What is the Church?

Ah yes that elusive question asked by far too many these days. But a good question none-the-less, and this weekend the point was AGAIN (yes I know we’ve all heard it) that the Church is a hospital. But this time, the speaker added: “not a massage parlor.”

Now this struck me as interesting because it got me thinking about how a not-yet Orthodox friend of mine complained about Orthodox services being in dire need of change. More flare! (Like a waiter’s shirt at a TGIF resteraunt I suppose?) Something to make Orthodox services more appealing. Curiously, few people WANT to be in a hospital, but virtually no one would turn down a massage.

But you know when you do want to be in a hospital? When you come to realize how sick you really are. Massages make you feel great…but they don’t do much for healing serious diseases. I have been considering the hospital analogy even further and it seems to me that the Catechumenate is more akin to a hospital (in the ancient Church it was usually a 3-year period of indoctrination and preparation!) and then once you enter into the Church it becomes more like a rehabilitation center. The critical care is passed and now its time to start working toward full healing.

When I weighed about 140lbs more than I do now (yes, I know, hard to believe given how big I am now!), I had severe problems with an old back injury. Some 15 years ago or so I severely herniated four discs in my lower back and since I did not have health insurance at the time I received little or no care for the injury. (Looking back I did have options but I think pride prevented me from investigating them). But sometime later I had a relapse that was so bad that I landed in the hospital and then once I was stabalized I ended up in a rehab wing.

Rehab is a better analogy for the Church because it requires effort on the part of the patient. Example: Physical therapy sucked. I hated the Physical therapist because so much of what she made me do was terribly painful – even though I was drugged with powerful medicines including methadone. I agonized each time I sat up in bed, but then later that was okay. I agonized each time I stood to my feet, but then later that was okay. I agonized each time I took a step, but then later that was okay….and on and on it went, slowly but surely I was getting better.

A massage parlor would not have helped me. And so to my friend looking for flare: no, I have enough flare in my everday life. I do not need the services to change, anymore that I needed that damn physical therapist to rub and massage me. I needed her to hurt me (in a way), I needed her to encourage me to struggle, to help me to come to the point where I wanted to stretch and strive, to push to envelope of what I felt like I needed. And even on days when I could see no progress and was tempted to despair, she kept badgering me to work. In a sense, to change myself and not the service.

Furthermore, nobody likes to go on a diet. If left to my own sense of need, attraction, and desire I’d likely eat nothing but deep-fried chimichangas. And I’d die doing so. McDonald’s is a far more successful franchise than McVegans. Think about it.


jp said…
Great observations James, the essence of which is why most of us are intuitively suspicious when something (anything) is immensely popular. The biggest, glaring example of this in Church history is perhaps how the monastic communities developed as a way of preserving the hospital when the
Church became the new "state religion" under Constantine.
layne (herman) said…
re: "flare" (i like the 'Office Space' reference.) as a former Episcopalian i remember one of my first convesations with an Orthodox person, where i made the comment to him about making the Services more 'relevant,' because that is what i wanted to experiment with in the Episcopal realm as well... --the basic idea i remember from that conversation is that by our 'changing' the Services to make it more relevant to us, then that is one step away from the fullness of the Faith, because eventually someone will want to make our 'relevant' more relevant to them and etc... and what we end up with is something that is removed from the original--though that may not have been our intention at all. that is why i am not in favor, for example, of even the simple changing of things like the word "Prokeimenon" ultimately it is better for me to learn what "Prokeimenon" means than to find a new word that could eventually need to be changed because that word does not work for the next person and etc... now that i am an Orthodox Christian i understand this man's comment to me better.

re: Hospital-- when i first came into the Church though i 'knew,' even as a Protestant, that the church/Church was a hospital; i do not think i had any idea what that really meant--though it sounded good.

i am glad that the medicines of the Church work even without my understanding or knowing... just like medicines and therapies work in the medical realm regardless if i understand the hows and whys of them.

so with that... how do we convey this idea to those others... who do not have the experience to fully understand what this idea of "medicines of the Church" mean. especially in our Western society that see's Orthodoxy as just another denomination... or just another Church?
Anonymous said…
Well, maybe your friend is right, maybe the church's services need not so much "flare," but a little more clarity. Maybe he can't figure out what's being said. Maybe the church isn't a hospital or a massage parlor, or a critical care ward, or a longt-term care facility, or a dentist's office. Maybe the church is.... a church!!! A gathering (ekklesia) across all time and space of God's people, a place for people to worship, a place for the family of God to become what it is. There are practical matters, yes, but this hospital "imagery" is in itself an innovation, not found in our services or the Fathers, a reduction of the church's identity and purpose to a narrow therapeutic role, a sort of religious psychotherapy. It's really just clever jargon, ecclesiastical branding, seized upon of late by certain Orthodox, and I do wish you would stop giving it credibility.

It's odd that in the same post where you decry the American temptation to always be fixing ancient things, you make use of an image (the hospital) which is the very essence of pragmatism. Western medicine's whole focus is precisely to use what actually works in healing a man, as opposed to using time-tested methods that don't necessarily work at all. This is the very opposite of the church's "methodology", if we really must descend to using such technical terms about the Church.

fdj said…
Well come on now Steve, any analogy taken too far will fall to pieces.

Why go to Church...why go to Christ...for the healing of body and soul, in part no? And there ends the analogy I agree.

And does not the Church give us prescriptions. Really I think the analogy works best in the context of those people who are asking: What is the Church...and more specifically: how do we do Church?

Is it there to make us feel good or to promote our healing.

But, I'll grant you that taken to far the analogy is absurd.

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