In his portion of the Church Dogmatics that explores the doctrine of reconciliation (IV.3/1, 200-274), Karl Barth talks about 3 different “churches.” As I reflected on these types of churches, it struck me that each type could be instructive for our situation in twenty-first century North America.
First, there is the anxious church. It is marked by worry over changes and challenges in the world, leading to a critical spirit and a sense of defeat. Barth reminds that church that our God is powerful in the best sense of the word. We can engage the world in confidence, even curiosity, believing that God can and will “work all things together for good” ultimately. A calming reminder, for a worried generation.
Second, there is the formal church. Everything externally seems in order. Worship continues in good order, doctrine is correct. However, it is all lifeless, leading to little transformation of individuals or society. Barth believes that this church is quite dangerous for it substitutes this formalism for a robust and venturesome faith in Jesus Christ. By this substitution it leaves a misleading impression of the substance of true Christian faith.
Third, there is the sham church. It is not hard for the historically aware to picture the German Christians of the Nazi era that still claimed the name “Christian” but, in fact, had displaced anything distinctively Christian with the doctrines and practices of racial superiority and assertions of might. Barth opposed this sham openly in the 1930s. It is possible to observe such displacements nowadays, as other spiritualties subtly or blatantly push aside vibrant dependence of the presence of Jesus Christ and leave a vacuum for those who long to know the God of the Bible as revealed in Jesus Christ.
Together, these 3 descriptions give us pause to ponder the state of our churches and our part in them. (You can read more at “Creedal and Loving It: Good theology for regular people.”)