“Church” is a word that has suffered the death of a thousand indignities, many of them self-inflicted. The word does little more now than name an irrelevancy, a blasphemy, or danger for many in our culture. It badly needs rehabilitation of its identity and integrity. Essential is a fresh image that captures what church is about that has been lost or obscured and rendered in an idiom that recaptures the sharp edge of its calling. In America, I contend, that image is the church as God's “Subversive Counter-Revolutionary Movement” (SCRM).
After Genesis 3 the nature and shape of God's people has been a community sent by God to subvert the attitudes, actions, relationships, patterns, and social organizations set humanity in revolt against God. This subversive counter-revolutionary action is the kind of life God intends for all humanity. It takes it subversive counter-revolutionary shape in a fallen world because of the resistance God's people meet and has to act against. Thus being this kind of church is at one and the same time also the fulfillment of our humanity God promised in creation.
The work of God's SCRM is subversive because it
-takes place from the bottom up not the top down,
-is built on compassionate and credible relationships,
-starts and stays local, and
-counter-revolutionary because it demonstrates the reality it proclaims as sign, sacrament, and servant of God's purposes.
For God's SCRM the Bible is the sign, sacrament, and servant of God's self-revelation through Jesus Christ. An it is his self-revelation we are talking about – the presence of God himself as the One who has freely chosen to bind himself in relationship to this people so that they may be the people through whom God spreads his blessings to everyone else (Gen.12:1-3).
Entailed in the Bible's nature as sign, sacrament, and servant of God are functions such as:
-announcing the Vision of the Desirable Future that animates the SCRM
-narrating the Story of the Struggle with Visions of False Futures
-highlighting the decisive turning point in this struggle
-serving as a Field Manual of Operations for the SCRM
-nurturing the Spirit-uality1 of the SCRM
This, I take it, is a way saying what the Paul of the Pastoral Epistles says of the Bible in 2 Tim. 3:16-17:
“Every scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for showing mistakes, for correcting and for training character, so that the person who belongs to God can be equipped to do everything that is good.”
That the Bible, as we have it and as it is, that is “warts and all,” is such a book is what “inspired” (lit. “God-breathed”) means.
The authority of such a book lies in its use by God to “author” a SCRM. Inerrancy or errancy plays no role here. If one has met the God who shines in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 4:6) and been grasped by that Vision of his Desirable Future and caught up into service in his SCRM the matter is beyond inerrancy or not. It's a matter of the faithfulness of this God encountered. Of the truth of his cause. Of the immeasurable greatness of his presence in and among his people. This, I take, is a paraphrase of Calvin's insistence on the inner witness of the Holy Spirit as the essential mark of the reality and truth of scripture's testimony. Then it becomes a matter of faith seeking understanding. We submit to the Bible, errant or not, as God's chosen vehicle to make himself known to and guide his people.
Life in God's SCRM
Jesus calls followers to join him in God's SCRM. Day in and day out this movement moves on engaging what challenges/opportunities confront them. In a world where church is thought to be a sought to be a place where my/our “needs” are met, Jesus calls people to join him in doing the Kingdom of God regardless of the cost. To live a subversive counter-revolutionary life inevitably means conflict with the prevailing norms or ethos of the communities we inhabit. It's “living left-handed in a right-handed world.”
In our world the heart, core, and too often, the sum total of following Jesus is the worship gathering. And the gathered part of Christian existence is crucially important. But not as the sole or predominant part. It's gathering and scattering that form the foci around which discipleship is woven. Yet the scattering part plays little or no role for many church members. An the church as gathered offers little support or encouragement for it beyond an occasional educational opportunity and urging individual faithfulness on its members out in the world.
I don't want to diminish worship gatherings in any way. In fact, I want to invest that time with even more significance than it currently has. But without a robust symbiosis with discipleship in our scattering the worship gathering becomes inwardly, intellectually, and individualistically focused, little more than cheer-leading for a life in the world that seldom happens.
When I envision the gathered and scattered aspects of discipleship as a differentiated unity that mutually reinforce each other, the worship gathering serves as a “debriefing” from the week of mission we have just undergone. If however little attention is paid to or expected of us in our scattering, the worship gathering becomes a free-standing event with little traction in “real” life!
