By David Kendall
What’s Wrong with These Pictures?
My wife, Lavone, and I were traveling on a two-lane highway through the countryside. We came up over one of the two bluffs that exist in western Kansas, and there came into view a lovely country church. It was picture-perfect, a model for those ideal country-church paintings you see from time to time. As we drove nearer, however, we were horrified to find it was not a church at all. At one time it had been, but now the sign outside read, “Antiques!” From a distance it looked picture-perfect. Up close it turned out to be a place where you could look at and buy old stuff (some would say junk) for a pretty penny.
Recently I was in Houston for a conference with a number of colleagues and friends. We stayed at a nice hotel downtown with a plush lobby, a thousand floors, and glass elevators to lift us to our rooms. After one session a friend and I walked to the elevator to return to our room. As we entered the elevator and the doors closed, we continued our stimulating conversation. Our fellowship deepened. What a great time it was. In fact, so great that several minutes of discussion passed before we realized no one had pushed a button! There we were in the glass elevator, closed to all but us, having a wonderful time together in the full view of Houston, but going absolutely nowhere. We were like some churches — warm, exclusive clubs going nowhere in full view of the world.
These two pictures — the church turned antique shop and the elevator going nowhere — illustrate the tragic lack of authentic church-being that litters the landscape, and signals a profound need for the grace that makes us truly the church. In truth, simply being the church will be one of our greatest challenges in the new century.
Defining Authentic Church-Being
We do not go to church; we are church.
“Church” is not a building, a program, a set of activities or even a movement. “Church-R-Us!” Not “us” as we are in ourselves, but “us” as the sought, wooed and won by God. Indeed “us” as the beloved of God, apprehended by grace that first accepts us as we are, but then begins to transform us: training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds. (Titus 2:12-14, NRSV)
If only we were the church on those biblical terms, a people of His — that is God’s — we would not become a movement. Instead, we would be gathered up into and swept along within the movement of God already begun with Abraham, fulfilled in the person of Jesus, and now empowered by the Spirit to stake redemptive claim on our part of the world.
We can be sure of this because of the organic character of authentic church-being (a term coined by Marva Dawn in “A Royal Waste of Time: The Splendor of Worshiping God and Being Church for the World”). When grace takes hold in our lives we become a certain kind of people — Paul lists some of the qualifiers: self-controlled, upright, godly, hopeful, free, pure and zealous for ministry. And He speaks in the plural, as He almost always does. When grace takes hold in our lives we become a community of those kind of people, who carry out a ministry and accomplish a mission in the world. Being the church — authentic people of God — flows out of grace working deeply and powerfully in our lives.
If that is true, we can’t escape the conclusion:
Where things are amiss, where churches are in decline, where there is little or no fruit, the problem is deeper and more serious than we often think. Such conditions usually signal a rejection of grace. That is, the grace of God has not been allowed to have the transforming impact God intends.
For when we let the grace of God accomplish all God desires to do, authentic church-being results. Sometimes I think the Lord would like to say, “Church, just be the church! For the kingdom’s sake, for your sake, for the world’s sake, just be the church!”
Illustrating Authentic Church-Being
At least three biblical images speak to today’s church with compelling contemporary power. Let me note them so that the imagery may challenge the churches we are now, to become the churches grace would make of us in the years ahead.
First, we (the church) are a refugee community. Paul says our citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20). Peter asserts that born-again folk are resident aliens and visiting strangers (1 Peter 1:1-2, 17; 2:11-12). And the book of Hebrews reminds us that this is not new for the people of God (11:8-11, 13). The point of this imagery is that God’s people are kingdom people, and the kingdom is not of this world. So we are not ultimately beholden to the supporting structures and sustaining powers of the present world order.
Our brothers and sisters in central Africa lost everything in the tribal wars of several years ago. Though herded into refugee camps, their top priority was to reaffirm themselves as church, as the community of God’s people. They lost everything. Ultimately, however, in terms of who they truly were and where they truly belonged, they lost nothing! They show us authentic church-being.
Dare we ask: how at home are we in this world? The question is not what we claim, but what our lifestyle actually reveals. If the stock market totally crashed and our economy lay in ruins, what then? If we were passed over for a promotion, how about that? If our sons and daughters left town to be missionaries halfway around the world, what would we do?
If the government revoked the tax deduction for charitable contributions, what would happen to our ministry budgets? If we were driven from our native soil, would we establish the church as one of the first orders of business? I think I hear the Lord of the church saying, “Church, just be the church!”
Second, we (the church) are the household or family of God. The imagery of household or temple suggests not only sanctuary, but also family room, or vital living quarters for the Spirit of God and the people He gathers as family (Ephesians 2:11-22; 1 Peter 2:4-10).
The eternal God does not dwell in houses made by human hands, as Stephen told the crowd waiting to stone him (Acts 7:48). No, God now inhabits the community of His people, who become His household. Clearly God is calling us to be family, so that through the reconciling work of Jesus and the transforming work of the Spirit we — in community — may provide a powerful remedy for the loneliness, brokenness and isolation so rampant in our world.
Church should be home for people who suffer physical, emotional and spiritual homelessness.
