Last blog, I pursued the question of one of my students. If N.T. Wright is correct that justification by faith is not the heart of Paul’s gospel, what does that look like in church life. I began my response by suggesting that it fundamentally changes the way we think about evangelism. And this, in turn, changes pretty much everything else. Evangelism is the clearest place where a church’s theology becomes visible. A change here is a change everywhere. My working proposal is that congregations enact whatever they think salvation is (this is the focus of my dissertation).
So, if you think salvation is centered in the experience of the individual, the experience of the individual becomes the focus of the congregation. And I think this one single fact explains most of evangelical Christianity for the past 200 years or so.
You don’t think so? Ask an elder or a minister if they have anything in their bag of tricks that trumps personal dissatisfaction at church. I don’t like the preaching. I don’t like the worship. I’m just not being fed by this style of preaching. There aren’t programs here for me or my kids. I don’t like the songs we sing. Now, I’m not saying that elders and ministers don’t have good responses to these complaints (though my hunch is that the answer most often given is some version of, “give us time, we can make you happy”). I’m saying they don’t work. Personal dissatisfaction always wins.
OK, need another? How many churches do you drive past on Sunday morning to get to “your” church? What does that say about what you think church is? It used to be that we drove to the church that was our denomination. The denomination expressed a particular theological understanding. As many have told us, denominational loyalty is a thing of the past. Now, I’m no fan of denominations per se, but I don’t think this is the unmitigated positive many of my friends think it is. It says to me that now not even denominational stances can trump personal preference. This could very well be the final triumph of the personal. We call this consumerism and I think its pretty much the opposite of the gospel.
Need another? Next time you go to church, ask yourself what constitutes the bullseye this church is aiming at? (I know horrible grammar, but it sounds so stuffy to say it with good grammar). I think about three things when I ask this question: is the church aiming at the interior life of the individual? the communal life of the congregation?or the conditions of the world that God loves? I think all three should be present, but if one predominates, you may have trouble. And our trouble is around the interior life of the individual. The songs? Definitely the interior of the individual. As several have noted, much of contemporary worship music sounds like “Jesus is my boyfriend.” The sermon? Most sermons I think are aimed at inspiring the inner life of the individual. Communion? Individual portions, private meditation. Children’s worship? Theater seating? Youth groups?
Now, I’m not saying that any of these things are bad in and of themselves. Well, maybe a few of them. What I am saying is that taken together they say that our congregations are built primarily around the experience of the inner life of the individual.
One last example. Because of all of this, the congregation’s life is nearly totally self-referential. It exists to serve the needs of its members and to make the number of members higher. The neighborhood in which it exists is secondary at best, totally inconsequential at worst. And because Sunday worship is the raison d’être of the consumer church (I think of Craig Van Gelder’s quip that in North America worship has replaced Christianity), the congregation too easily can distinguish between its inner life and “outreach.” The same kind of compartmentalization that happens in Christians who think their inner life is one thing and their business practice another, happens in the congregation where what happens within the congregation is church and what happens outside is benevolence or outreach. What happens inside is being (primary), what happens outside is doing (secondary). So, periodically we go to a poor neighborhood and clean things up or serve a meal. This is something we do, but its not our way of life. (Don’t get me started).
I think all of this is the fruit of seeing the gospel as being primarily about the eternal happiness of the individual.
But if we see the gospel as the announcement of the nearness of the Kingdom of God, then many of these things change. As George Hunsberger has put it, the church exists not as a vendor of religious goods and services, but as a sign and foretaste of the Kingdom of God. So, what would this kind of church look like? In other words, it exists fundamentally to “picture” what the realities of the eschaton will be. And while this has certain intrinsic benefits for individual well-being, the Kingdom of God is fundamentally a new social, or even ecological, set of affairs under God’s rule or reign. As Mary sang, “he has exalted the lowly and sent the rich away empty.” As Jesus says, “who are my brother and mother and sisters? Those who hear the word of God and do it.” As his enemies said of Jesus, “he eats with tax collectors and sinners.” As Paul said, “there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female.” Or in another place, “all creation will be set free from its bondage to decay and experience the glorious liberty of the children of God.” Or in another place, “welcome one another, as Christ has welcomed you for the glory of God.” Or as John saw it, a slain lamb conquers every imperial power, a victory that brings with it a new heaven and a new earth. The church lives to point to these coming realities.
And I have little idea what that church looks like completely, because I have never been a part of one. But I have some clues.
It will not be an aggregate of individuals who drive past other churches to find the church of their preference. Rather, the church will consist of people belonging to specific neighborhoods, overcoming the powers of sin and death and working for human flourishing among their neighbors. The church will not be built around the interior life of the individual, but around the work of the Holy Spirit in creating new social realities among people in actual neighborhoods. I’ve long said that these new Christian communities will not be asking as their primary question, “how can we get people to belong to us?” Rather, their orienting question will be, “how in Jesus’ name do we belong to these people?”
There are groups living this way. I think of the new monastic movements, or the important networks forming around The Parish Collective. These are important harbingers, I think, of congregations that are living in a story larger than justification by faith. Living with and among people is not “outreach,” but a way of life. The raison d’être for these communities is not the Sunday assembly, but the loving of God and neighbor every day.
These groups are going all in, now. They are living in ways that subvert contemporary congregational life and offer a clear alternative. Most of us, however, won’t choose the radical option. Nor, do I think, should we. I think that incremental steps can be taken that allow our existing congregations to lean into a different future. And I think that congregations can learn to give their lives away over time to experiments like these, and find that this doesn’t threaten the church’s life, but makes it more vibrant. Steps in a different direction. I’ve got a million of these.
Write new music where salvation isn’t just about me and my boyfriend, Jesus.
In calls to worship, take notice of all of creation which longs to glorify God, and someday will. Build windows into your sanctuary. Recognize the world.
Stop talking about ministering “to” others, which reinforces the inside-outside distinctions, but find people “with” whom you are partnering to serve the coming Kingdom of God.
Spend as much time preparing members to love and engage their neighborhoods and workplaces as you do to participate in the “ministries” of the church. And not simply as a means to make individual converts, but as a way for God’s shalom to be more present in everything.
Find ways to receive communion that demonstrate that God is overcoming human distinctions to create a new family around the table of the Lord. Gathering around a table might be the way to do that.
Nail a sign above the door on the way out of the sanctuary that says, “servant’s entrance” (this is a George Hunsberger story).
Take to heart this little bit of pastoral wisdom: spiritual discontent is seldom the result of your needs not being served. It’s more likely the result of living a life that requires no power outside of the self. Pastoral care and customer service are not the same thing, and often they are exactly the opposite.
Stay on message: the gospel is not that we can be self-realized, but that we can belong to something bigger than ourselves.
I could go on and on, but the shift that Wright and others are describing theologically will change nearly all of our patterns. We’ll know we’re closer when people complain less about not liking the style of the songs.