“Elvis has left the building.”
I have heard this phrase my entire life and no one really explained to me that it was to announce to concert attendees that Elvis had literally left the venue, so go home. Concertgoers had no clue if Elvis was still present or had left. As I think about the American church today, this phrase becomes an increasingly serious consideration for me.
The United States is my sole church experience, and I have grown deeply concerned for the American Christian church, an institution I have been part of for almost fifty years. If we took a close look at the American church, would we see that the main focus, God’s loving presence, is still present? If God’s presence left1 our church gatherings, would we even notice?
I grew up, and still remain, Baptist. I have been a part of several Baptist churches in my life, and my husband used to say that I was more Baptist than Christian when we first met. I am embarrassed to say that this is true. I knew more about denominational terminology and Baptist programs than I did about Scripture or core theological beliefs that my faith stood on. I looked to published content for truth before digging into the Scriptures for myself. I held the label Baptist above many things including being a Christ-follower.
Honestly, my life was more focused on the rules and programs of my Baptist church than on God. I shake my head at the thought that I would not have noticed if God’s presence had left our gatherings.
Can an Omnipresent God Even Leave a Place?
When it comes to God ‘leaving’ a faith-based space, we need to look back in order to discern current conditions. The Bible is a wealth of historical knowledge and lessons we can glean from for today. One of the most eye-opening passages for me recently has been Jeremiah 7:1-11.
Jeremiah is such a relatable prophet, and I have grown to appreciate him more as I have studied, but his words in chapter 7 still have me shook. Jeremiah is a prophet to his own people, and the temple in Jerusalem is not doing well, but the Israelites don’t know that. They are blindly going about their own business and all the while, God has ‘left,’ sending Jeremiah to address the issues at hand, namely false gods and just actions towards one another. Jeremiah writes these chilling words:
“The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: Stand in the gate of the Lord’s house, and proclaim there this word, and say, ‘Hear the word of the Lord, all you people of Judah, you who enter these gates to worship the Lord.’
Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel:
‘Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’
‘For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave to your ancestors forever and ever.’
‘Here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are safe!’ — only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight?
You know, I, too, am watching, says the Lord.’” (Jeremiah 7:1-11, NRSV)
This passage in Jeremiah exemplifies the expectations within the covenant relationship between God and the people of Judah. Jeremiah 7 is not formed by the politics of the day, but rather by the covenant traditions of the post-exilic era. What is significant within this text is the clear nature by which God calls Israel to act with justice towards their oppressed neighbors.
Now, there are certainly passages within the Old and New Testaments that provide a deeper description of justice itself, but this text brings us deeper into the covenant relationship between the Lord and Israel. For me, the covenant relationship itself informs other areas of being faithful or faithless. If we took a close look at the American church, would we see that the main focus, God’s loving presence, is still present? If God’s presence left our church gatherings, would we even notice? Click To Tweet
How Does the Covenant Inform American Christianity?
Think about Jeremiah 7 a little more deeply with me. God requires obedience from Judah in order to dwell within the temple, and the covenantal relationship with God requires just actions towards the alien, the orphan, and the widow. God not only directs Jeremiah to remind the people of the purpose of the temple — worship and sacrifice to God — but also to the consequence of placing others, including worship of false idols, before God.
Jeremiah makes one thing perfectly clear: The Lord does not desire obedience. The Lord requires obedience.
When you reflect upon Jeremiah 7, it reveals something that often misses a congregants’ eye today. The fullness of God cannot dwell among the people while they are in complete disobedience with their worship and their actions towards each other. Think about that.
Can you imagine being so centered on your own preferences that you have missed the presence of God in the temple?
Worship of Baal in Jeremiah’s day was a deeply warped worship practice, but it was also Judah’s subsequent actions that reflected an even greater problem. When we do not properly worship God, a domino effect of issues arises, and thus Jeremiah must also speak to the issue of justice toward one another. Jeremiah not only explicitly names their unjust acts, he has to be explicit in the message that the Lord will not return to the temple until they make amends.
In verse 3 we see a move from a call to listen to the heart of Jeremiah’s message. “Thus says the Lord: Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place” (Jeremiah 7:3). God uses remarkably direct speech here. There is no time to speak metaphorically because there is a serious issue with the heart of the Israelite people that must be addressed. There is an urgency because the covenantal relationship is bruised, and God is no longer dwelling in the temple.
