The point of the church
I have no interest in maintaining a church that wishes to avoid the pains of living, the messiness of discipleship, and the discomforts of serving.
What’s the point of such a church anyway?
It doesn’t seem to be a church.
Why does a church exist at all? It is a community gathered for a few purposes. I’ll summarize into three main points. 1. Upward – to glorify God. The purpose of the church is not about its own existence. It’s not a social club. It doesn’t exist to for it’s own survival and maintenance. It exists for the purpose of carrying out the mission that God has for it. And once that mission is fulfilled, the church no longer needs to exist. It is temporary. It exists as long at it pleases God. And it all belongs to God. And it all can change in order to fulfill the mission. It grows (however you want to define that – in raw numbers, or in depth of faith) because of God. This means it is connected to God as its main source. Jesus talked about this as “I am the vine, and you are branches.”
2. Inward – The edification of the saints, or the making of disciples. Again, this isn’t about being a social club. Sure, we can bring comfort to each other when afflicted. But it’s not about making the environment always comfortable and avoiding discomfort and change at all costs. Living things and living faith means change. Discomfort is a part of growth. Being a disciple means growing in faith. The beauty of being part of a community of faith is that we don’t have to do this journey alone. We do it together. We can be vulnerable together. The beauty of the church is that smacks the myth of rugged individualism down for the lie that it is. We can’t go through the world alone. We need each other. Salvation is not a solo adventure. In spite of the popular American Christian idea of a personal savior motif – no, you need more that just a personal savior. Faith isn’t just an individual relationship with God. Salvation isn’t just a personal thing. There are certainly individual elements to all of these things. But there is more. Don’t confuse American values and ideals with Christian faith and what it is about. If Christian faith was only about an individual and personal relationship with God, then there would be no reason to continue to have churches. None. Just go off on your own – just you and Jesus. Good luck with that. But Scripture doesn’t support that. There is a communal aspect to faith and salvation that cannot be denied. And it’s a healthy part that we need and is helpful to us. Because none of us are strong enough to go this journey on our own. None of us. We need each other. We need a community of believers to support one another. To be models for one another. To offer grace and mercy to one another. To pick each other up. To forgive one another. To be vulnerable with one another. To hear where God is active and to hear Good News. It isn’t going to be perfect because people are involved. There will be times when it is far from perfect. When there is abuse and trauma. When you will have to separate yourself from the community and go elsewhere maybe. And that sucks. But another community awaits you. To start over. It may not look the same – it probably won’t. And that’s a good thing. Christianity is about starting over after all.
3. Outward – Evangelism and service. If our faith doesn’t drive us and compel us to do something with it, then is it faith at all? Our faith drives our behavior. Faith isn’t about what we know, or about being right. It’s about who we are and shaping who we are that causes us to live as we are. What we know is one thing. Living what we know is lived faith. I would say when we are living our faith, that’s telling the world what it is that we actually truly believe. It’s one thing to say what you believe. It’s quite another to put your beliefs into action. You can’t be incongruent between your actions and your core, actual beliefs. You’re wired that way. Your body won’t let you over the long term. If you want to know what someone actually, truly believes, then watch them. Listen to them as they interact with others. You’ll know pretty quickly what they really believe in the core of who they are. Don’t bother to ask them what they believe. You’ll get the rehearsed answer. You’ll get the aspirational answer of what they want to believe. It’s in the actions that we see what people actually believe.
This is the core of what church is about. There are plenty of other elements that pertain to these things. Worship, the sacraments, the creeds, etc. They all fit into the three things I’ve outlined above. This isn’t about dismissing any of those things as unimportant. They all have their role.
I think there are a lot of folks who have trouble dealing with pain and suffering. We want to brush them aside quickly. We want to feel happy. We want to feel good – whatever that means. But there is a problem with that – we were created with a full range of feelings and emotions. And I’m guessing that they were given to us by God and considered good – at least that it what it seems like in the creation story. When we only want to feel half or a portion of them and not others, then the question is why?
And when we start to shape the church to meet our wants and desires to avoid feeling certain emotions and feelings, then what exactly is happening? What does that mean for the church? What is the church becoming? And what are we saying about God? What place are we putting God in? When we start to shift the church away from it’s three fold focus of upward, inward, and outward, which embraces the full range of emotions and feelings in the service of God’s mission, to something else, what is the church at that point?
Is the church still the church when we purposefully shield it from discomfort? When we comfort the comfortable? When we afflict the afflicted? When we prevent change? When we maintain systems that aren’t as oriented towards justice as they could be out of convenience or habit? When we continue preferencing the status quo rather than hearing what would move us towards God’s implemented kingdom or the beloved community?
The church is an institution and a movement. A paradox. Like the kingdom of God – something already and not yet. It’s made up of people, so it’s messy. There are those who will resist and hold it back. And there will be those, like myself, who will push and prod and poke because if we don’t there won’t be forward progress. And I’ll say, none of us – whether those who are the biggest resisters to change or the biggest pushers of change – should ever assume that we are the standard speed with which change happens. We don’t get to see ourselves as the norm either. For one simple reason. Our eyes need to stay focused on why the church exists. It’s not about us and what we want. It’s about God and God’s mission. That’s why I’m hopeful for the church and its future.
Okay… once again I mere HOPE (with little confidence, btw) that my computer will hold up and permit me to comment FROM MY END. WE will see…
Okay… now to the comment:
This will seem like left field, which it is, but like so many things, I think my direct address to your post will make so much more sense against this backdrop.
