Why We Have Half A Church

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I have been doing some preparation this morning for speaking at the weekend and I came across something that frustrated and annoyed me, so I thought I should vent my frustration on you.

I have just read the very first Protestant definition of the Church it comes from the Lutheran Church …. “The Church is the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered.” Augsburg Confession

That definition has been hugely influential, later Reformers decided there were several marks of a “true Church

. The doctrine of the gospel taught and embraced;
. The ordinances (preaching, sacraments and prayer) administered;
. The purity of public worship.

Some of the Reformation Churches added that the administration of Church discipline was a further characteristic of the church. What you need to be aware of is that basically these are the kind of statements of faith which formed the basic understanding and practice of what it meant to be church among all Protestants after the Reformation.

I think, to use a technical theological term, these definitions of the church SUCK. My main beef with them is that they ignore half of what it means to be church.! This understanding of church produces an emasculated church.

If you think about what these definitions are actually saying, it becomes clear that what they do is reduce church to an event where things happen to people who are mainly passive. Church is where and when the vast majority of Christians are taught, receive the sacraments and if they are naughty they get punished. So church becomes an event, a place, where things happen to a group of people who are mostly passive. As far as I can see it, if you were to go by these definitions of the church the role of the average member of the Body of Christ is to sit, listen to the sermon, receive the sacraments and take their punishment on the chin if they are in the wrong. Despite all the talk of the “priesthood of all believers” in the Reformation at a practical level most Christians were still relegated to a passive role which has cynically been described as “turn up, shut up and pay up” My problem and frustration is that what it being described and proscribed with this understanding of the church is that all that is in view is the church “gathered” there is no mention of the church “sent.”

Now don’t get me wrong I think there is a place for the church gathered. I don’t believe in some sort of liquid church which never gathers. When we are gathered with Christ as the church, we should be hearing good biblical teaching and receiving the sacraments, these are indeed a “means of grace”, a source of spiritual formation. As the church we are transformed by these “means of grace” and yes church discipline cannot be ignored for a healthy church, that can also be a means of transformation.

However what has been the source of endless problems for the church since the Reformation is the fact that there is no mention of the “Church Sent.” As well as gathering with Christ in worship, we also with go with Christ into the world in mission. When we gather with Christ we are transformed by Him when go with Christ we are active as His agents of transformation.

So is this important? I mean for anyone apart from someone like me with a geeky interest in church history?

YOU BET IT IS because this way of thinking still shapes and forms how many, probably most, Christians still think and understand Church. Church when shaped by this way of thinking becomes about attendance and belonging to a congregation becomes reduced to turning up to an event in a building and utterly divorce from any meaningful understanding of participation in the Kingdom of God. This perspective on what it means to be church creates an inwardly focused church where the “members” believe, because they have been consciously and subconsciously , taught to believe, that church exists for them. I think if you asked the average church member why church existed the most common answers would be, to give them biblical teaching and to provide them with meaningful worship. Now when this is the ONLY or indeed main understanding of church the knock on effect is to create people who are consumers of Church ministries rather than contributors to the mission of the Kingdom of God. I believe you can trace all the “worship wars” etc that blight so many congregations back in large part to this understanding of what it means to be church. This is why when people go looking for a new church most often they talk about “what they got out of it`” or “what programmes the church provides” for them and their family. This why we hear so many people talking about leaving a particular church because they “weren’t being fed” spiritually.

It seems to me that in this respect, in the understanding of the church, the Reformation didn’t go far enough. We need a new ReFORMATION in our thinking about the church and in our being the church. We need to realise and then organise on the basis that church is both GATHERED and SENT. We are no more the church when we are gathered on Sunday for a worship service and we are no less the church when we are sent to our homes, workplaces, nieghbourhoods and cities on Monday.