Therefore, we must in fact be family. We must recognize this family environment as a true mark of the church and seek the grace to be authentic in this way. A good test for us is to observe what happens when a member falls on hard times because of layoff, sickness, disability or some other difficulty. Family will be there for its own and will help, even to the point of sacrifice. An even better test is whether the church offers such care even to those not yet on the inside.
The current social climate almost guarantees that the ranks of the poor and needy will swell in the decades ahead of us. Therefore, the call to be family couldn’t be more timely. Dare we claim our full birthright as the family God calls us to be? I think I hear the Lord of the church saying, “Church, just be the church!”
Third, we (the church) are a holy priesthood. The Apostle Peter reminds us that coming to Jesus makes us a kingdom of priests, who offer spiritual sacrifices to God by declaring the saving deeds of Him who called us from darkness to light (1 Peter 2:4-9). Priests bring God to people and people to God. A priestly community reflects the presence and power of God so the world may discern God, who is alive and active.
Of course, we all want to be part of churches where that connection is made between God and people. But often we miss the vital, interdependent relationship between these three images of the church.
In order to be the holy priesthood who brings God to people and people to God, we must be the family of God’s love and grace that welcomes, heals, builds up, nourishes and empowers people for the kingdom. And in order for this to become the norm, we must be free — radically free — from the supporting structures and sustaining powers of this world.
Only the radical freedom of a refugee community that belongs to God leads to the household fellowship that will give credibility as we seek to make connection between a holy God and sinful people.
You see, God works organically. Grace would create among us a living community that is the authentic church of God’s design. I think I hear the Lord of the church saying, “Church, just be the church!”
Commending Authentic Church-Being
Where God’s grace is sought and received, things change. People change. We change! Not change for the sake of change, but change into the likeness of Jesus, individually and corporately, so that the work of Jesus can be done in and around the buildings we sometimes wrongly call church. For we, not our buildings, are the church — the living, growing, refugee, family, priestly people of God!
In some places God’s work is challenged by those who confuse church buildings, and what they have traditionally represented, with authentic church-being. Without exception, where congregations think they go to church — the building — and just do the things that churches always do, there will be low morale, membership loss, few if any new believers, few if any actually serving God and others outside “the building,” and more than a few conflicts. In such locations we find prime candidates for churches soon to be antique shops or elevators to nowhere.
I believe the Lord of the church is indeed urging us, “Church, just be the church!” Here are several counsels to encourage authentic church-being among us.
We must seek renewal in the earnest Christianity that first gave rise to the Free Methodist Church, and the Methodist movement before it. Only in such earnest, all-out seeking after God can we expect to receive the grace that makes us radically free, fervently loving and powerfully effective in bringing God to people. We must teach and preach and live by such grace.
We must carefully and intentionally steward the people in our church families who have a heart for God, whose faces light up and whose spirits lift when we talk about the things of God and making a difference in the world as people of God. They are the core folk who are most open to what God wants to do. They are the people God will use the most in coming months. We must steward them; that is, encourage them to stay strong for God, to deepen their relationships with Christ, to discern what their gifts are and to use them in every way possible. Let them be the nucleus of the new church God is raising up in our midst. As we steward those with a heart for God, they will awaken the spiritually sleeping and help lead the church in accomplishing its mission.
We must develop and deepen a sense of congregational mission in our churches. God has put each of us where we are for a purpose — to be church and welcome others into the family of those formed after the image of Christ. God was there before us and has been working all along. We need eyes to see what He is doing and what He desires to do.
Let the church wrestle with questions such as the following: What is the next step we must take to be in tune with what God is doing? Are we the people we need to be? Are we reaching new people? Are we, and the people we reach, becoming more like Jesus? Are we praying like Jesus, cultivating vital intimacy with God? Are we passionate for the lost and compassionate for the hurting? Are we people zealous for the splendor and holiness of God and for a life of goodness that shows forth His splendor? Are we embracing the whole world in missionary endeavor? Are we helping new churches to start? Just what in the world are we doing? How can we move in these directions? Lord, what must we do?
I cannot help but think that if official boards, leadership teams and ministry task forces in our churches asked such questions on their knees, the consequences would be incredible.
We must expect harassment and conflict, both externally and internally. Externally, the Enemy will not stand idly by while believers seriously and passionately seek to be church, to be whatever and do whatever our Head directs.
Internally, people in our pews who do little more than sit there will not appreciate the disruption that always comes when God moves and His people follow.
Please note, we must plan and strategize well — in Christlike ways. We must seek to communicate as best we can so that all in the church may understand. We must help people adopt congregational goals. I believe all of this will come if we have developed and deepened a sense of congregational mission and have invited the people to seek God in the ways I have suggested above.
However, there still will be some who do not desire what the church discerns as God’s leading. We should expect such opposition, stand lovingly against it, and move with God.
Authentic church-being is never easy and often hurts, but this is exactly what we expect as servants who are not greater than our Master, who was crucified. After all, the lion continues to prowl around seeking prey to devour.
We must expect benediction as well. The blessing of God will surely come when we are authentically the church, because the Lord of the church will be pleased!
If God works organically to make us the church of His desiring, then let us seek to be who and all God calls us to be as church, His people. Let us seek all the grace of God we can receive. Let us go all the way grace would take us. Let us accommodate everything grace wishes to do, whatever the consequences may be. Let us determine that God will have His way.
As we do, let us dare to hope that more and more people will stop “going to church” and will start “being church.”