Like you (if I understand correctly), I am a bit of an outsider regarding “revival” – a topic which came up in the blogs recently after the Asbury University thingy which most people called REVIVAL, but several were cautionary and called it an awakening or a stirring or something else. And as an outsider, I have a skeptic streak in me too, though not the standard skepticism. I too, btw, want God to move in his people, and I see nothing in the revival phenom which automatically precludes God. On the contrary, I see it as highly possible! People adoring God in such a full-blown, full-body, spiritual AND emotional way is not new to the psalmists or other worshipers in church history.
But even the revivalists approach with caution. Some are quite skeptical. And I want more assurance than merely a few flaky people acting out too.
Alright… I’m dragging you down a rabbit hole, and I think you see my point so far as THAT goes. Now let me use THAT point to say this: When I – as an outsider – listen to revival enthusiasts dickering and discerning whether or not they are experiencing a real, honest-to-God, bona fide revival, I am continually struck by the way they go to extrabiblical evidence for it.
Is it like the revival in Sydney of 1923?
Did the preacher call everyone to repent like at the tent revival last summer?
Did the speak in tongues?
Did anyone get the shakes and bark like a dog?
Did it last two days or is the threshold for revival 3 or for days or even weeks?
Were there any unbelievers convicted by the Spirit?
I could go on and on.
I haven’t researched revivals myself, but I have attended a couple seminars, read a few articles, and listened to a few preachers, and did so with a critical ear/eye. And while SOME people SOME of the time reach into the Bible to talk about the great day of Pentecost, a few passages in Isaiah and so forth, I don’t find anyone really majoring in any of that.
And is there a biblical blueprint for this? I am sure there is not. Some of the scenes which look revival-like in the Bible have enough differences to stress credulity. My dad thinks Nineveh experienced a revival when Jonah came to town. But how can a nation that never was Vived be REvived? (And anyway, did anyone shake and bark?) See what I mean?
This KIND of scrutiny holds up pretty well in most other Bible study topics, but when it comes to revival, not so much. And my faith heritage wants biblical insight, biblical precedent, biblical support or endorsement. Not too strictly, but if it’s foreign to the Bible, it becomes a problem, and revival lives in the nebulous middle between, as far as I can tell.
Now… stay with me a moment, I want to loop in one other notion before I get back to ground zero.
When I was in college, I almost minored in Sociology. If I hadn’t been so hell bent (did I just say that?) on a Bible education, I would have majored in Soc. I loved the stuff. And though I focused more on Criminal Justice and Deviance than other areas of Soc, I nonetheless bought a textbook in Sociology of Religion (one that dealt primarily with Christian faith).
The sociology people talk about church as an “institution” with it’s social and life cycles as a sect or a movement or whatever. I don’t mean to disparage sociology by any stretch either, and in fact, I find great value in those insights SOMETIMES.
But the church was around a long time before the sociologists. The church is not dependent in any way on sociologists. Self-understanding for the church does not ultimately come from sociology nor need it really.
Theology, of course does not have to be biblical (or even Christian at all), and yet the church is theological, thinks, talks, and acts theologically. And even among varying disciplines of Christian theology, I tend to be more interested in biblical theology – certainly in theology grounded in Bible, respecting Bible, making space for Bible.
These become fine nuances somewhere along the way, and I get that. They get to be so fine at some junctures I dispense with trying to distinguish them. Functionally, I would rather pray than split some of these hairs. And yet before we get to those fine distinctions, I try to manage the distinctions carefully.
So, with all these kinds of thoughts as something of a lens or backdrop to my direct response, perhaps it will make better sense.
The church, in the Bible, is the “bride of Christ”/”the body of Christ.” There is a marriage there where in some mysterious sense, the two are one. Christ is the head of the body, and yet we are his body. He is the truly human one, and we are adopted/grafted in.
To my way of thinking, to get to atomic level biblical theology, we talk about bearing the image of God. This is the point of humanity – the humanity of which Jesus is the only truly human one, and we by virtue of marriage, adoption, grafting are one with him in it. We become what we were made to be in him (with that whole “in him” language we find especially in Paul).
What is the point of Jesus? We share that point with him. We bear God’s image in the world, and when God is seen by his creation the creation smartens up.
I can’t cite it now, but I THINK if you look up Simply Christian by N.T. Wright, that is at least one place where (again I THINK) he describes image bearing in imperial terms bringing it all to life in a truly unique way.
So, in ancient times, Caesar went around the whole known world conquering everything. (Good army.) But then he had to establish his PAX. And so… we get this scene of a smoldering battle ground where Caesar’s herald arrives, jumps up on a stump or a stage, clangs his bell and announces, “Hear ye! Hear ye! I have GOOD NEWS! The war is over! Let there be PAX in the land. Repent (or cease from your fighting), and believe in this GOOD NEWS.”
Then when the herald finished, he would erect a statue of Caesar in the town square and say, “Caesar is Lord!” As long as that statue of Caesar remained there, Caesar ruled this place.
Oh, occasionally someone would try to tear down that statue, but Caesar’s army quickly put it back up and executed the rebels MOST of the time. And so that statue functioned as Caesar’s very presence in that area and ensured his rule over these people. And they called this PAX.
God, the creator, does something similar in some mysterious ways. He creates the whole world, declares it is good, infuses it with his Shalom, and erects an image of himself in the middle of it. As long as that image bearer stays there bearing his image, the world knows how to live in Shalom. But unlike Caesar’s breathless idol, this image bearer has the breath of God, the Spirit of God in him – in them. He created them Male and Female as One. And he makes Jesus the bridegroom.
When you want to talk about the point of the church, these things are elemental.
Humanity bears God’s image, shining his image out onto creation on the one hand, but there is more. The church also focuses all of creation’s worship on God. Creation wants to see God and love God, and creation groans like birth pains yearning to see God in his sons so it can worship him.
None of this takes anything away from the evidentiary investigations of revival or of the sociological study of religion, but it gets us closer to God and his purposes, I think.