At his Jesus Creed blog, Scot McKnight is working through the textbook Church: A Guide for the Perplexed by Matt Jensen and David Wilhie. I’ve not bought this one (yet), but I found a particular point about the church worthy of some reflection —
They make five points:
1. The church is a mystical communion.
2. Institutional elements are here to stay.
3. The church must be externally focused – mission, preaching, etc.
4. The church must be visibly manifested: institutional elements, sacramental practices, evangelical proclamation or missional deeds.
5. The church is ineradicably local.
They finally appeal to Hütter: the church invisible becomes the church visible through its practices.
The church is a mystical communion. “Mystical communion” might be rephrased as “spiritual fellowship” if we were to take “spiritual” as “Spiritual” — that is, we have to accept that the community/communion/fellowship that is the church is not entirely human. The Trinity is part of the fellowship, not just in theory but in presence and influence.
Institutional elements are here to stay. Protest all you want, but the fact is that the church necessarily has an institutional manifestation. It’s a communion of many millions. And it has a mission. God gives the church leaders. God gives the church gifts. These presents from God can only work to their fullest in an institutional form.
That hardly means that the present institutional realizations of the church are optimal, but there must be some institutional form. And we see this from the inauguration of the church at Pentecost throughout its history.
Radical, Western individualism does not fit well within God’s Kingdom. We have to be willing to join and be accountable to a larger community, working within in that community to serve God’s mission.
The church must be externally focused. This is simple and it’s big. We want to sit within our four walls, celebrating how very holy we are, how very sound our doctrine is, and how very much superior we are. We want to protect our children from the evil, sinful world that surrounds us. We want to do business with Christian businesses, buying Christian products, playing Christian softball. We want to escape the world and live in a man-made heaven on earth. We even want to be able to buy and sip our coffee apart from the world, in our church foyers, separated from the wickedness that is without.
It hasn’t worked. It isn’t working. It won’t work. Indeed, that attitude reveals a sad lack of faith. A lack of faith that God will protect us, that God’s message can and will change the world, that others will believe what we believe and be changed as we have been changed.
The church must be visibly manifested. We’re uncomfortable being visible to the world. We want our Christianity to be our little secret, our special, private pact with God. We might put a fish symbol on our cars, but only if we’re salesmen calling on Christians. We’re a little embarrassed for football players and politicians who wear their religion on their sleeves. It’s not really, you know, appropriate.
We struggle to find a comfortable way to express our Christianity publicly. We don’t want to be rude. Telling everyone they’re going to hell is pretty rude, you know. And Christianity certainly violates the Postmodern mood of tolerance and multi-everything-ness.
When was the last time you heard someone say, “The only way the Israeli/Palestinian conflict will be resolved is for both sides to follow Jesus by turning the other cheek and letting vengeance belong only to God.” No, we want to deal with spiritual problems as though they can be solved politically. We want to use the world’s methods to solve the world’s problems.
It doesn’t work. A cloistered Christianity is powerless.
The church is ineradicably local. We sometimes want to think of “church” as our denomination. We therefore define the mission of the church in denominational terms — doctrinal distinctives, positions held, that sort of thing. We keep fighting the wars of centuries past, because those wars created our denomination.
As a result, we sit in our hometown congregations, re-fighting denominational battles of centuries past while people go hungry or need housing or education — and just plain need Jesus. We become people who care about the identity of our denomination more than the needs of those who live next door.
The church isn’t just local, of course. Foreign missions and cooperation across the globe is important. It’s just that we can never be not-local. We must always have a heart and mission to our own communities. Not just our own communities, but first to our communities.
The church invisible becomes the church visible through its practices. Our beliefs matter very much indeed! But until beliefs become practices, they are nothing. Until the church is seen by our hometowns as lights to the world, as places of refuge and sustenance, of healing and comfort, we are invisible to the world and, therefore, irrelevant and worthless.
But when the churches in town work together to each be the church, and cooperate and share, the church-universal becomes visible. Sometimes it takes a tornado for this to happen — but that’s only because we’re blind to the disaster that the fallen world is. But by the power of Jesus, that can change.