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A Review of Victor Cuccia’s “Steeple Envy: Losing My Religion and Rediscovering Jesus”

Introduction
“There was a time when the church was very powerful, in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days, the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society… Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an arch defender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often even vocal sanction of things as they are. But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust. Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ecclesia and the hope of the world.” Martin Luther King, Jr. “Letter From A Birmingham Jail,” Requoted from Victor Cuccia, Steeple Envy: Losing My Religion and Rediscovering Jesus, 6.

Many people are gradually leaving the church. Why is it happening? What is the problem? Is the church dying? “Has the church lost ‘its authenticity?’” Does Christianity recognize this serious phenomenon? In his book, Steeple Envy: Losing My Religion and Rediscovering Jesus, Victor Cuccia asks the place and roles of church in societies and answers to those above questions. We see the crisis of the church not only in some places but also all over the world. We need to be honest for this current state of the church and should not neglect this reality but gaze at it in order to renew the church. (7)

Good Servant: Only Toward the Big Church?
We often see churches as “multimillion dollar buildings” and pastors as “rock star status.” The church becomes a company and pastors want to be CEO. In the sense, we cannot deny this candid expression: “Steeple envy is everywhere.” (8, 64) Since growth means success in the church society, it leads to “accolades and personal remuneration” and needs bigger buildings. (97) But does size really matter? Is the size really a criterion between success and failure? (60) Do we see these phenomena from the Jesus’ teachings? Did Jesus not turn upside-down this thought? Admittedly, Jesus did not concern about numbers of people or popular opinion but about the Father’s will. (62) Then, why is the church running toward the big church? Is the big church the goal in our ministry? The goal is not on the mega-church but on following Jesus and on sharing “His love with a broken world.” (96) The goal of growth should not precede “kingdom priorities.” (68)
Where does this big church syndrome from? We may misunderstand the successful ministry from Luke 19:17, “‘Well done, my good servant!’ his master replied. ‘Because you have been trustworthy in a very small matter, take charge of ten cities.” Pastors used to devote their life to their ministries so as to take charge of ten cities or more. Success is their ministry’s motto. They are big-church oriented. They think it is blessing given from God. They endeavor to make a profit with talents they received, because it may be a failed ministry, if they do not gain profit. This is a prosperity ministry. However, is this word of God really focused on profits? I think it is not important whether they have gain or not. It is our sincere heart that God really looks for. Does it mean that if they gain, they are good servant; if not gain, wicked, lazy servant? Their life attitude may be more important than profit. It will be fine although they do not gain. For example, if any servant says that although I worked very hard, I did not make profits, but have the same amount as you gave me. What would be owner’s response to this servant? Does he rebuke him, saying that “You wicked, lazy servant?” Not at all. Does he not say that well done, Try it again?” Furthermore, suppose that although a servant worked very hard, if he suffered a loss. Does the owner say that you are a bad servant? No. The owner may give the servant another chance.
Admittedly, prevalent belief in the church is about blessing and prosperity: “Give God 10, and He will give you 20” and “we do ‘A,’ ‘B’ and ‘C,’ and God is expected to give us ‘D.’” It makes God inferior to us and serves our bidding. (102-103) Cuccia calls it a dream, “the American dream,” which is a lie. He hopes that people wake up from this nightmare and see their reality. (107) Furthermore, we should stop competition with others and help others who do not know what to do in their local church. In the sense, we need to go to the lower places and to become “good stewards of the finances.” (69, 100) That is, most churches do not “recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church” but pursue successful and controlling attitude such as “‘judgmental,’ ‘money-hungry,’ ‘controlling,’ ‘self-centered’ and ‘fake.’” (7) To that extent, then, we recognize twisted and distorted ministry: Just as where theology of the cross disappears, theology of glory appears, so where the ministry of the cross disappears, the ministry of the glory appears. Thus we need to seek the essence of the church. If Jesus was “a suffering servant” and if we follow Him, we do not have to surprise when we face sufferings in this life. (41)

The Church within the Church
If the church does not function as the church in the society, do we have to give up the church? More positively speaking, can we live today in a beautiful church like Acts 2:42-47, “where love and hope could be found, a place where grace and acceptance was extended to all?” (19-20) Is today’s church “a good representation of Jesus?” (17) Although the church is corrupt, insofar as God still uses the church, we should also restore the church and should not throw it away, because ‘we are the church.’ (109) We need to seek and turn to “the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ecclesia and the hope of the world.” (6) In order to turn to this ideal church, we should remind of Jesus’ teachings. These descriptions of the church are different from Jesus. Why is there a gap between church and Jesus (7) and between “religion is bad” and “Jesus is good?” (48) Why is there difference between “American version of Christianity” and “sacrificial lives” by Jesus and His disciples? (16)
Christianity and the church need change. In order to change the church, God uses “normal, everyday people for the most part,” not “institutions.” Everyone who was following Jesus can consist of church. However, the place is not important. It could be “a beautiful building, a coffee shop, a bar or someone’s home.” (33, 35). Those who left church and “jaded Christians” need “to meet the Jesus that is alive and well, living in His people” and “to see the beauty of the Church lived out before them.” (45) Cuccia does not find any hope from institutionalized church, because it was religious leaders who killed Jesus (48). In the sense, we need to recognize that “the church is not an institution,” but “consists of those who love and follow Jesus” (46). Jesus rebuked religious leaders. What would be Jesus’ response to current institutionalized Christianity? It had become “a barrier between God and everyday people,” (53) whereas Jesus focuses on the person and relationship. While religious leaders judge others who are different from themselves, Jesus loves them. True religion is not in words, as James 1:26-27 say, but in action to look after isolated people (58).

