And like Hauerwas, Nugent argues that the task of the church is to truly be the church. Which requires some unpacking, and he works hard to explain how he sees Christian and church life in light of his studies.
But I don’t think he quite ever hits the nail on the head. I mean, he says many good things I agree with, but as is true when I read Yoder and Hauerwas, I find myself thinking that they never quite articulate the ultimate, real point.
To me, the point is this: the church’s foremost task is spiritual formation for individuals in community. If we skip this step, then we’re just a secular social club or do-gooder organization with a cross hung on it. If our goal is to save the damned or to help the poor and we skip shaping our members into the image of Christ individually and in community, then we’ll fail at every task.
If our members and churches aren’t shaped into crosses, then our evangelistic efforts will feel like pushing rope up a hill. We’ll be constantly chasing the next evangelistic fad, looking for new methods, seeking the key to the hearts of Millennials, or the Y Generation, or whatever — buying lots of books and going to lots of seminars and converting hardly anyone. Sound familiar?
If our members and churches aren’t shaped into crosses, then our efforts to improve the lot of the poor will be just as ineffective as the efforts of the government and other secular organizations. We’ll just apply one more bandaid on top of another, patching what ought to be rebuilt from the ground up. We’ll dig lots of wells but we won’t build communities that can dig their own wells — or dig wells for others for the sake of Jesus. We’ll just throw money and volunteers at the problem and never truly solve the problem. But we’ll be able to report to our members how our lives have been impacted by being around the poor. We won’t give many talks about how the lives of the poor have been transformed by their being around us.
What makes the Kingdom a better society? Why leave the world to live there? Is it just that you get to go to heaven when you die? Just that the church paints houses and digs wells? Or is there something … more? In fact, what is it that Jesus spent three years preaching? Was it just the afterlife? Just good works for Gentiles?
So maybe we need to drop back 15 yards and rethink this whole church thing. I mean, if the goal is to create a cross-shaped community filled with cross-shaped people, what would we do differently from what we’re doing now? I don’t think we’ll get there by passing out sample ballots for the next election or tracts on how to convince an atheist to believe in God.
Or let’s tackle the question another way: how is the modern church unlike the First Century church? What did they do that we don’t do anymore? What’s changed?
Here’s my own thinking, but I’m more than open to suggestions:
- Modern churches don’t spend much time on the Christian virtues. We don’t talk about Christian living. In fact, I think Nugent is right that our emphasis on evangelism and serving the world has distracted us from first becoming cross-shaped people and cross-shaped churches. And our preaching and classroom instruction reflects this shortcoming. 1 Cor 13, Rom 12, and the SOTM should be central teaching. The Kingdom parables should be a focus of instruction.
- We have an identity issue. Rather than thinking of ourselves as members of the Church of Christ or Baptist Church — even if we say “Christian first and Baptist second” — we should in fact think of ourselves as Jesus followers first and only. I mean, how can we tell the world that the Kingdom is a better place and then have to explain that some parts of the Kingdom are better than others, and we really need to have conversation about moving into the right Kingdom neighborhood?
- Our identity issues lead to unity issues. We are badly divided and it shows — and it’s embarrassing. There is only one Kingdom, one church, one Messiah, one Spirit. And to have any appeal to a lost and broken world, we really need to be united. In fact, the original Restoration plea was quite right: to unite based on faith in Jesus as Messiah. That’s the key. Alexander Campbell was right all along!
- But the identity issue is bigger than unity. It’s about the extent to which submission to Jesus affects our lives. We think of Christianity as the spiritual part of our existence. But we have other parts that are largely untouched by Christianity. We haven’t learned how to be Christians 24/7 in all aspects of our lives. And if you doubt me, read the Facebook posts your friends put up on politics and tell me that they love their enemies.
- Which brings us to politics. We serve a king, Jesus, and no one else. We serve the powers only because Jesus tells us to and only to the extent Jesus tells us to. Therefore, we should be Republicans or Democrats to the extent and only to the extent that Jesus so commands. We should be Americans to the extent and only to the extent that Jesus so commands. We can’t be so naive as to imagine that the next presidential election will bring salvation or the Golden Age or the Millennium. Neither party is my Savior. No political or economic or political system is my Savior. The solution to the world’s problems died on a cross, and he is not running for office. I emulate him by being cross-shaped in all my choices.
- We really need to learn to do a better job of caring for our own. It may be Christians in other congregations that most need our help, but we should be a people among whom no one needs anything. And yet for some reason we much prefer to care for the needs of non-Christians.
Let’s take the Exodus as an example. The story of the Exodus is filled with great moments, with heroes, and with miracles. It would make into a great movie. But imagine that you’re just a regular Hebrew slave. You are a child of YHWH, the Hebrew God, and you spend your days making bricks.
What’s your part in the story? Do you do great miracles? Make historic speeches? Engage in great acts of heroism? No, your task is to cry out to God.
(Exod. 2:23 NET) During that long period of time the king of Egypt died, and the Israelites groaned because of the slave labor. They cried out, and their desperate cry [za ‘aq] because of their slave labor went up to God.
The next job you have is to take the Passover, because only those families who take the Passover lamb will be spared from the death angel. And then you grab your stuff and head out into the desert, hoping that God finds a way to get you across the sea as Pharoah’s army approaches on chariots.
There’s no evangelizing. No good works for the Egyptians. Your job is to be a part of God’s people, living as God instructs. And he’ll soon give the Torah and explain what your new life is going to be like. But the attraction you and your people will hold for the world is not your superior numbers, your wisdom, your technology, or really anything about you. It will be your God. The Exodus is an amazing story because of what God does for you — and you will be a light to the Gentiles only because you tell the story. It’s not about you. It’s about your God.
On the other hand, part of the appeal of YHWH is the Torah — and the nation that he creates through his wise and just laws. Your obedience to Torah is essential to the plan, not because obedience earns your salvation. You were saved from the Pharaoh before you received the Torah! But because your obedience leads to a society in which the oppressed are lifted up and the poor cared for, where even slaves are treated better than many “free” people in neighboring nations.
In other words, Israel will become a light to the Gentiles by how they treat each other because of God’s instructions. It’s not about the details of how they avoid working on the Sabbath but whether they care for the poor, the fatherless, the widow, and the sojourner among themselves. Their care for each other, as commanded by their God, demonstrates the superiority of their God and so of their salvation and their way of life.
Therefore, it should be no surprise to read in the NT, which in many ways is modeled on the Exodus, that the primary task of the disciples of Jesus is to form a Jesus-shaped community and live as Jesus taught. We aren’t lights of the world because of our great gospel sermons or our great works of charity. We are the light of the world because of how we treat each other — which why the overwhelming majority of NT instruction is about how to get along.
(Jn. 13:35 ESV) 35 “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
(Jn. 17:20-21 ESV) 20 “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”
Love for one another and unity mark us as God’s people. It’s not that we don’t dig wells and care for orphans and preach gospel to the lost — but we begin with love and unity or all the rest is futility. And if we were united in love, evangelism would be natural and organic.
If we love our friends and neighbors, we’ll tell them about Jesus and help those who are in need. But it does mean that when we tell them about Jesus, we can also tell them about his body on earth, the church, that exemplifies what he stands for. The church will not about right doctrine or right worship or right creeds. The church will be about the right King — and obviously so. In fact, the church will be a preview of the new heavens and new earth — so much so that the church shines like stars .
(Phil. 2:14-16 ESV) 14 Do all things without grumbling or disputing, 15 that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, 16 holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain.