"Before you can search for truth, you must be interested in finding it." -Miroslav Volf

Monday, September 6, 2010

The Church’s Identity: A Stab at Articulating my Ecclesiology

There’s been a lot of talk between me and the other pastors of this church plant lately, and even more talk in my own head, about values and mission and beliefs and purpose…the kinds of things that a church uses to express its identity—both for those looking for a faith community to join, and for the church body itself, to give it some sense of accountability and direction.

The process is fun for me. I enjoy concepts, and believe that right practice usually requires right understanding (and I suppose that practice than can inform understanding…really kind of a two-way street). Concepts without practice are fun but probably a bit lacking, and trying to act without a solid theology can potentially lead to actions that push people more away from communion with God than toward it.

Darrell Guder, in Missional Church, suggests that problems in the American Church are not to be found in its methods and practices but in its understanding of its theology and identity. And as most Biblical scholars acknowledge, when Jesus speaks of belief and faith, he is describing an inseparable unity between thought and practice. To believe is to not merely give intellectual assent to, but to act differently. To follow Christ is not to associate yourself with his values or theology about him, but to speak, think, act and prioritize like Jesus did, to care about what Jesus cared about, to imitate him.

In other words, actions usually flow out of belief. If a person believes in the value of exercise, they are exercisers. If a person believes in big government, they vote for the candidate who will make government larger. If a person believes in contemplative prayer, they pray contemplatively, likely quite often. Same more generally with Christ: a person who believes in him believes not just certain doctrine about him, but believes in the value of the call he makes on humankind so much that he or she responds to that call.

And it is a call. We are called to something. I don’t believe we’re just offered something. A strong emphasis on the grace of God and our Protestant disdain for "works" has had, I think, the unfortunate effect of crippling the church a bit, teaching us that we are merely recipients, beneficiaries. While I don’t deny the Reformed tradition’s emphases on our depravity and God’s greatness, I don’t like a faith that essentially says: recognize what God has done for you, and continually remind yourself of this fact by devotion to your church (pardon the slight caricature). I think this misses the point.

The point is that while God has done something so gracious for us—a grace that I think is even more extravagant and inclusive than I think we Christians (myself included) often give it credit for—Jesus’ continual emphasis was a call. A call that came in many forms. "Repent. Open your eyes to God’s new creation, God’s new Kingdom. Realize that all people will be judged one day. Look around and see the needs of the poor, oppressed, disheartened, hopeless, and do something about it. Give up your misguided, ultimately unfulfilling priorities (idols) and care about the things God cares about. With the Spirit of God’s help, do as I have done." Or however else you/we might articulate Jesus' multifaceted call.

Being a Christian, in my opinion, is a response to some kind of call to action, to the beginning of a new kind of journey, to the process of having our whole being transformed. Understanding our identity as a church is so essential because it helps direct what the Christian life actually looks like in practice.

And I think both the conservative and liberal sides of the theological spectrum answer this question in different ways, both ways that I think are ultimately inadequate. A more conservative answer has tended to look at the depth of human brokenness and, put harshly, given up on the world, looking to the life to come as the only relief from the sinking ship that is humanity. Here, the identity of the church becomes a people who are saved for another life to come, but gives little direction for how to live the life of Jesus now. A Christ-like life is given lip service, but the urgency of true, deep spiritual transformation that leads to acts of love and service is not really felt.

On the other hand, the liberal answer to the question of our identity, rather than being detached from the world, can become a bit too utopian, assuming that with the right amount of thought, social collaboration and organization, and willpower, we can bring about the paradise that God has promised. I suppose in ways this is an outdated perspective that perhaps faded as the obviousness of human depravity and conflict and hate grew over the last century, though this ambitious attitude remains strong in many circles. But it is a perspective that is too optimistic (even for me, the "eternal optimist"). Such an understanding of our identity believes we can “take the world” for Jesus and bring about God’s new Kingdom with enough religious fervor. But I worry about this attitude because it seems that it makes the church (or humankind) the Savior of the world. But I don’t think that is our identity.

What’s left then? How do we understand our identity? What’s the happy medium, the “third way” that values the truth and sentiment in each of the above extremes without becoming so polarized? What might be a more truthful picture of the relationship between God and the Church?