Church and Society
“I am a little pencil in the hand of a writing God who is sending a love letter to the world.” (Mother Teresa)
God calls us to be a part of interdependent community sharing life together like a loving family (80-81). We are all subjects and the individual whole in our own life. However, when a subject meets others, the subject as a whole becomes a part of them and then the parts together become the whole. There are subjects as a whole in a church. However, the subjects cannot hold themselves as a whole in the community. They consist of the church as a whole by connecting each other as parts. Each part grows and builds the church up in love. Each church as a whole becomes a part in meeting with neighbor churches. If we push this process forward endlessly, is it not possible to build those churches as the body of Christ? Ephesians 4:16 says, “From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”
In the relationship between church and society, the church does not exist outside the society but in the society. It needs to contribute to the development of the society and to make a difference in the society. In this sense, the church needs to be “thermostat that transformed the mores of society.” (6) Although we Christians are ordinary people, if God uses us, we can make the world a better place. (131) If we do not try to change something wrong in this world, how can we be the children of God? Just as “Jesus stepped out of heaven and into our world because He loved us,” so we need to go to the society and to love the poor in the street or even in the third world, because love most concretely shows Jesus. But we should not expect any repay from others or from the society (145, 147)

Conclusion
“Two things I ask of you, O LORD; do not refuse me before I die: Keep falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’ Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God.” (Proverbs 30:7-9)
Cuccia emphasizes throughout the whole book that the church is not in essence buildings or institutions, but people. If there is someone who agrees with this critical assessment of the institutional church and tries to break through the crisis of the church, we need to say that “You’re not crazy, and you’re definitely not alone.” (17) We have hope, since “there is a great need for change within the church today” and although “I alone cannot change the world,” as Mother Teresa says, we believe that “I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.” (153) The hope is not in the big church but in the “simple church,” saying that “small is the new big,” although Cuccia does not fully agree with the saying. (151) In order to rebuild the church, we should not give up Jesus and the church. (152)

“The church is a whore, but she is still my mother.” –St. Augustine (17).

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“From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.” (Ephesians 4:16)

We are all subjects and the individual whole in our own life. However, when a subject meets others, the subject as a whole becomes a part of them and then the parts together become the whole. There are subjects as a whole in a church. However, the subjects cannot hold themselves as a whole in the community. They consist of church as a whole by connecting each other as parts. Each part grows and builds church up in love. Each church as a whole becomes a part in meeting with neighbor churches. If we push this process forward endlessly, is it not possible to build such a church as the body of Christ?

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“A church of whatever size or structure… will openly acknowledge the legitimate presence of doubters and seekers, not just at the margins but at the center of its religious life. But at the same time, it will not shy away from affirming the reality and goodness of God, the holiness of God’s creation, or the hope of fulfillment for those whose lives are blighted by the ravages of nature or of other human beings. And it will continue to offer—as an object of belief for some, a hoped-for possibility for others—the bold but at the same time modest offer of a connection to the one who, it proclaims, made present among us the infinite grace and compassion of the ultimate reality itself.” (Philip Clayton and Steven Knapp, “The Predicament of Belief,” 154).

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Church members did garage sales to make fundraising for summer camp and VBS. Most people of customers were Mexican American. One woman asked me, “¿Cuánto?” I didn’t understand what she meant, but I guessed, “Oh, she just asked me, how much?” So I said, “eight dollar.” But she didn’t understand English and asked again, “¿Cuánto?” I did not know ‘eight dollar’ in Spanish, so I just said again “eight dollar.” Our conversation was like this: “¿Cuánto?” “Eight dollar” (x3 times). And then somebody who could speak both languages said to her, “ocho dolar.” Then, she understood.
Language must be a point of contact between different ethnic groups or races. To learn other languages is to learn those who use different languages, and, furthermore, to learn the world. In the same way, what would be a point of contact between God and the world? It must be also a language. Is this human languages or God’s language? God let us know God’s language in and through many ways. It could be a God’s kenotic language. To learn and do theology is to learn God’s language. To learn God’s langue through human languages is to learn God, the world, and the God-world relationship.

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There was “KwangJu Democratic Movement” on May 1980 in Korea, so that almost two thousands people died by the military government under the permission of America. Nevertheless, most Korean people neither know the fact nor believe it until 1990 when the military dictatorship was over. When I saw a video tape about this in the first grade of university, although I heard about it before, I cannot help asking: “Where was God?” and “What did God do for KwangJu people?” This question made me leave church and participate in the student movement.

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Church as His Body

What is the church? Church must not be a building. Church is a community whose diverse members gather in one designated place. When Jesus talked about the church as his body, Jews thought a real temple. When Jesus says that I will raise this church again in three, he means the church as his body. Church is the Christ’s body. However, if church does not show its innate character, Jesus even now makes a whip or overturns the tables (John 2).

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Progressive Christianity in theology must consider how to teach children in church. Most children in church learn the Bible itself as the true story. Since it is not easy to change them when they are grown up, we need a proper theological education from the children. Why do we spend time on that problem from generation to generation?

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