Suppose a leader wants to show others what “church” is all about. He might have some great ideas, facilitate some good things, and analyze those well over the short term. Still, “church” will seem incomplete at best. (Isn’t it always lacking?) I myself have wanted to show others what church is about, and I’ve not succeeded very much. Each of us is a product of his experiences; every vision is limited. Our values have, in part, been shaped by our respective personalities, emphases, and opinions.
About 15 years ago, I started drafting a charter for a new “church.” (Here, please substitute small group of believers for “church,” a word that typically implies more organization and institutionalism.) I revised that document from time to time, based on growing, changing emphases and understandings. The vision has never amounted to anything and probably never will, but I still dream. I still feel I know a few things church is not about, primarily: doctrine, buildings, opinions on assembly procedure, and clergy/hierarchy. But isn’t it more important for me to discern what church is? Should it be . . .
A shed for grace and love to be stored and brought out once in a while?
A set of programs that feel comfortable and/or purposeful?
A charging station for the electric-car needs of all who’ve been racing down the freeway?
Church certainly shouldn’t be an opportunity for isolationists to bury themselves deeper, but it has been thought of as a haven. Is that image sufficient?
I’m not so sure that any presumably advanced, contemporary manifestations and iterations of church are any better than your basic mainline Christian club. (Indulge me as I revert to considering more of what church is not.) Is it really that important if the latest, greatest speaker and the richest, most flavorful coffee and the most charismatic greeter and the best-organized parking lot ministry are combined for a great Sunday experience in YCCCoT?¹ First Methodist or Main St. Presbyterian or East End Christian Church might offer just as much nourishment, and I might find a beautifully devoted, exemplary disciple of Jesus Christ at Johnston St. Church of Christ or St. Paul Lutheran. Coffee bar or not, contemporary music or not, great programs or not . . . church is more about helping disciples on their way in living loyally to God, honoring him.
There is in some sense, after all, a call—and that call might be easy for some to answer initially, but it is anything but comfortable to continue a disciple’s walk over the long haul. An e-friend recently disseminated some provocative thoughts from respected writer John Stott. I pass them along here:
The Christian landscape is strewn with the wreckage of derelict, half-built towers—the ruins of those who began to build and were unable to finish. For thousands of people still ignore Christ’s warning and undertake to follow him without first pausing to reflect on the cost of doing so. The result is the great scandal of Christendom today, so-called “nominal Christianity.” In countries to which Christian civilization has spread, large numbers of people have covered themselves with a decent, but thin, veneer of Christianity. They have allowed themselves to become somewhat involved, enough to be respectable but not enough to be uncomfortable. Their religion is a great, soft cushion. It protects them from the hard unpleasantness of life, while changing its place and shape to suit their convenience. No wonder the cynics speak of hypocrites in the church and dismiss religion as escapism… The message of Jesus was very different. He never lowered his standards or modified his conditions to make his call more readily acceptable. He asked his first disciples, and he has asked every disciple since, to give him their thoughtful and total commitment. Nothing less than this will do. – John Stott (1921-2011), via Bob Lewis
Surely church is nothing if not a group of devoted disciples, living loyally to the Lord. And surely church is nothing if the disciples stay home.
Next: More Real Words—on the “Strategies” of some successful church planting activities (from David Watson, adapted and selected by Galen Currah, Roger Thoman, and me)
¹ Yuppie Christian Community Church of Today