The best answer I’ve found to this question by someone who is not Jesus and is also writing in relatively contemporary times comes from theologian and missiologist Lesslie Newbigin, one of my theological mentors (whom I’ve never met). Throughout his work, Newbigin continually returns to a triune statement of our identity as a church that I believe is a truthful picture of what it is we are called to as a church. We are to be a sign, instrument, and foretaste of God’s future and present reign.

A “sign, instrument and foretaste.” To understand Newbigin’s meaning, the importance of eschatology (the study of “last things”) has to be stressed. I’m not concerned here with a historical timeline of what will happen at the end of human history as we experience it, as much as with the more basic reality that God, in Jesus, has promised that he will return to earth and essentially fix, restore, renovate the entire cosmos so that the world will live in the kind of peace and harmony and love and submission to God that God desires (this is historic Christian belief, though it seems to get minimized and underemphasized in favor of talk about heaven and what happens immediately after a person dies).

But the Jewish people, Jesus himself, and the early church wholeheartedly believed and placed their hope in the ultimate righting of all wrongs and the healing of the world, this world. And this could only be something that could be accomplished by God; all human projects, no matter how grand, will fall short.

In my understanding, this is part of the good news of Jesus Christ: humankind has been saved from its inevitable destruction, and promised that God will one day reign and, in some real sense, is at work in the world now preparing the world for the eventual fulfillment of this promise at the end of time. It is to the ending now that we look with hope.

This “orientation of hope” is expressed well by Newbigin in A Word in Season :

The hope of which the Church is called to be the bearer in the midst of a famine of hope is a radically otherworldly hope. Knowing that Jesus is King and that he will come to reign, it fashions its life and invites the whole community to fashion its life in the light of this reality because every other way of living is based on illusion. It thus creates signs, parables, foretastes, appetizers of the Kingdom in the midst of the hopelessness of the world. It makes it possible to act both hopefully and realistically in a world without hope, a world that deals in illusions. If this radically otherworldly dimension of the Church’s witness is missing, then all efforts in the life of the community are merely a series of minor eddies in a current that sweeps relentlessly in the opposite direction (44).

If we are looking forward to some later time with hope, what does that mean for our lives now? Rather than being something that detaches us from the world, I think it thrusts us into the world, empowered to be agents of hope, making known to the world what God has done in Jesus and what ultimate future we have to look forward to. The key that keeps us engaged in the world now I believe is found in this idea of our identity that understands the Church to be a sign, an instrument, and a foretaste of God’s coming Kingdom. So what do these terms mean?

We are a foretaste. The church, in its life together and in the world, is to be a glimpse, a sample, of what is to come. To use another metaphor, God’s desire for the church is that it be a sort of “deposit” that will come “in full” in the future. This is a lofty claim to make, I recognize, one that puts a lot of pressure on the Church. Because if we are really to be a glimpse or foretaste of what is to come, than the world should be able to look at the church and catch a glimpse of God’s Kingdom. They should see a community that is defined by its love of one another, by its desire to do good, to observe and create beauty, to give itself away in selfless love, and to be living in constant gratitude for all that God has given to humankind.

This, to me, means much more than simply saying that the church is “not perfect, just forgiven” (as the bumper sticker goes). It means the Church is doing the hard work of obedience and devotion, allowing God to re-shape the lives of Christians so that the Church can really be a light to a dark world by living in such a way that people can get a glimpse of the love and purposes of God by watching the Church.

Is this the experience people have when they look at the Church today? Is this the experience people have when they look at your life? Or, my life? Rhetorical questions. There are certainly those who take away from this experience, be they chauvinistic, arrogant preachers who speak more hate and exclusion than love and inclusion, or Fox News talk show hosts who adamantly discourage the church from the kind of social action and pursuit of justice that was characteristic of Jesus’ ministry. But there are people out there who live this way, or are at least trying.

We are an instrument. This is the second element of Newbigin’s understanding of the Church’s identity. To flesh this out a bit: the Church is an (not the) instrument that God uses to bring about God’s reign of love. God is a craftsman forming a masterful creation; the Church is a tool used to bring this new creation into existence.

