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.
Mark, these last two posts have really stirred up my thinking. You’re helping me to rethink and rewrite my framework for the Lenten baptism class I teach each year, as well as prodding me into thinking more practically about how to embody God’s coming kingdom in all we do ministry-wise in our congregation. Thank you for these provocative, challenging, nourishing, and deeply insightful posts.
Andy, encouragement from people like you keeps me writing. Thanks.
I love this. This hits on a topic about which I have become passionate, perhaps weirdly so. What if Mark 3:14 became our model for evangelism? “…that they might be with him”
hmmm, i like it and will have to think about it more. i’ve long used Mark 1:15 as a paradigmatic text for evangelism. I like having something new to think about. Thanks.
Having been raised coC (see what i did there…. some habits are hard to break), I wasn’t in tune with the idea of living a missional life. I think if we are plugged in to scripture, deeply rooted and open to the Spirit’s counsel, it is inherent to a Christ filled life. It wasn’t until I ended up in a domestic violence shelter and then a homeless shelter that I realized we were called to just be salt and light. The passage in Mk 3:14 really hit me between the eyes as I looked at the women I lived with. Good had placed me in a mission field which I would never have chosen. Living *with* them all the difference. I was one of them, while remaining weirdly different. It’s not what I would choose for anyone but it put a new light on ministry for me.
Thanks for this post and for all your work. I have been exploring the missional fronts of ministry for over a decade in Columbus, OH. I spent a week a couple summers ago in England learning about the Fresh Expressions experiment the Anglican Church is undergoing. It was especially interesting sitting at their feet at they battle through some of their denominational baggage that free churches like mine (and yours) don’t have to. Throughout my reading of the Fresh Expressions material I had this nagging feeling, as they promoted a low ecclesiology and less hierarchical structure, of – I think you guys are on to something, but the reality lived out isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. In other words, I felt like my tradition and my church embody much of what they are hoping for, but it has brought with it a whole other set of questions (and/or problems).
I kind of see that in this post as well. My wife and I are vociferously committed to both our neighborhood and our church (our economic situation does not allow for us to live closer to our church – we are 7 miles away, in an adjacent suburb). Our church is mostly made up of commuters (probably half within 7 miles, and the other half from beyond 7 miles). This is a constant battle for us to authentically embed ourselves in the church’s neighborhood – incidentally, our church is actually in a subdivision – three families from our church live within the neighborhood (of 40 families).
I took a class at Fuller a few years ago entitled “The Congregation as Missional Outpost.” That’s how I have come to view the local congregation. It is a sending organism for the members’ neighborhoods. I think the language of neighborhood might be over-stated in missional conversations. Again, I agree with the emphasis on neighborhoods, but I’m not sure I see in your comments a broader understanding that we’ve found applies to our situation.
I think that neighborhoods and locality is essential.We meet regular with friends from our neighborhood. We eat, drink, and are merry together. We have deep and meaningful conversations together, confess our struggles to each other, explore our differing religious traditions together (Catholic, Christian, Jewish, atheist), and have authentic community. I even have an insightful story about how the house across the street from our Jewish friends hosts a house church that meets weekly on Wednesday nights, and does nothing but irritate our Jewish friends (through no fault of the Christians by the way). It just is the way that it is. However, my family and I are invited to their home regulalry, have been invited to share their seder together, and regularly have meaningful conversations about God, faith, and philosophy.
And yet . . . something is missing from our neighborhood relationships – even though they largely meet the descriptions you have laid out above. This is the part that I regularly see missing because of our free tradition and low ecclesiology. There is something missing there. We sup, we eat, we fellowship . . . but it’s not the sacred gathering. We work to making the earth better, we talk of ways we can better our neighborhoods together, but yet something is lacking. Our neighborhood is largely homogenous. Our community is mostly united by family status – mostly by our kids. When we gather with our church . . . it is different – for these reasons and for more.
We’re working hard at reconciling the emphasis on neighborhood ministry and presence and not being part of a locally present congregation. Perhaps it will continue to evolve and what you describe above will become the prevailing picture of churches, but for now, we still find ourselves caught in the middle. Maybe, I’m just justifying my position at my church, but I really believe it is deeper than that. Even within our neighborhoods, families regularly interact with those from other parts of the city. Geographic boundaries are significant, essential, but not the only thing guiding our social interactions.
Adam, I agree that aspects of neighborhood and even hospitality are easily romanticized and often not as practical as we think. that’s why I think it has to be a both/and kind of thing moving forward. Like nearly all the new monastics I know, they live in the same neighborhood, for the neighborhood, but worship in different places on Sundays. I don’t know why the opposite movement couldn’t also be encouraged–that congregations help their members make connections in their neighborhoods. Anyway, thanks for reading and posting.
