Privatized and Personalized: The Church of Me

Last Friday as I was going through office mail, I found a postcard reminder from our local jail and prison ministry letting me know that this coming Sunday our church would be providing a worship service. The postcard also noted that this Sunday was “Communion Sunday.” I have worked with Forsyth Jail and Prison Ministries for close to a decade, and I have a great respect for the ministry, the staff, and the chaplains. I called the chaplaincy office and asked what “Communion Sunday” meant, and it turns out that I was being asked to oversee serving communion to the inmates. I told the secretary that I would not be able to do that, that I have certain convictions, etc…, but that we were ready and looking forward to providing the worship service.

I guess it sounds a little elitist, restrictive, small-minded, and maybe even mean. Why wouldn’t you want, or what good reason do you have to deny the sacrament to inmates? It’s a good question. The question though, belies the presuppositions behind it. Rather than asking why would you withhold the sacrament, maybe the real question is why would you offer it in this setting.

My simple answer is that you do not offer the sacraments in that setting because there is no church present. There are, no doubt, Christians. And Yes, Jesus is present where two or three are gathered in his name, but nevertheless it does not mean that the gathering is a church. God, through his Scriptures, orders the church to perform the following when it gathers: “prayer, singing praises; reading, expounding and preaching the Word of God; administering the Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper; public solemn fasting and thanksgiving; catechizing; making offerings for the relief of the poor and for other pious uses; and exercising discipline; the taking of solemn vows; and the ordination to sacred office (PCA BCO 4-2).” Though this answer exposes my convictions about what God commands the church to do (I am quoting my denomination’s Book of Church Order), when a chaplaincy ministry engages in “doing church” when there isn’t a church, offering the sacraments becomes problematic.

Firstly, in the setting of a jail or prison, there is no particular church because no denominational authority is recognized over the whole ministry. FJPM is, to my best understanding, interdenominational. Therefore, on it’s best day it has the most basic of creeds and commitments to allow for the broadest participation. Curiously, because of the broad spectrum of churches represented, the ministry does not allow baptisms to be performed. Granted, it’s assumed that if you’re Bible-believing and evangelical you immerse (naturally). But even if we agreed on mode (which we don’t), what of the baptismal formula? In the name of Jesus? In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Which one? Baptism is too controversial.

Secondly, there cannot be a particular church because there is not a recognized membership. Additionally, even if there was a membership, those members would not be allowed to elect officers. Policy in most jails and/or prisons is to prohibit allowing any organization to operate within the jail/prison which would promote conferring authority on one inmate over another. It may go without saying, but you cannot have an authority structure that operates autonomously from the authority of the Department of Corrections. You cannot have one inmate in authority over another inmate. You certainly cannot have church discipline being administered by one inmate over another inmate in a jail setting. There’s only one law and one authority, and he or she wears a badge and carries a weapon.

Thirdly, there cannot be a particular church because though many of the ordinances of the church are performed by and through jail ministry events, you do not have all of them. At best, this is a gathering of Christians for mutual encouragement and worship.

In my mind, however, the real problem is that there is a view of the Christian life and church life which is highly privatized and personalized. In celebrating communion, we believe that “I commune with God.” Unfortunately, this falls far too short of what Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 10-11. Participation, Paul says, is participation in his body and blood — that is, in the body of Christ. It is not just me and Jesus, but it’s me and Jesus and his other sheep. Jesus died for more than I.

In this highly individualized religious era there’s also a little of the hocus pocus in our view of Communion. Hocus pocus was an expression made up to mock the pseudo-magic performed by the priest when the elements of bread and wine were changed substantially into the body and blood of Jesus as the priest uttered the Latin phrase “hoc est corpus meum” (this is my body). Because we lack a sound theological and biblical understanding of the sacraments, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper or communion borders on hocus pocus — even for Protestants. We’ve so privatized the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper that one can purchase a private communion serving set at a Christian bookstore, receive teaching which encourages us to have private communion, celebrate it with your family daily, and even celebrate it by oneself in the woods camping by a stream.

It’s the “Body of Christ,” People; not the segmented Body Parts of Christ!

So, by partaking of this personalized-hocus-pocus-sacrament, one thinks they are moving towards the Transcendent in some ethereal, magic sort of way and they forget that the greatest of the virtues is love and that the second greatest commandment is to love one another — incidentally, the mark by which the world knows that we are his disciples. We are a body.

This is not “mere Christianity;” it is rather a “base” Christianity — a Christianity devoid of the new society of the Kingdom of God and hocked for a sentimental, me-centered, privatized, and personalized relationship with a “higher power as we’ve come to understand it.”

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About randamir

I pastor Grace Presbyterian Church in Kernersville, North Carolina which locals fondly refer to as K-vegas -- the town not the church. As D.T. Niles once said, "I am not important except to God."

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