Though I recognize the feelings many have about Calvinist/Reformed theology, I’ve really appreciated the God-centered emphasis in this stream, as opposed to a theology that makes God out to be our servant, eager to meet our every need. This is God’s narrative, God’s stage, and we have been invited to play a part. As Christians, I think our prayers should generally sound less like “God, assist me in my purposes” and more like, “how can I assist you in your purposes?” (Though I think there is a place and a time for the former).

The Church is an instrument God uses to carry out God’s purposes (though not the only instrument…I think we get a bit exclusivist and narrow-minded when we assume only Christians can do the will of God). Do people outside the Church experience the will of God being done through us? Are we the kind of people through which God can reach the world with compassion, kindness, attentiveness, grace, and care? Do we put our efforts into readying ourselves to be used by God?

Or put more bluntly (and maybe too abrasively): are we useful? Do we have use to God? Are we the kind of people that God can use for good, or are we hardened or closed off or indifferent to such use? Maybe a question the Church can be asking itself is: are we, in our current state and practice, useful to God?

We are a sign. Much like a warning or an exit sign on the highway, indicating what lies ahead, I think Newbigin’s point is that God calls the Church to be a body of people that, in some sense, prepares people for a reality beyond death. God has made some incredible promises to the world through Jesus about what lies in store for the world at the end of all things. I think it is God’s hope that the Church directs people toward this eventual paradise by living now in a way that reflects what is to come.

To be clear: this doesn’t mean we should be detached from the concerns of the world; rather, I think it is a call to a radical kind of discipleship that takes seriously the pursuit of holiness and love. It is a call to action, to be an active rather than passive Church. God is letting the world know, in Jesus and those show seek to carry on his mission, that God’s love wins in the end, and has the power to transform lives now.

The next question seems to me to be one of practice: how do we do all these things? How do Christians, individually and corporately, live as a sign, instrument, foretaste of God’s reign, which is a future reality but a future reality that is breaking into the present?

Well…I think this is where the excitement of an active, dynamic church comes in—a church full of creative and compassionate people, filled with a burning desire both to put their gifts and strengths and passions to use for the good of others; a church that knows its cultural context well enough to be living out its mission in ways that are truly relevant and meaningful to those in the receiving culture.

Inherent in this sign-instrument-foretaste notion is an active, mission-minded church, a church responding to a call. Here is why our ideas and concepts mean so much. If we believe God has called us to be the kind of Church I’ve tried to describe here, than I think right action will follow. We’ll need help, for sure…from God, from one another. Ideas don’t always just automatically translate to action. But at least right ideas have a better chance of translating to right action than wrong ideas. And a church that doesn’t understand this kind of mission or call as central to its identity has a harder time encouraging its congregation to be active, ministry-minded people.

If Christians believe that we’re capable of creating heaven on earth without some supreme, miraculous act of God, we’re going to frustrate ourselves and others. But I think if we follow the advice of people like Glenn Beck and give up on being active at all and turn our thoughts toward our own personal salvation and eternal home, we misunderstand what God is doing in the world and what following Christ wholeheartedly really means.

I don’t really know yet what kind of language our church (Trinity Community Church) will use to articulate its purpose/vision/mission/etc. But I’m optimistic, based on my conversations with the other pastors, that the theology and identity behind what we do as a church will be one that recognizes that not only has God graciously welcomed us as loved ones, but has graciously invited us and empowered us to be a part of his “cosmic renovation project” that has begun long ago and continues in the lives of those who point to God’s reign in the way they orient and live out their lives.

I hope the church can accept its call with gratitude. The world needs a Church that cares about the right things and does more good than harm in the world, builds bridges rather than destroys, includes rather than excludes, loves rather than hates, unites rather than divides, heals rather than harms. And, more simply, and within my reach, I hope the church my friends and I are forming can be this kind of church.


Jeff Borden said...

Great "stab" brother. This reads (to me), well thought out and visionary. Thank you for the "articulation" of your thoughts and heart.

joann boswell said...


Matt Boswell said...

Wow Joann...so open to interpretation! :)

Unknown said...

Wow Matt. Impressive and thorough. Your last paragraph is what hit home. Throughout centuries, the church has attempted to have the right theology and vision... yet when we truly love our neighbors, the way Christ intended, is when the Kingdom is both here on Earth and in Heaven. Great wishes to you guys as you move forward in your vision.

Matt Boswell said...

Well said Beth. Theology about Jesus is not as important as acting like Jesus.