You ARE the Church…if

All this talk about “doing” church instead of “being” the church seems to be resurfacing and will continued to do so until Christ returns for His Bride (the church).

You “are” the church when you are gathered among fellow Christians, with Biblical leadership consisting of deacons and elders (and pastors, if 3 office), are baptized, communed, and sit under the instruction and admonition of the preached Word. In brief, the triune God makes you the church. If anything, we are called to be what we have been made. The church is rooted in the redemptive activity of the triune God.

There are imperatives given to the church, as the church, and imperatives given to Christians, as Christians. To say that you are fulfilling the former by focusing on the latter is a confusing conflation, however there is obvious overlap. Often times, imperatives given to the church are relativized in application to autonomous Christian living. To say that you are being the church at Starbucks with friends is not a helpful description – one doesn’t self-administer baptism, communion, the preaching of the Word, submission to one’s own authority as both elder and congregant, administer benevolence to oneself as deacon and recipient, forgive oneself as loving your neighbor, reckon the Starbucks tab as your weekly tithe. One can dis bulletins and bylaws all they want, but I find the Holy Spirit present among these administrative manifestations more than those who are “doing” church around beer and bands. To be honest, their attributing some sense of radical obedience to “doing church,” unchained from these institutional “vestiges,” is hardly heroic, but frankly easy – and I might add, cowardly. Word and Sacrament, then beer and bands (if that’s your cup of tea).

Michael Horton provides helpful analysis from this post (Missional Church or New Monasticism), excerpt here:

“Going to Church” vs. “Being the Church”

If we build the kingdom by “living the gospel,” then it would make sense if we stopped going to church and instead practiced our discipleship in community or in neighborhood service projects. Willard comments, “It is a tragic error to think that Jesus was telling us, as he left, to start churches, as that is understood today….He wants us to establish ‘beachheads’ or bases of operation for the Kingdom of God wherever we are….The outward effect of this life in Christ is perpetual moral revolution, until the purpose of humanity on earth is completed.” So this is the real question for true disciples: “Will they break out of the churches to be his Church?” (20)

Similarly, Kimball writes, “We can’t go to church because we are the church.” (21) From this Kimball draws the familiar contrast between evangelism (mission) and the marks of the church (means of grace). Kimball thinks that things went wrong at the Reformation.

The Reformers, in their effort to raise the authority of the Bible and ensure sound doctrine, defined the marks of a true church: a place where the gospel is rightly preached, the sacraments are rightly administered, and church discipline is exercised. However, over time these marks narrowed the definition of the church itself as a “place where” instead of a “people who are” reality. The word church became defined as “a place where certain things happen,” such as preaching and communion. (22)

Ironically, identifying the church as “‘a place where certain things happen,’ such as preaching and communion” is contrasted by such writers with a missional perspective, even though Jesus himself instituted these means of grace as the Great Commission.The shift from proclamation of the gospel to conversation about the gospel as the community’s world transforming is evident in the worship gathering. Jones describes Jacob’s Well, a pioneering Emergent community in Kansas City: “To the classic Presbyter-ian sanctuary with dark-stained pews and a choir loft, JW has added the requisite video screens and replaced the pulpit with a band. All of the speaking takes place at the floor level—only the musicians are on stage” (emphasis added). (23) (One might wonder how exactly this differs from the model pioneered by the megachurches.) As the predominantly white audience gathers, he says, there is a table off to one side with a quote from the contemporary Anabaptist theologian John Howard Yoder suggesting that “the visible church is not to be the bearer of Christ’s message, but to be the message.” (24)

Similarly, Jones’s own church, Solomon’s Porch in Minneapolis (led by Doug Pagitt), transforms the traditional service into a conversation. “The point is to jettison the magisterial sermon that has ruled over much of Protestantism for five hundred years,” Jones explains. “Here the sermon is deconstructed, turned on its head. The Bible is referred to as a ‘member of the community’ with whom we are in conversation, and the communal interpretation of a text bubbles up from the life of the community.” (25) Bread and grape juice and wine are offered in “a loud, party atmosphere, and an optional quiet meditation room.”

[But] this aspect of the worship is not guided by a clergyperson….As such, communion is introduced by a variety of persons—one week it will be with a poem, another week with a testimony about “what the Lord’s Supper means to me,” and another week with the traditional “Words of Institution” from the Book of Common Prayer. [After this] we sit down again for announcements, and the kids then begin to fight over the leftover communion bread, since it’s usually cinnamon raisin or chocolate chip or cheddar jalapeño sourdough. [It’s messy] but true worship of God is a messy endeavor. I make no bones about that. It’s not meant to be done “decently and in order,” but messily and with only a semblance of order, and with a great deal of joy. (26)

None of this is really new. Pietism made the marks of the church identified in our Lord’s Great Commission (namely, preaching, Sacrament and discipline) secondary to a host of spiritual disciplines that he did not command. Revivalism extended this trajectory. Charles Finney, the notorious preacher of the Second Great Awakening, wrote that the Great Commission just said, “Go….It did not prescribe any forms. It did not admit any….And [the disciples’] object was to make known the gospel in the most effectual way…so as to obtain attention and secure obedience of the greatest number possible. No person can find any form of doing this laid down in the Bible.” (27) This may seem like an odd interpretation, since the “form of doing this” is given explicitly in the Great Commission—after the “Go” part! Nevertheless, this was the practical outworking of Finney’s human-centered theology. Consequently, the church is not God’s embassy, entrusted with the ministry of Word and Sacrament, but “a society of moral reformers.” Like Finney himself, revival leaders do not need special training for their calling, since it is deeds rather than creeds that propel the church’s mission in the world. A pretty messy endeavor indeed. Catholic historian Garry Wills observes,

The camp meeting set the pattern for credentialing Evangelical ministers. They were validated by the crowd’s response. Organizational credentialing, doctrinal purity, personal education were useless here—in fact, some educated ministers had to make a pretense of ignorance. The minister was ordained from below, by the converts he made….The do-it-yourself religion called for a make-it-yourself ministry. (28)

Wills captures here the connection between the message and the methods: turning the gospel concerning Christ into our good works leads logically to the downplaying of God’s means of grace in favor of our methods of inner or social transformation. Putting the pieces together then, just as the new monasticism collapses the gospel into law and going to church into being the church, it also collapses the church-as-gathered into the church-as-scattered. Or, to borrow Abraham Kuyper’s helpful categories, the church as organization is dissolved into the church as organism. There are many things that Christians are called to do in the world as parents, employees, employers, citizens, friends, and neighbors. Like all human beings created in God’s image, believers are called to obey the Great Commandment: love of God and of neighbor. Yet the church as God’s official embassy of grace gathers guests from the highways and alleys for the feast. Or, to change the metaphor, the church-as-gathered is the re-salinization plant, so that forgiven and renewed sinners can be scattered into the world as salt each week. Without the Word and Sacraments, the salt loses its savor and is good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.

© 2013, Rick Hogaboam. All rights reserved.

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