It has become quite a popular quote in some church circles to remind that church is not about Sunday morning 9 o’clock. Your life from Monday to Saturday is where the real church happens, so we say. But what if that is wrong. What if it is all about Sunday morning 9 o’clock? What if everything that I’ve been reflecting on over the past 5 years on this blog (emerging churches, missional conversation, public theology, liberation theology, theology and racism) should not be a call towards the Monday-to-Saturday-real-life, but rather a radical call towards Sunday morning 9 o’clock.

On the ticket of it-is-not-about-Sunday, some of my friends has quit the church-on-Sunday’s system. They left that behind, since if the logic that it’s not-about-Sunday, but about my life from Monday to Saturday is correct, then why not take it to its logical conclusion and just end Sunday morning 9 o’clock (or whatever your equivalent of the central gathering of a community of faith is, whether Sunday evening 6 o’clock, or Wednesday evening 11 o’clock). but for most people however vaguely committed to the Jesus-story there remain a Sunday morning 9 o’clock, or equivalent event (perhaps not weekly, perhaps not in a church building), which give some kind of explicit form to their faith commitments, even though they, to some extend rightly, identify their whole of life as the place of faith.

The dark side of underplaying Sunday morning 9 o’clock is that we can use Monday to Saturday as a tool to divert the gaze away from the problematic nature of Sunday morning 9 o’clock’s gathering of a community of faith, and so underplay the very important symbolic moment which Sunday morning 9 o’clock remain, a moment which publicly reveal that which is real, and in this revelation is actually calling the church’s (and is this perhaps more than merely the church’s) bluff… or at least should be.

The form this might take is the following: “Even though we are a white middle-class community gathering on a Sunday morning, that is not our real identity. Our real identity is to be found Monday to Saturday, where members of this community of faith are through their work building relationships across racial lines, and in our outreaches building relationships with the poor“. Sunday morning 9 o’clock is therefore not our real identity, and the exclusivity revealed in this gathering should not be seen as central to the identity of those who are gathered. The church is therefore not simply a middle-class white Afrikaans community, since Sunday morning 9 o’clock is not a true revelation of who we are.

But what if Sunday morning 9 o’clock does indeed reveal our true identity. Does our choice for who should help us in heating pews on Sunday morning not reveal our relational commitments in it’s truest form? Perhaps not on an individual level, in the sense that I only choose my friends and romantic partners from those who attend church with me (although this remain common in some church circles), but rather more generally, in the sense that those who I join on a Sunday morning reveal the broader class, racial, ethnic or cultural group into which I commit myself relationally. I also do not wish to argue for simple causality (as in that the church is the reason why I have bound myself to this network of people), but rather that we need to notice that this particular commitment to a community of faith does indeed reveal our “true identity”.

Is this not perhaps in part why transforming religious communities is proving to be so extremely difficult? Not only in South Africa! Follow the North American discourse on race, look at how church from similar traditions remain separate when immigrants to Europe prefer their own communities rather than joining the existing church. On an even superficial reading of the Christian tradition we know this to be problematic, which is why we have a very long history of attempting to theologically justify this phenomenon. A mission policy which dictated that it is “more effective”, “better” or “biblical” for “each group” to have an “own church” was one brutal way in which we did this (an approach which has resulted in extreme shame as we had to acknowledge that this was built on racial ideologies masked as theological convictions), but why should a reinterpretation of Monday to Saturday necessarily be exempt from similar biases?

Don’t get me wrong, the theology which made Sunday morning 9 o’clock into the absolute symbol of religiosity need to be challenged! Insisting that Monday to Saturday (or perhaps just Monday to Sunday) should indeed be the place where faith finds its primary expression – in how we conduct business, where we choose to buy our homes, the schools we choose for our children, the way in which we do our shopping, the political convictions we have – is indeed an important shift (although not a new revelation, but rather something which we have a centuries long history of attempting to do). And using a small religious life as a way of diverting the gaze from how we continue our ruthless exploitation of others beyond our religious life might be on of the most important insights the church need to face in our day. But what about the opposite?

What if we use our public lives which is lived in a more diverse environment, or even our acts of charity across class divisions (to approach the Rollins parable used in the above link from another angle), to keep the critique out of our most intimate spaces. For us as religious leaders the most intimate space might be the church itself, and we might use the above kind of argument to divert attention from the very obvious symbols of exclusivity which our churches remain, while for members of faith communities the gathering on a Sunday morning is symbolic of our most intimate relations, and we therefore need to divert the critique away from this, even using some nice Christian notions like participating in development work or living out our faith from Monday to Saturday as tools in immunizing the local community of faith against critique.

The message of Jesus and Paul seem to be much more radical, and Sunday morning 9 o’clock might be the more important political event, even in our day. As I read both the gospels and Paul it seems like their social experiment, grounded in a particular vision of who God is, was to change the most intimate relations, which was also often found around religious gatherings. Jew and gentile, tax collector and zealot. These were not bound into a spiritual unity, but rather walked the same roads following the same rabbi, or gathered in the same community – or at least that was the ideal.

