comes to forms of worship
  • Seeking out the old, the mystical and the monastic as a path to inner stillness
  • Abandoning trying to be “modern” in favor of tapping back into the root and branch of worship
  • Upholding the expanded ever-growing New Testament principle of freedom and a non-retributive gospel of inclusion by welcoming gays, women and minorities to leadership positions
  • Rediscovering and holding firmly to forms of traditional worship that gave Christian bodies our “team uniform” around which to coalesce and build the identity of lasting safe community.
Now I’m quite sympathetic to all this, have promoted much of it myself, and believe that a church which took this path would be a “better” church.  I agree, but I question whether such a “better” church is really relevant to our situation.

Schaffer names my concern in the last of his points above.  Not the “traditional worship” part (though I have nothing against traditional worship in principle), but the “lasting safe community” part.  This is just where the ideology and structures of “church” as we have known it militates against the kind of community Schaffer wants.

“Lasting safe community,” in my judgment, cannot be formed around the insufficient relationship-building structures in the “church.”  Things can only go so deep when people are together a few hours a week in artificial settings to go to church school that usually bears no relation to what is going on in their struggle toward discipleship (however nominal that may be) and worship that connects (when it connects) by offering a religious version of life skills training.

“Community” itself is becoming so vacuous a term that I find it difficult to keep using it.  I prefer “commmunitas.”  This kind of deep bonding occurs when folks are thrown together in a life struggle when the way back is closed and way ahead is difficult to see and you struggle together toward that future.  Each knows they need the other in this struggle.  They work through their conflicts and difficulties because survival depends on it.  Each member of the group knows that others “have their back” even as they “have the others’ backs). 

Communitas leaves its scars.  It is a messy and often painful way to go.  It is way too much for the ordinary level of commitment most church members have or want with each other.   In fact, it is not a human achievement at all.  It is a work of the Holy Spirit.  It is “koinonia” (far better translated “partnership” than our vacuous word “fellowship”).

     For me, then, we need a “different” church rather than a “better” church, a la Schaeffer.  Though if we’re going to keep doing church the way we have, then I’m all for his “better” church!  We need, in my judgment, churches re-rooted in neighborhoods where people have a chance to know and invest in the lives of their neighbors.  Churches (in homes or perhaps other community or neighborhood structures) can develop enough relational depth and suppleness to begin to forge a way of life within the reach and ear and eyes of their neighbors that demonstrates key aspects of the gospel.  

Such “indigenous” neighborhood churches can be easily multicultural because most neighborhoods today are multicultural!  Life and the struggles of the neighborhood can form the “curriculum” of education along with classic spiritual disciplines.  Worship too can be “seeded” by the neighborhood context in ways that enable the biblical narrative to be told and re-told in ways that organically connect with the ongoing lives of the people.  Service to others will at first be local but can later develop in a network of other such communities to address larger concerns.  It’s this kind of community, church, that I dream of.  This kind of church, I think, is a kind of church that can take us along into the 21st century far better than even the “better” church Schaeffer hopes for.


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