We can illustrate this in a couple of ways. First, the similar structure of life gathered and scattered. The worship service (at least in the classical fourfold pattern) begins with God's call to gather, praise, confession of sin, absolution, the peace, the reading of scripture, sermon, various responses to God's word (sacraments, offering, praise) and the benediction, which serves as well as a call for us to go into the world (scattering). There we also praise God, confess our sins (daily failures) and hear the word of absolution, feed on God's word, respond to that word with acts of witness, mercy, and justice, and close each day with some form of examination and thanksgiving for God's presence and companionship through the day. These end of day moments through the week set the stage for the call to gather again with the community in worship.
Another angle on this symbiotic relationship of the gathered and scattered aspects of life with God is to note that the glory of God, which is the source and goal of all life, is best described by the second century theologian Irenaeus of Lyon, as “humanity fully alive, and life is beholding God.” Abundance of life and beholding God – this is life in both its gathered and scattered forms. Though we experience them as different experiences in this life, in the life to come there will be no temple because God and the Lamb are fully present in the new creation. All of life then is worship; all worship is life. What will be then must impact shape how we live now: life and worship must be organically related.
A third angle derives from worship as “debriefing” that I mentioned above. Our scattered life of serving God's mission in the world, our “living left-handed in a right-handed world,” brings us into inevitable conflict. The “world, the flesh, and the devil,” to use a traditional way of identifying the sources of our conflict, make our daily lives a contested one. We pick up bruises and scars, so to speak, in the battles engaged there. The unholy triad usually attacks our sense of identity in Christ: I am not forgiven, I am not strong, I am a failure and, therefore, not worthy to serve Christ, I doubt God's provision to live out what he has asked me to do, etc.
Will Willimon tells of being invited to preach in a black church where a friend was pastor. Worship lasted over two hours. Willimon asked his friend afterward why black worship lasted so long.
“'Unemployment runs nearly 50 percent here. For our youth, the unemployment rate is much higher. That means, that when our people go about during the week, everything they see, everything they hear tells them, 'You are a failure. You are nobody. You got nothing because you do not have a good job, you do not have a fine car, you have no money.'
“'So I must gather them here, once a week, and get their heads straight. I get them together, here, in the church, and through the hymns, the prayers, the preaching say, 'That is a lie. You are somebody. You are royalty! God has bought you with a price and loves you as his Chosen People.'
“It takes me so long to get them straight because the world perverts them so terribly.'” (Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens, 154-55)
Even if we are not poor and the world's perversion of us as described above take a different tone and texture, it happens to all of us. You can check the perversion of the affluent out in the risen Christ' message to the church at Laodicea in Revelation 3:14-20.
The way the liturgy of worship shapes our life in the world (the “liturgy after the liturgy” as the Orthodox call it), the organic unity of worship and life, and the worship gathering as “debriefing” our service to the world and the wounds we may have accumulated through refocusing our heads and hearts on God and his Son Jesus Christ, the one “full of grace and truth (John 1:14), all argue for integral unity of the gathered and scattered life of God's SCRM.
Our deepest and truest need is to be equipped and encouraged in our gathering for the life we scatter to live till we gather again. Sermons should be primarily oriented to re-presenting in every way possible the biblical story of which our lives are a part. Education in the church should be centered on the ministry of the people in world. Their successes and defeats, questions and dilemmas, hopes and fears, in other words, the real “Christian” lives of the people in the world ought to form the curriculum. It should resemble vocational training more than academic training. Its premise is well put by Richard Rohr: we don't think ourselves into a new way of living. We live ourselves into a new way of thinking. The educational task is to help our people parse their life in the world and move toward new and more faithful ways of thinking.
Just to put this in writing is to feel the vast difference between what church should be and what it ought to be as God's SCRM. There will be much variation in the many forms such a church takes but each will be driven by the kind of perspectives presented here.
This brief sketch does not allow the detail and nuance required. But to get anywhere we have to start. This is just a start.
1 “Spirit-uality” is my way of indicating that growth in the biblical material is always a function of the Holy Spirit working in us and not a human enterprise of self-help or an exercise in self-realization.