Excellent, Mark. A good overview of what N.T. Wright (not to mention, God and the Bible) is advocating.
Suggestion: if you hit a blog-writing snag and can’t think of topics to address, develop some of the steps you suggested above for moving to an other-oriented perspective.
Very much liked these last two posts….. just posted them on out church facebook site, in fact.
As a worship leader, I can testify to two things: (1) frustratingly, people “like” the individualistinc songs, and (2) writing different songs is a challenge, but worth it.
*ouR church facebook site
Well written and well thought out. Peace
Oh no Mark does this mean I have to go to Metro?
No, worse, probably some unitarian or mormon church.
Mark, Very thought provoking. Would love to get your perspective on two things that have been bouncing around my head related to this topic.
1. I am encountering more Christian communities that resist calling themselves churches or do so only with a wink (e.g. a group that meets every week in a tavern and calls themselves “Beer Church”). I think I also may be seeing more people (especially people younger than me) who have faith and want to live in service, but have found that their Church experience often works counter to those objectives through their teaching, doctrine, leadership, traditions, internal focus, etc. I see this leading to new forms and types of communities which could be exciting, but I also see it as rejecting on principle forms which have some positive attributes that should survive. I wonder if I am seeing the Gospel pull people out of Churches. I wonder if the thing that is leading to people’s claims that churches are shrinking is, in fact, the Gospel (and perhaps its notable absence at times).. Do we have a generation seeking God, being transformed and then finding that their local churches appear to have some completely different agenda? I wonder if we are perhaps to hasty to assume that the decline in Church attendance equates to a decline in interest in God or faith or Christianity. If there is any reality to my own experience, I wonder how churches might use their resources, experience, collective wisdom and education, stability and prominence to speak to and lead a generation rejecting Church in favor of God. I think that notion is backward in its truest sense, but I am concerned that the church goer’s natural inclination to protect their sacred forms, may blind them to an opportunity to show the beauty and necessity of community in the life of faith. Since I am a church goer myself, that fear extends to me. Is this real? What might be done to protect community without holding on with a death grip to “our” communities?
2. I started writing praise and worship music based on the idea that it could be uplifting to a congregation to see its own faith experience expressed in songs inspired, not by our general experiences of salvation, faith, service, etc., but by the specific ways that particular congregation experienced those things. Now your comments about the music we sing makes me wonder to what extent I may have simply been encouraging a negative pattern in the songs I’ve written. Can you think of an example of a song that you know from Church that expresses the sort of Gospel message you describe and why? Would like to hear more about that.
Josh, great questions. I’m not sure what the answer is to either. I do think existing congregations that offer new life in the future will have to give permissions for experiments that allow the “sent” character of the church to be more visible. That these experiments will be thought of just as much as church as the Sunday assembly.
Here’s my hunch: while mega-churches use more contemporary forms in their worship, their posture vis-a-vis the culture is fairly defensive. As a result, they don’t reach the kind of people you are talking about who are disenfranchised from church but still want to seek God. I think that more “incarnational” approaches to creating Christian communities will be smaller, more nimble, identified with a location, more fluid in terms of what constitutes being a “member,” etc. And I think that increasingly people will do both–their primary expression of faith will be in these smaller, localized groups, but they still will pop in on Sunday mornings to get their big worship fix. I think churches who allow for this kind of movement and fluidity–who build it into how they think of church–will be ahead of the curve.
As for songs I can point to, I’m really bad about remembering songs. I can’t help you much and I’m not sure many exist. But I would love to sing a song that dreams of God’s world made whole, that call me to belong to that day. Poetry is pictorial. It’s not descriptive. So, pictures of hope rooted in eschatology would be great. And, I don’t want to lose songs of praise and adoration. They are important. I would just trade less on personal intimacy. I think a lot of your songs would stay in my canon.
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Our church in College Station is reworking our mission statement and this article was sent out by our deacon in charge. Your impacting the kingdom in some amazing ways. Thanks Sean Landolt. ACU Grad 07.
No informed speaker and writer of English still believes today that it is “bad grammar” to leave a preposition at the end of a sentence. This so-called “rule” has nothing to do with grammar. It is only a “usage opinion,” promoted primarily by John Dryden, ca. 1675. Your sentence ” . . . what constitutes the bullseye this church is aiming at?” is a perfectly good, and correct, English sentence.
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