I think Gerard Kelly is bang on in his book CHURCH ACTUALLY when he says

The church becomes a source of transformation and reformation in the culture because the people of God, themselves transformed and reformed through encounter with Christ, become carriers of a different seed, lights projecting a new colour.
In the gathered expression of church we are transformed
In its dispersed expression we transform
Drawn in, we are changed. Sent out, we change. Paul’s model avoids the creation of a self centred and self indulgent community because everything about the gathering is about the dispersal. The leadership gifts given to the church are given not to do God’s work in the world but to equip those who do.

Kelly is reminding us that when we focus on the “gathering” expression of church and negate “dispersed” dimension we subvert the real mission of the church and become incapable of making a significant impact on our surrounding culture.

I am thinking over what this reFORMATION of our understanding and experience of church will lok like. Here are a few changes I think will be inevitable

New emphasis on BEING church rather than GOING to church.

A destruction of the destructive distinction between CLERGY and LAITY, we are all called by God to a vocation, some in the church gathered, some in the church dispersed, neither is more important than the other.

A shift in understanding of mission from being about the CHURCH GROWTH to being about the KINGDOM GROWTH.

A move away from judging christian commitment and maturity from being about ATTENDING CHURCH EVENTS to being about EMBODYING KINGDOM VALUES

Finally I really hope it sees a move from people acting like they are CONSUMERS OF CHURCH SERVICES to CONTRIBUTORS TO THE CHURCH’S MISSION.

What about you do you see any further changes that should stem from this change in the way we see church?

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2 Responses to Why We Have Half A Church

  1. waynebradley says:

    While I understand your point, and agree in many ways, when one looks at what the Reformers and early churches that resulted and says that statements they wrote, “SUCK”–it comes across as arrogant. If the foundational is done–the gospel is preached with it full breadth of meaning–lives are transformed and people go out in sent ways. These early leaders were addressing the foundational which had been ignored for so long. One may say that they left much out, but I would not say that what they did ‘sucks’. That said, I agree with the ideas of the church being sent and going out and much of what you had to say.

  2. jamespetticrew says:

    Wayne in one sense I agree with you, the word “sucks” was used for effect, to provoke a bit of reaction. As I said the blog post was a vent of my personal frustration as a church leader at a way of thinking which has in my view held the church back and caused me some personal grief, so if you felt it was arrogant I can only apologise.

    However in another sense whether I used the word “sucks” or not I do have a major problem with the ecclesiology of the Reformers.

    firstly I think they were too connected to the cosy Christendom which had developed under the catholic / orthodox church. They embraced the idea that royalty/aristocracy had the right to have control in the church and whether consciously or subconsciously that caused them to develop an ecclesiology that was still under the control “upper classes” For the Reformers the Church was still very much part of the State which for me compromises its nature as an expression of the Kingdom of God. Luther for instance sided very clearly with the nobility in the peasants revolt. Calvin had someone he considered a heretic executed by the civil authorities. Henry VIII simply proclaimed himself supreme head of the church.

    I wonder what would have happened if the dominant ecclesiology of the Reformation had developed from the Anabaptist tradition instead of the Lutheran or Reformed? I suspect that the imprisonment of the church in events in buildings would have ended earlier as the Anabaptists were grappling with expressions of the Kingdom of God such as the Sermon on the Mount which would have inevitably led them to focus on the church as dispersed as well gathered. The Anabaptist emphasis on baptism on confession of faith I believe would also have led to a more missional ecclesiology developing earlier as it broke the Christendom link between being a good citizen and being a church member.

    I also wonder if the Reformation ever did “preach the Gospel in the full breadth of its meaning”? if cross cultural evangelism was completely missing from their understanding of the implications of the Gospel, and it was, were they really reflecting the NT Gospel which it seems to me was inherintely centrifugal and cross cultural? As far as I understand it Calvin believed that the “Great Commission” was completed by the Apostles.

    As someone who has pastored several traditional churches down the years and at times felt worn down by the sheer effort of trying to get christians to understand that the church exists for a purpose greater than their comfort and convenience I often look back and think that a great opportunity was missed during the reformation in terms of ecclesiology. For me it sucks we are still struggling with the issues caused by that missed opportunity.

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