As much as I admire this death to self, this inspiring corporate-mindedness, I chafe when it becomes my turn. When I left publishing to pastor full-time, sugarplum dreams of preaching and praying filled my mind. Three months after I arrived at the church, though, our congregation, which had been renting facilities for nearly 20 years, did the improbable: it won an auction for a deserted plastics factory. Suddenly, the church needed someone to manage the renovation process, to immerse himself in parking substrates and asbestos removal and sprinkler heads. Without any casting of lots, as the apostles did, I was chosen. I've learned again that my gifts are not my own. They belong to the people around me.
We all laud the church, but to truly love her, to put her needs above my own, requires accepting pain, usually more than I want to accept.
Signs our ecclesiology is growing
Since I started this article more negative than is my bent, let me turn to the positive: What signs would indicate that our ecclesiology is growing more robust, that our love for the whole is increasing? I'll mention three.
1. With God's help, our paradigm of the church as "a collection of individuals" begins to shift. The late Michael Ramsey challenges me: "It is never true to say that separate persons are united to Christ, and then combine to form the Church"—which, actually, is precisely what I thought. Ramsey says the truth is just the reverse: "… for to believe in Christ is to believe in One whose Body is a part of Himself and whose people are His own humanity, and to be joined to Christ is to be joined to Christ-in-His-Body."
We'll know our paradigm is shifting as our language for the church becomes more biblical. For example, the phrase "a personal relationship with Jesus" holds rich meaning, but we might ask why the inspired Bible writers never use it. As best I can tell, it's because their view of the parts is superseded by the whole: "… for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28) and "we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body" (1 Cor. 12:13). We will know our view of the church is clearly apostolic when we start to sound like the apostolic father Cyprian, who said, "He cannot have God for his Father who does not have the Church for his Mother."
2. With God's help, less and less do we engage in subtle and not-so-subtle judgments of other churches in the area (pick one): "too liberal," "too fundamental," "too shallow," "not missional enough." In fact, we can actually entertain the thought, "Why shouldn't our denomination just fold up and submit to a larger, more historic entity?" Like most people, in the case of my own tribe, I believe such an argument can be made, but it is weaker than I might care to admit. When "Well, at least we get the Gospel right" cannot be fully argued on the basis of antiquity or universality, perhaps what's primarily at stake is "We like it better our way." Even if this thought experiment yields nothing visible, it promotes a humble temper of mind.