Good Bones

It’s best to renovate homes with good bones. It the same with churches.

Covid-19 unleashed a wave of home renovation. Work-from-home drives some of it, but so does HGTV. The channel offers an array of home renovation programs including Good Bones. The show’s title reflects a truism: It’s best to renovate homes with good bones.

It’s the same with churches. The mission of the church is to renew all things (Col.1:18-20). Renewal is where we get our word renovation—to restore, make new again. And like homes with good bones, the best candidates for renovation are churches with good bones.

For centuries, these churches affirmed the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. They imagined the enchanted background, the Triune God as a sphere, the universe as a series of spheres that God inhabits. They took seriously the Cultural Mandate (Gen.1:26-28; 2:15), forming cultures, what sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called “habitus” (Latin for habits).[1]

Bourdieu wrote that the habitus, or cultures, most deeply transforms us, forming the unconscious habits that we carry in our bodies. They’re second nature, formed by repetition. In churches with good bones, they’re “thick” liturgies. By the sheer physicality of doing rituals over and over, the gospel becomes habitual, borne in our bodies.

Good bones create a skeletal structure for embodying virtues. And what did early Christian writers name as the “highest virtue,” the virtue that was “peculiarly Christian?” Patience.[2] Churches with good bones are patient, persevering in making healthy cultures.

Makes sense. Love is patient (I Cor.13:4). It’s a fruit of the Spirit (Gal.5:22), which is why early Christians wrote treatises on patience. They didn’t a single treatise on evangelism, however. Nor did they appeal to the Great Commission to inspire their members to “make disciples.”[3] The Matthew passage was only used to buttress the doctrine of the Trinity or to address the issue of baptism, a command rooted in creation.

Baptism is identification. Our identity is rooted in creation. We’re made in God’s image and likeness. Even after we fell, God’s image remains. But early Christians, including Cyril of Jerusalem (313-386AD) felt likeness was a different matter. It was obscured in the fall. Bearing God’s likeness requires making cultures that, in turn, make bearing his likeness in our bodies second nature. This requires thick liturgies. Churches with good bones recognize this, making disciples primarily by patiently seeking to make flourishing cultures.

Look at the impact. Churches with good bones helped establish the modern university, modern medicine, conscientious capitalism, and, most recently, the abolition of the slave trade. The Clapham Sect, called “the patient Christians of Clapham,” contributed to this. Many were evangelical Anglicans, a tradition dating from the first century. It has good bones.

Good bones might explain why scholars say the abolition movement is the last instance of conservative faith traditions changing the public world in a significant way.[4] Since the early 1800s, many churches with good bones have dried up. Churches with “thin” liturgies have replaced them. Sermons replaced the sacraments. Making disciples replaced making cultures.

Look at the impact. The cores habits that’ve resulted are hardly virtues: individualism, pietism, and populism. Nor do we see perseverance in most of the religious and social movements of the last 200 years. Yes, much good has been done, but patient perseverance is not our hallmark. Most of our work fires up, then flames out. We over-promise and under-deliver. We’re naïve regarding the resources and patience necessary to change the world in a significant way.

Which is why one cultural analyst writes: “For all the talk of world-changing and all of the good intentions that motivate it, the Christian community is not, on the whole, remotely close to a position where it could actually change the world in any significant way.”

I knew none of this when I was on staff with an international evangelical ministry. I joined in 1976, the same year we were supposed to achieve one of two stated goals: Reach the US by 1976. The second: Reach the world by 1980. Didn’t happen. What did happen was many staff departed, some as cynics.

Oscar Wilde said a cynic is someone who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing. I’ve spent close to 50 years in vocational ministry. I’ve seen many conservative Christian friends become cynics. Too many ministries were too visionary, over-promising.

OK, then, what’s the solution? Well, if it’s best to renovate homes with good bones, wouldn’t it be best to renew churches with good bones? If this makes sense, we might be surprised where these churches can be found today.

We’ll consider that next week.

 

[1] Nicholas Brown & Imre Szeman, Pierre Bourdieu: Fieldwork in Culture (Rowman & Littlefield, 2000)

[2] Alan Kreider, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church: The Improbable Rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire (Baker Academic, 2016), 2.

[3] Martin Goodman, Mission and Conversion: Proselytizing in the Religious History of the Roman Empire (Claredon, 1994), 106-8.

[4] Randall Collins, The Sociology of Philosophies (Harvard University Press, 1998)

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5 Comments

  1. Thanks for this excellent, if not always seen, point of view. I look forward to next week’s “unveiling” of the churches you see having the good bones to build on!

  2. In light of what I’ve written regarding patience, it’s worth recalling church historian Mark Noll’s concern about what he calls “two stubborn tendencies in evangelicalism – populism and immediatism.” Populism believes in the power of everyday people to change the world “bottom-up.” It dismisses the need for cultural capital. Immediatism is the idea that if there is a problem, we have to solve it right away. Immediatism undercuts the time, effort, and investments – financial and otherwise – necessary to earn cultural capital.

  3. Mike, I wasn’t clear what you meant regarding discipleship. Making disciples seems to be important, and I understand “make” is the verb in Matt 28:19. From the context I think you are saying disciples are made over time in intentional relationship(s) in the church, as opposed to say, knocking on doors or beach conversations with some partial information about salvation and little or no “follow up”. Am I close?

  4. William, Making disciples is important. However, I wasn’t talking about what discipleship entails (knocking on doors, etc.) as much how disciples are made. They are made mostly by making cultures. Hence, we read a great deal in church history about gaining cultural capital to make cultures; hardly anything about making disciples.

    Another way to say this is: making cultures took precedence over making disciples. When we make cultures, we stand a better chance of making disciples. When we do not make cultures, making disciples becomes very difficult (a fact borne out by the dismal results of current disciple-making tactics).

    Helpful, William?

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