If there is a single, dominating feature that epitomizes our religious culture it might be this question, asked whenever a couple of religious church-goers in
meet for the first time. It is the religious equivalent of dogs meeting one
another for the first time and sniffing tails. This ubiquitous question and
resulting answer sets up the framework for the rest of the conversation because
you simply can't know much about a person until you know where that person is
on Sunday morning. Your answer to this question enables the inquisitor to
determine immediately if you are the right sort of Christian to continue a
conversation with or if you are the sort of person that needs to be given a
quick, polite dismissal followed by a hasty retreat. All denominational
Christians have their hierarchy but this has been my experience of how it goes
when the one asking the question is a conservative evangelical.
- If you respond with the name of a respectable evangelical church, the conversation can continue and perhaps a play date for children can be arranged. However if you sound at all disgruntled you might get an invitation to check out the questioner's church to see if you like it better.
- If you answer with the name of a Methodist, Episcopalian or Lutheran church or any other kind of church where babies are baptized and the clergy wear dresses, the conversation will be a brief one because you are almost certainly some kind of a liberal.
- If you answer with any sort of church that sounds like something vaguely Pentecostal, it is likely that the one inquiring will beat a hasty retreat and perhaps fake a stroke to end the conversation. This is grows more likely depending on how long the church name is.
- If your answer includes the word "Mennonite" it is quite likely the one asking the question will surreptitiously try to peek outside to see where you parked your horse and buggy.
- If you say "We are looking for a new church, we haven't found one we like yet" then you are immediately tagged as a potential new member and will be invited "to church" although a follow-up question might be in order to see where you have gone previously.
- If the answer is anything Roman Catholic the conversation will shift to discussion of Notre Dame football.
- If you answer with something like "I don't go to church, I am part of the church by virtue of being born-again.", you can expect the conversation to end very quickly and awkwardly.
Lame attempts at levity aside, this question is such a hallmark of our cultural misunderstanding of the church. When our first thought is to pigeonhole another believer based on their local church affiliation, something is terribly broken. It is like we all are wearing team jerseys and people wearing the wrong team jerseys are either potential converts or dangerous heretics. That is not to say that there are not plenty of heretics out there, many with popular blogs or large audiences on Sunday. I am just saying that by creating endless divisions in the church based on our attendance and giving on Sundays has done nearly irreparable harm to our witness and our shared mission.
We are supposed to be brothers and sisters, one family with one Father following one Lord and engaged in one mission. That will never be more than pie-in-the-sky rhetoric until we stop seeing each other through the lens of "where do you go to church?".