Let’s start with what the Bible says about what the church is all about. I’ve already quoted Jesus’ words in Matthew 25 saying we’ll be judged by how we treat the poor and needy. The lesson is found in lots of other places. For our purposes, let’s just consider what Paul writes in Ephesians–
(Eph. 2:8-10) For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God– 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
Chapter 1 and the beginning of chapter 2 speak of the work God did through Jesus to save us. The terms are powerful. God’s been planning for our salvation since before the foundations of the earth! And this is the climax: serve others!
Why did Jesus die for us? So we’d be saved? Yes–and more. So we’d “do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” The cosmic plan–older than the earth itself–is for people to believe in Jesus, be saved, and do good works.
To help bring this to fruition, God provides the church with leaders–
(Eph. 4:11-13) It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, 12 to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
Why are there pastors and teachers? To prepare Christians to serve others. Not to learn in Sunday school. Not to have powerful worship. Not to share meals in small groups. To serve others.
Why is this important? Because it’s only through serving others that the body can reach maturity and attain “the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”
Hmm … If the problem is that we aren’t challenging the mature, perhaps the problem is that we’re not training our members to live as the mature are called to live!!
(Eph. 4:14-16) Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.
Here’s an unexpected lesson. Paul says that if we’ll train our people to do the works of service Jesus died to get us to do, we’ll not be fighting so much over doctrine! Indeed, by getting out of the buildings and going to work, we’ll become closer to Jesus!
When we’re busy in doing Kingdom work, we change. We become more like Jesus and so we connect more closely with him.
When’s the last time you heard this sermon? I never have.
Here’s the problem as I see it. The American church is culturally conditioned to be about doctrine and ritual not service and love for the community. There are historical reasons for this, because it hasn’t always been true. But it’s true today, especially among the most conservative, evangelical churches. (The Catholic Church and many mainline churches are actually very much about concern for the needy. It’s the conservative Protestants churches that are struggling in this area.)
I participate in a number of listservs and internet discussion boards. Every once in a while I bring this subject up. I make the arguments. And you know what the response always is? Silence. In discussion groups filled with very capable Bible students who love to argue about just about anything … silence.
We all suffer from a collective sense of guilt and unease. We’d really rather talk about faith vs. works or the necessity of baptism. Talk about helping the poor and we have no theological arguments to make. So we say nothing because we just don’t do it–not at the level the scriptures call us to.
Some few will argue that our churches all have benevolence programs, and surely this meets the letter of the command. But it’s an indefensible position. I mean, Jesus didn’t die so that 20 of our 1,000 members would help the needy.
And a few argue that this is the “social gospel” and not our job. It’s the government’s job to feed the hungry. Again, this is sheer denial. In fact, the church saw this as exclusively the church’s job until the gigantic social programs of the 20th Century.
We complain about how the government is destroying the fabric of society with its mismanaged welfare programs, all the while refusing to get involved with the love of Jesus–which would make all the difference.
Others take the Warren-like approach that there are many ways to serve God. And there are. But all involve serving others some way or other. None involve study for study’s sake.
And a few try to argue that this is works salvation. In fact, that’s the most common response outside the Churches of Christ (we are very un-Calvinistic). But we can’t just erase the scores of passages that urge us to serve the needy.
Eventually, the topic moves on to instrumental music or circumcision or something else less threatening.
Fortunately, there is a movement among evangelical Christianity toward what’s called “missional Christianity.” This is simply trying to get the church to fulfill all the mission Jesus gave it–both evangelism and benevolence, acting in synergy to lift Jesus up to the community.
It’s not that radical really. It’s just that not many churches actually do it. But the Spirit is alive, well, and moving–and missional Christianity is breaking out across the nation.
It is, I think, by far the most important movement in American Christianity since the Second Great Awakening. Things are changing. In 20 years, the American church will be radically transformed. It will be much more like Jesus.
Some Christians and some churches will persist in their denial, pretending that God just wants us to keep on singing and studying cloistered in our buildings away from the unclean world. And these churches will eventually die.
The Spirit is changing us. And it will change everything. I’m no prophet, but even I can see that it will change how we relate to politics, how we’ll be perceived by the world, and everything about how we do church.
Different churches will try different ways to be missional. Some experiments will succeed and some will flop. Over time, we’ll learn new and better ways to live the gospel in America.
And life in the American church will never be the same.
Oh, and our most mature members will no longer be bored. They’ll find the church far more than challenging enough.
Finally, a few older posts on missional Christianity that may help explain what I’ve been trying to say–
And for the intrepid reader who has made it this far, a whole series of cartoons: