We are nearing the end of our project of rethinking church. In the concluding essays I want to draw the series together in a few summary points, make some observations, give some advice, and make a proposal.
The Point of it All
- The essence of church is simple and versatile. Where there is genuine faith in Christ, baptism, and the meeting to fellowship with the Lord and each other, there the church becomes visible.
- The mission of the church is simple and clear. Its task is to witness by word, life, and deed to the reality of Jesus Christ crucified and risen from the dead.
- Most churches, past and present, augment their essential nature and mission with optional features that they view as legitimate means, appropriate in their situation, to manage their affairs and carry out their mission.
- It is vital to distinguish between the simple essence and mission that must be present in every genuine manifestation of the church and the additional features that may be helpful in specific times and places.
- To emphasize the distinction between the simple church and traditional churches that have taken shape over the centuries, I called the latter parachurch churches.
- Churches need to examine themselves continually to make sure that the once-helpful additional features do not replace or neutralize the essential features. Church reform always begins by comparing the existing condition of the church to its God-given essence. Whatever feature or activity that renders the church incapable of manifesting its essence or accomplishing its mission must be recalibrated to harmonize with the original norm.
My Hope for the Series
I don’t think I have unrealistic expectations about the prospects for human perfectibility. I am not offering a secret formula for creating the perfect church. I do believe, however, that it is possible to do better. I have not argued, and I do not believe, that parachurch churches are illegitimate and should be abolished. Many people find them life giving, and I would not take that away from them. I hope, however, that the leaders of these churches—if they happen on these essays—will take to heart the distinction between the essential features of the church and the nonessential ones and engage in self-examination and reform. Experience in church leadership has taught me that reform of existing parachurch churches will not be easy. You may need to start from scratch, and like Paul avoid “building on someone else’s foundation” (Romans 15:20).
I embarked on this series in hope of clarifying my own understanding of the church and my relationship to it. I also hoped that others might benefit from thinking along with me. I had in mind especially those believers who find themselves troubled or alienated from traditional churches but have not lost faith in Jesus. They love being with other Christians but are disillusioned with traditional churches. Some of these believers are older and have given much of their lives to church work, as volunteers or as paid clergy. They are tired and a bit cynical. I want them to know that they do not have to choose between unhappily continuing in the traditional church until they die or melting into secular culture. There are many options for being the church in this world between those two extremes.
I also had in mind young people (20s to 40s) many of whom are not be able to hear the gospel message because it gets mixed with “churchy” language and programs. Having spent a lifetime in the church, I understand “Christianese” and even speak it. I can pick up on the slightest biblical allusion. I get the symbolic rituals and holy tones of “preacher speak.” But most young people don’t get it, and acquiring a taste for these things is not prerequisite to becoming a disciple of Jesus. It all sounds strange, weird and cultish.
If there is any value this generation seeks it’s “authenticity,” and if there is anything it hates it’s “inauthenticity.” And if there is any institution that reeks of inauthenticity it’s the traditional church. For sure, there is more to the Christian way of life than authenticity, but Jesus was hard on hypocrites and praised the pure in heart. Authenticity is not trendiness but honesty. It’s having no gimmicks and planning no tricks. No plastic smiles, fake happiness, or implausible certainty! Jesus said to his disciples as they left to tell the good news to the Judean towns and villages, “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give” (Matt 10:8). Freely! Not a word that comes to mind when I think of most churches.
I want my young friends to experience a community of other believers where they can learn and teach, know love and fellowship, encourage and be encouraged by others, and give and receive strength. I want them to experience the simple, essential church wherein they can be formed into the image of Christ and become authentic witnesses to the kindness of God embodied in Jesus. They may at some point learn to speak “Christianese,” come to appreciate the arcane traditions of the church, and may even wish to join a parachurch church. That may be a good thing. But let’s not force them to begin there.
To be continued…