The Church Can Help But is Not Essential to My Growth
No! has to said loud and clear to this diminishment and denial of the church’s necessity for Christian growth. The church is vital and essential for Christian growth. The early church leader Tertullian knew this and went so far as to call the church “our mother.” She is the womb in which Christians grow to maturity. That’s the short answer to this “If You Think . . .” statement. However, a good deal more needs to be said filling out this response.
What is the Church?
It’s an understatement to say we need 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 for the sake of the kingdom of God. This subversive counter-revolutionary action is the kind of life God intends for all humanity. It takes this shape in a fallen world because of the resistance God's people meet and have 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
The work of God’s SCRM is counter-revolutionary because it demonstrates the reality it proclaims as a tangible, visible sign, sacrament, and servant of God's purposes.
I suggest this profile of God’s SCRM is the DNA of God’s people. In whatever form their life takes through history – wandering nomadic family, fleeing refugees from Egypt, wandering in the wilderness, a nation at Sinai, a loose confederation of tribes in Canaan, a united and divided monarchy, an exiled people, a people under foreign rule and oppression in their homeland – they were to be this kind of people. A people fit to serve God’s project of reclaiming and restoring his wayward creatures to their original calling and vocation.
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. And 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!
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.
Yet another angle derives from considering worship as “debriefing.” 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.
Using the Imagery of War
This imagery of the church as God’s SCRM requires a comment or two on the use of military imagery. First, though, a clarification or two. I do NOT have in mind actual military conflict or the use of weapons in any fashion. I'm a pacifist and I believe the church should be too. Nor do I mean the strident, angry, mean-spirited culture war type of warfare. Both of these types of conflict are antithetical to participation in God's mission in the world.
Yet . . . we are in a war! A war whose decisive and climactic battle has already been won. Our D-Day happened on Calvary around 30 A.D. We live now in aftermath of Christ's cross and resurrection awaiting V-Day when Christ returns to finally and fully establish God's kingdom. Our job is to witness to his victory and authenticate it by our life together as a sign, sacrament, and servant of that coming kingdom.
The powers Christ dealt with are “disarmed” (Col.2:15) and his enemies “defeated” (1 Cor.15:54-57). These enemies are not yet “destroyed” however (1 Cor.15:26), nor the powers fully pacified. That's why, like the Allied forces between D-Day and V-Day, our calling as the church is engage the remaining resistance of our defeated and disarmed foes with declarations and demonstrations of the truth of the gospel which unveils the defeat of “sin, death, and the (d)evil” and shows the powers their reign of distorting the conditions for human life and flourishing is at an end (Eph.3:10).
Our goal is to free humanity from its bondage to the lies and illusions these enemies and powers keep assaulting them with. That's really all they can do – keep luring us to embrace their lies and illusions and continue to live as if Jesus has not won the victory. Karl Barth sets us straight on this.
“The Easter message tells us that our enemies, sin, the curse and death, are beaten. Ultimately they can no longer start mischief. They still behave as though the game were not decided, the battle not fought; we must still reckon with them, but fundamentally we must cease to fear them any more. If you have heard the Easter message, you can no longer run around with a tragic face and lead the humorless existence of a man who has no hope. One thing still holds, and only this one thing is really serious, that Jesus is the Victor.”(Dogmatics in Outline, 123)
In fact, in living free of the lies and illusions God's enemies and the powers use enable us to show others in word and deed that all of us apart from Christ have common supra-human enemies that keep us locked into the tragic and deadly antagonisms and arrangements that plague our world. Our human oppressor or enemy is not the enemy we must confront. Instead, the church is called find potential friends in strangers and enemies. We treat them thus even if they do us hurt or betrayal. This is how we declare and demonstrate that the power of sin, death, and the (d)evil are in truth defeated and the powers of distortion and disruption of God's good order put on notice that their days are numbered.
The letter to the Ephesians give us scriptural warrant to think of our service to Christ in military terms. Tim Gombis has shown how Paul uses the Divine Warfare pattern to structure the letter as a call to service in God's ongoing struggle in and with the world. Andrew Lincoln has demonstrated that the rhetoric of the letter points us to the familiar “full armor of God” passage in ch.6 as Paul's climax and “point” in writing. And Thomas Yoder Neufeld has helpfully recovered the insight that the armor we are to take up is not just that of the Roman soldier of Paul's time but rather God's own armor he wore to do battle with his enemies and recalcitrant people in the Old Testament. Together, all these insights make it inescapable that Ephesians gives us a hermeneutically responsible reflection on the use of military imagery for a non-violent church.
The virtues of such a model are the direction, urgency, intentionality, and bodily-ness it gives to our following Christ. It takes these matters and more to be effective soldiers. It takes no less for the church to be God's Subversive Counter-Revolutionary people. A people trained, equipped, and focused on seeking God's shalom as they “Lift High the Cross” and bear it daily into the nitty-gritty of daily life – that would be a church that others may still reject. But they would be rejecting it for the right reasons not the many matters we speculate today cause people to become “Nones” and “Dones” with regard to the church!
That's why we are indeed in a war. And why it matters that we know and participate in God's Subversive Counter-Revolutionary movement. God wants it. In living it out we discover our true humanity. And the world beholds its own destiny.