Interestingly, the word amend can be understood as a form of restitution. For us today, amend typically means to apologize, essentially “hugging it out.” But here we see that it means to take the harder step of restoration, amending on a deeper level. Amending in this context is not easy – things must be resolved, repaired, or even brought into a place of restitution. This is, in fact, what keeps so many of us from truly making amends with one another.
The fascinating part of this passage is that God is not asking the Israelites to be nice to one another. God is commanding them to correct the harm that has been done by their actions, so the temple can be clean.
How do we go from realizing God has ‘left’ a place, to God returning? The path back to the Lord comes in verse 6: “If you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place” (Jeremiah 7:6).
Jeremiah’s focus on the failure to keep covenant with the Lord, and how that failure results in careless actions toward one another, thus speaks powerfully to our worship as American Christians today. Far too many Christians today lack the discernment to realize that our failure to act justly toward one another is a reflection of our failure to properly worship God.
Is our apathy toward true worship (see Isaiah 58) creating a space in our sanctuaries for other gods to take precedence over the true living God? While I am confident that we are not bringing worship of Baal into our churches, are we bringing our non-Christian affiliations, biases, prejudices, and worship of money or nation-building into our gatherings? Of the latter, I am much less sure. The word amend can be understood as a form of restitution. For us today, amend typically means to apologize, essentially 'hugging it out.' But it also means to take the harder step of restoration, amending on a deeper level. (1/2) Click To Tweet Amending in the context of restoration is not easy – things must be resolved, repaired, or even brought into a place of restitution. God commands us to correct the harm of our actions, so that our church can be clean. (2/2) Click To Tweet
When I wrestle with this passage, a couple of points become clear if we desire God’s sustained presence in our lives:
- We are often most effective within our own community.
You don’t have to have a state, national or global platform. The Lord called Jeremiah to prophesy to his own people. This places him in a unique position as both a prophet and victim of the exile to speak with authority and a deeper understanding of the issues within the temple itself.
Similarly, many of us in the American church implicitly understand the language and actions of said church. We know the mindset because we have experienced it, and have even participated in it. So I ask: Who else is more qualified to challenge our sacred spaces when it comes to injustice and idol worship, than you and I as American Christians?
- The work of restoring the church can and will cost you something.
Jeremiah was called to confront his own lineage, and it takes a deep emotional toll on him. He faces rejection and loss, even reaching a point of wondering ‘Whoa, God, what’s the deal? You call me to be a prophet and then allow my rejection by my own people, permitting violence to be committed to my body? Seriously?’
We have the relationship equity to have these conversations in our own communities, but this work will cost us. It can and probably will cost friends, maybe family, and perhaps even respect by those you have looked up to. Sometimes this cost even leads you to a new community of believers.
- It may cost your freedom and comfort to remain hiding in the shadows of ignorance.
We are a hurting body. We have become so comfortable in our apathy that we have overlooked each other. We have allowed other gods to harden our hearts towards those hurting within our immediate and extended Christian community. Our love for preference and comfort has seeped into the walls of our congregations and passed over the needs of a part of the body of Christ. Our idols have been allowed in the door and we must be careful not to push God out.
And so I wonder, has God left the building of the American church?
If so, does this bother you enough to do something about it? Who is more qualified to challenge our sacred spaces in injustice and idol worship, than you and I as American Christians? We have the relationship equity for these conversations in our own communities, but this work will cost us. Click To Tweet
Mariah Humphries (M.T.S.) is a Mvskoke Nation citizen, writer and educator. Through her experience navigating the tension between Native and White American culture, she brings Native awareness to non-Native spaces. With over 20 years of vocational ministry service, she is focused on theology, racial literacy and reconciliation within the American Church. Mariah is the Director of Marketing and Innovation for Be The Bridge, an organization that creates awareness and holistic response to the racial brokenness and systemic injustice present in our world. She is a contributor to the recent shared book project Voices of Lament.
1 *Editorial Note: Moses strengthens Joshua in Deuteronomy 31:8 with this promise: “The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.” Jesus’s final words of affirmation to his disciples, as recorded in Matthew 28:20, are these: “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Paul’s well-known refrain in Romans 8:38-39 also rings true: “For I am convinced that neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” These three scriptural texts are but a sampling of a deep theological truth: God is present in all places, with all people, at all times. God will be with us always. If this is theologically true, and yet what Mariah is writing about is accurate – and I for one would personally agree that it is – how God has potentially ‘left’ the American church is worth deep reflection, consideration, mourning, and repentance. ~ CK