Where is church? Looking for an answer.
“Where is Church?” is the provocative title of a provocative new book by a former Presbyterian minister, former board chair and interim CEO of Habitat for Humanity, and former top level leader of the John Crosland and Centex real estate development and construction businesses.
The author, Paul Leonard, is my longtime friend. I have admired his intellectual gifts, commitment to service, and leadership skills for more than a half century. So I looked forward to reading his answer, or answers, to the question the book’s title raises.
Towards the end of his book Leonard writes that many people, after hearing the title of the proposed book, wanted to answer its question, “Where is Church?”
“The myriad answers were diverse, often confusing, and sometimes even contradictory,” writes Leonard. “Here is my answer: Ultimately, to find church, looking in a mirror is a good way to begin. Do you see reflected there an instrument of peace, eyes sensitive to the world’s injustice and inequality, ears that can hear the unspoken needs of a neighbor or a child, a heart willing and a strength capable of demonstrating love in a concrete and practical way in your community and world? If so, then reach out to fellow travelers on that road or others whom you need because you can’t be church alone. It is when two or three are together in His name that church happens.
“I doubt that Jesus’ preaching and teaching by itself would have made Him the center of a religious movement. It was the healing, the touch, the listening, the confronting of injustice, the reaching across religious barriers, and the sacrifice of His life that changed His world. And it can change ours.”
Before the reader gets to this sensible, challenging and uplifting answer, he or she follows Leonard’s long and still unsuccessful search to find a church organization that puts his high standards of commitment to service above an inward focus on the needs of the organization.
Leonard’s worries about whether the established church could be the answer to the “Where is church?” question began as early as 1965 while the Mecklenburg Presbytery was delaying approval for his ordination. “While waiting for ordination, it is true, I developed a painfully different understanding of the church. My seminary experience taught me that the church is Christ’s hands and feet in the world. Outside the seminary, however, my experience showed the Protestant Church appeared to be ruled by an emphasis on prestige, economic power, and status, leaving it unable to pursue its true mission. I saw people tip their hats to theology, but rarely let it enter the equation when they made decisions regarding public policy, or economic issues.”
Leonard’s experience as a dynamic associate pastor of a large church and as the founding pastor of an active interracial church earned him praise, but left him without his answer to his “Where is church?” question.
His search and disappointing results continue. For instance, he and his wife decided to leave a church even after “we had the joy of working with members of the congregation to build two [Habitat] houses…” The Leonards were disappointed that the church did not commit more dollars for community service while it was raising money for an expensive renovation of its slate roof.
I wrote an enthusiastic recommendation for the book because it gave a compelling and inspiring look at the source of Leonard’s success as a leader in business and service. But I included the following important caution: “His description of his long, sincere, and intense search for a church to accommodate his deep faith and call to service is profoundly unsettling and should be mandatory reading for every religious leader and anyone else who cares about the future of organized religion.”