Most white South Africans have black colleagues, and we tend to at least “muddle through” these relations, and often have good relations. But the unwritten rules remain that I can leave these relations behind Friday afternoon. These relations can remain official. And we can volunteer at a local soup kitchen, but no one expect us to continue sharing a meal elsewhere with those who come to get a bowl of soup. But we perhaps know that the local congregation has a different set of rules. The local congregation to some extend assume that we will share a table at some point, perhaps give others access to our home (through various small groups or Bible studies for example) and that we should cry together when others experience pain.

What if we just started right here, at what seems to be the most difficult. What if CEOs and cleaners, black and white, Zulu and Shangaan, Afrikaans and English, were to sit next to each other on a Sunday morning. To listen to the announcement of the deaths of each others family members. To visit each others homes. Have our kids attend Sunday School together. Drink coffee together while we wait for the Sunday School to end. You know, just typical church stuff, but explicitly crossing the very divides which our particular context keep in place. Obviously we could find new ways of keeping the divisions in place even within one congregations, and a naive focus on the membership list should never be mistaken to relationships which transform our identities, but the very difficulty of doing exactly this might be a reminder that it might be the place where we should start.

Perhaps it is not about Sunday morning 9 o’clock. But as long as Sunday morning 9 o’clock remain a symbol of class, racial and ethnic divisions in a society, we might want to consider that the truth is that it is about Sunday morning 9 o’clock for most of us. This is indeed the place which illustrate who I am in all its obscenity. I am part of this white middle-class Afrikaans congregation. I am not the guy who is nice to my workers or who contribute to a soup kitchen. As a Christian I might actually be doing this exactly in order to divert the critique against this white middle-class Afrikaans congregation of which I am part.

Peter Rollins talk about the leader who reject leadership. This is Christian leadership. The leader who always gives the decision back, never willing to be the leader.

We cannot get around celebrities, if with celebrities we mean those known by many. People are not connected in a random network (see explanation of random and scale-free networks in the beginning on this well-known article by Dwight Friesen), where everyone is connected to a similar amount of people. This becomes even less so when one a one-way connection is needed (such as with twitter, where you can follow someone without them following you, and different from facebook, where both need to confirm before they are friends).

Celebrities require such a one-way connection. And we will always have some people that are more well-known than others. But the world in which we live has created a culture where celebrity is being fed with meaning. Now the popularity of this person gives them authority. Authority to make truth-claims which then need to be followed simply because of the celebrity which said this (see how we quote celebrities sometimes). Authority to be above the system, to be untouchable (some of this came to the surface during the recent Polanski/Hollywood affair).

The Christian is part of a tradition in which texts such as these are important:

What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? was Paul crucified for you? or were ye baptized in the name of Paul?

Paul the Apostle, 1 Corintians 1:12-13

Also texts such as these:

As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good– except God alone.

Jesus in the Gospel according to Mark, 10:17-18

The Christian celebrity, meaning the one who is known by more people within the system of human relations, always rejects the celebrity status that come with the connection, the status which provides authority or privilege in any way on the basis of being a celebrity. It is impossible to be a celebrity, in my second definition of celebrity, and in line with the teachings of Jesus as they are reported in the gospels.

I was having coffee with an old school friend yesterday. He was in the local Charismatic church back then, I was in the local Dutch Reformed church back then. He is still in the same congregation, but even back then they were slowly moving away from the charismatic label and rather adopting the label evangelical, and I have been moving closer to… I’m not always sure what, but I like much of the emerging conversation.

He bemoans the fact that Americans have annexed the evangelical terminology, and complains about the way people misunderstands evangelicalism. So I asked him what exactly evangelical means. Without any hesitation he went on to tell me that there is no central creed. Not Lausanne. Not the Westminster confession (although, according to him, that one is the most common in the world where he moves around).

He continues to tell me that being evangelical is mainly about shared relationships. It’s people who journey together.

Sound familiar? Same thing those who associate with emerging thoughts would say.

Maybe there is more of a realization that we don’t have a common theology than we might think. Maybe many continue in the tradition they are not because they agree, but because they find community, friendship, in this tradition. So they’d rather disagree and remain in community.

Evangelicals would probably consider my friend to be in line with evangelical theology, but he wouldn’t make that a prerequisite to be part of the evangelical community, if I understand him correctly.

I’ve been listening to the 2007 Emergent Theological Conversation with Jack Caputo and Richard Kearney over the past few days, and the story of Derrida and Riccoeur, and how their personal relationship impacted they way they talked philosophy really touched me. This provides for true ecumenical conversations, where the relationship gets priority over the idea.

Not so easy, I agree. Peter Rollins points to this in second paragraph of this post, but maybe what we should be looking for is the idea which would give relationships priority over ideology or theology. Caputo’s love of God in chapter 1 of On Religion maybe?