Sunday Mornings at the #Church of Instagram

Three Reasons Why This Isn’t Really a Thing.

David Zahl / 7.13.21

Perhaps you’ve noticed the trend too. A picture posted Sunday mid-morning of a backwoods trail, bike leaning against a tree. Or a peaceful pond with a fishing rod half-visible. A cup of coffee next to an open book (perhaps a Bible). Possibly a tasty looking brunch. The caption reads simply, “church.”

I had noticed the hashtag before the pandemic and smiled at the half-irony of it. Maybe even a touch of envy. But once the doors of actual churches were locked shut, #church became the new ritual. Now that they’re back open, a great many people seem to be taking their time returning. Perhaps the email went to spam?

Or, I wonder, we’ve simply found “church” elsewhere.

On one level I get it: the feeling of connecting with something larger than yourself, like nature, can have a spiritual quality to it. As long as you’ve got bug spray. Add in some exercise and the endorphins mix with a sense of accomplishment to produce something undeniably positive in the human body. A delicious brunch with friends has a slight communion-like feel — provided the conversation isn’t too contentious. Now that life is getting back to normal, Sunday mornings remain the only regular windows of reflection time, i.e., the only reliable room for spirituality.

Yet I’d be lying if I said I found the trend cute or endearing. To someone who takes church (somewhat) seriously, it’s irksome at best, insulting at worst. I suppose it bums me out see church confused with a glorified self-care routine. Not that it’s not restorative or “good for you.” It certainly can be, but it doesn’t have to be.

Since I’m in a cantankerous mood, here are three reasons why #church is not the real thing:

1. The caption is almost always used in relation to a solo activity, brunch being the exception. Yet church is a “where two or three are gathered”-type thing. This is not an arbitrary distinction. That glorious meadow you wander through may smell nice but it cannot absolve you of anything. We need other people to preach the Gospel to us. To remind us who we are and who God is. Those things are not self-evident or easy to deduce from experience (or nature). We need a preacher, as the Lutherans say.

We also need others to draw us out of ourselves. People to love and be loved by, to hear about their hopes and fears and needs, even/especially people we wouldn’t choose. We need other people who might bore us, annoy us, forgive us, and care for us when we’re too proud to ask for it. Church understands that, in a very real sense, we require freedom from ourselves. You simply cannot achieve that while ambling up a mountainside. Call it #hermitage if you must but not #church.

2. A hike through the great outdoors is wonderful, but a hike requires effort. A long run may be invigorating but it is also the definition of an active experience. Church is a passive one. It is the place we go to receive from God. That’s why we are on our knees so much, and why we put our hands out in supplication at the altar. Church is where “our strivings cease” and we are reminded that justification requires no perspiration. Yes, we may be called upon to give and to serve (see item 1), but that only happens in light of what we’ve been given, how we’ve been loved, how we’ve been served. That Westerners would confuse church with “doing” isn’t exactly a surprise, but that doesn’t make it any less unfortunate.

3. The caption “church”, as far as I can tell, refers mostly to an emotional state. And it’s a good emotional state. Serenity, awe, gratitude … I’m pretty sure those are the feelings in play. They are great feelings! We need more of them in the world. Yet while church-church may conjure up those same emotions, it is also a place to bring all the other less-Instagramy emotions, like unhappiness and grief. A place where, theoretically, we’re not required to feel warm-and-fuzzy if that’s not in the cards that week. The same thing happens at church when you feel sad as when you feel glad.

Meaning, church is meant to transcend our often fickle emotional states. Jesus loves you when you’re there for the wrong reasons just as much as when you’re there for the “right” ones. We come together in celebration of a historical reality/person/event, one that has obvious and urgent subjective import, but is concrete rather than ephemeral. One that is as ugly as it is beautiful, just as much Hieronymus Bosch as Ansel Adams.

Then again, maybe I should be more grateful that “church” is still part of our wider vocabulary, defiled or not. I don’t think Jesus would mind. After all, he certainly seemed more interested in those outside the temple doors than those within. Including the cantankerous ones, thank God.