What do the following have in common? (And the answer, "They are all frequently seen in the American church" does not count.)
A. A new church is launching in town, and they mail oversized postcards that read something like this: "Finally—a church where the sermons aren't boring. Where you can come as you are …"
B. We preach a sermon in which we argue, "It's not religion but relationship," or make the point, "Some Christians may have let you down, but Jesus isn't like that."
C. We say to ourselves, especially on adrenaline-depleted Mondays, If things get really hard here, I can take my gifts elsewhere.
What's in common?
In each case, the needs of the individual are being elevated above the needs of the church. Sometimes it's the individual person above the local congregation (B & C), sometimes it's the individual congregation above the wider church (A), but the individual has gotten too big, and the church too small.
In America, individualism, like fluoride, flows in the drinking water. So it's not easy for us to discern what's necessarily wrong with the opening scenarios. They're just business as usual. But they fall meters short of the biblical picture of the church, that grand and awesome unity.
Take, for example, the new-church postcards. I live in a town that, according to the lofty authority Trivial Pursuit, boasts more churches per capita than any other town in America. Therefore, such cards arrive frequently, and most new churches follow the marketing dictum, "Differentiate yourself from other product offerings." But implied in their copy is this belief: "Whatever God may have been doing in those other congregations, He has finally shown up, right here, in our new church." Individual church wins, wider church loses.
Or consider when we all preach, "It's not religion [corporate, negative] but relationship [individual, good]." True as far as it goes, but can any relationship with Jesus be maintained apart from corporate religious practices such as worship, preaching, prayer, and baptism?
I know I have said, in an attempt to win over seekers, "Some Christians may have let you down, but Jesus isn't like that." Again, true, but how much daylight can be inserted between Jesus and his followers, when He told Saul, who was persecuting Christians, "Why are you persecuting Me?" (Acts 9:4). Wouldn't it be more honest to say, "Yes, such-and-such fraudulent televangelist or pedophile priest is part of our Christian family, too," and bear the shame of their actions, the way Jesus bore the shame of being spit on? Emphasizing "just you and Jesus" allows us to sidestep the pain of being in a messy, sinful family.
Even the Monday-morning musing, "I can take my gifts to another church, where they'll be more appreciated," betrays our individualism. Gifts have no meaning apart from their being at the service of others, and therefore, others must help determine their use.
During my years at Leadership Journal, I interviewed pastors whose gifts brought them constant invitations to speak at conferences. In my observation, the people who could handle this acclaim yet keep their pride subdued and family relationships intact held one thing in common: they surrendered their right to decide whether to accept a speaking invitation. Instead, each invitation was accepted or declined by a small group, which intentionally excluded the pastor. The group usually included the pastor's wife, and a close elder from the church, and a longtime friend who knew the pastor before notoriety struck. Not surprisingly, such groups accepted far fewer invitations than the pastor would have. Sometimes, shockingly, the group would send the famous pastor to a struggling church of 23 people who couldn't afford to pay a cent: the usual speaking fee would have taken half the church's yearly budget.
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.
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.
3. With God's help, we gradually gain a new way of dealing with our natural frustration over our church's slowness or meanness. In our better moments, at least, like Paul we celebrate that God purposely chose people who are weak, lowly, despised, and nothing (1 Cor. 1:27-28), because that humbles us and elevates God. (We even see that those adjectives describe us, too.) We choose to die to self, to stay connected to this church and thereby share in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Paul could say to a church: "Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ's afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church" (Col. 1:24).
This is the most important sign of a true ecclesiology—what I call "kissing the leper." The young Francis of Assisi was riding his horse one day when he rounded a curve and saw a man hideously disfigured and foul smelling. As Christian History & Biography tells it, "… making a great effort, he conquered his aversion, dismounted, and, in giving the leper a coin, kissed his hand. The leper then gave him the kiss of peace, after which Francis remounted his horse and rode on his way." Can we give the kiss of peace to our congregation, even when she is disfigured or foul?
In the late 1990s, our church split. Then split again. Each religious war involved name-calling, labeling, broken relationships, spiritual and psychological judgments of others, and I shared in committing and receiving those. Each Sunday I would arrive, notice that longtime members weren't sitting in their usual spot and wonder, Are they on vacation or will I never see them again? The church fell to less than a third of its former size. I felt traumatized, like a small boy whose parents are divorcing: he can hear the yelling downstairs but can't stop it. Someone in town asked me, "Where do you go to church?" and I hesitated, but told him. He winced and said, "Aren't you the church with all the problems?"
In the midst of this dark tunnel, I met the Tempter in the wilderness. I sensed—almost as in a dream—that I was standing on the edge of a bluff, staring down into a deep and dark abyss. I knew that I was standing on the edge of leaving the church forever. My agonized soul just wanted to be out of the pain, to never again be identified with the church, to forget her and that I had ever been part of her. And a voice—not audible, but clear and insistent—said to me: "Jump."
I looked into the blackness and could feel the relief of leaving church forever.
But some tiny thought reasoned within me, If I leave the church, I leave Jesus. If I want the Savior, I gotta take the suffering. I chose to stand where I was, to embrace the hideous and kiss the leprous, to accept the shame and the smell. And I did not hurl myself into a spiritual suicide.
That moment is when I started to learn ecclesiology.
Kevin A. Miller is associate pastor of Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois.
Copyright © 2013 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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