I want to dig a little deeper into the bigger, better gospel story that Mark Love presented in his blog. Fortunately, Mark has already done that for me, and all I have to do is cut and paste from his insights.
The first step is to recognize the extreme individuality of American evangelical Christianity — with the Churches of Christ being no exception.
When we move into a new town, we church “shop” to find the best fit for us. We ask whether we are being “fed” by the preaching. We look for great teen and children’s programs. What we rarely look for is a church that will challenge us to give up our entire worldview and live in a new way — although that sounds suspiciously like what Jesus did.
We see the goal of Christianity as being the eternal happiness of the individual. I make the choices that allow me to go to heaven rather than hell. I want a church that helps me make those choices so that, in the end, I am saved. It’s all about me.
And if I get prayers answered, a great family life, good advice on marriage and parenting, sound financial planning, and get to live the American dream thanks to the wisdom of the preacher and elders, so much the better. Again, I go shopping for what is best for me. The church becomes Jesus-Mart, and the leadership that accepts this paradigm will be all about pleasing the
customer member. It’s very American. Very consumerist. Very capitalistic.
In a church that bows to this paradigm, worship becomes the “lobby” of the “store” that draws in “customers” to pick this congregation rather than some other. The churches compete for members within a very finite pool of customers. Billboards, advertising on TV, marketing, and all the other methodologies of the American retail marketplace fit nicely into the toolkit of such a church.
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 [afterlife] 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.
What would this look like? Well, it’s hard to say because it’s so foreign to how we do church today.
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.
I honestly have no idea how to do this. I’m going to suggest a few things that might help point us in this direction, but I won’t be able to picture the final outcome. Not yet.