Renovation of the Church I

“How can discipleship to Jesus—in a sense recognizable from the Bible, with the spiritual transformation it brings—be the mode of operation in a thriving North American congregation?”

Renovation of the Church p. 9

I believe this question, articulated by Dallas Willard, is the question for the western church in today’s North American culture. The forces of consumerism, affluence, entitlement, fear, and individualism have pushed and pulled the church so out of shape it is almost unrecognizable from its form, mission, and function in the past. How do we wade into this massive challenge in a way that we will be able to stand against the gravitational pull of outward success, pastoral/leadership ambition, and attractional/consumer based Christianity?

Willard suggests that the starting point is for the leaders in the church (including but, in my opinion, not limited to the pastor) to sever the root of ambition for personal or corporate success expressed in the cultural mantra of “having things my way.” We have raised up a generation of church going, cultural Christians that live by this mantra in their homes, careers, families and in their church. Until this root of pride, selfishness, individuality and personal preference is cut out and laid aside, there can be no progress in the spiritual life. However, once this root has been discovered and the process of putting off the old nature has begun, the journey of putting on Christ can begin.With this

With this realization and commitment in place, the community of faith can resume its true purpose and goal of making disciples that are mature in Christ. This goal will totally redefine 1. our understanding of success, 2. our purpose for coming together, 3. the way we view and utilize our resources, and 4. the way we organize ourselves and make decisions.

So, the primary decision for us to make at the outset of this journey is, “do we realize the primacy of being and making disciples of Jesus, and if we do, are we willing to walk the road to maturity together?”

There are no secrets or shortcuts to this process. Scripture and tradition are clear in the method, the costs, and the intended outcomes. History shows again and again that when a group of believers commits themselves to this process God is faithful, His Spirit is sufficient, and apprentices of Jesus are the results. Are we ready for this journey?

Apologetics

We often hear 1 Peter 3:15 quoted as a defense for, and stated expectation of, apologetics in our current context. I am writing this post today to ask all apologists everywhere to actually assume the posture and pursue the purpose described in 1 Peter 3 rather than using part of verse 15 to justify an aggressive, one-sided, debate-oriented model of what it means to witness to others.

In chapter 3, Peter is writing to the church to encourage them in their suffering and persecution. He encourages his hearers not to be afraid and to continue their good works. He goes on the exhort them to do this from the right foundation… that they have set apart Christ as Lord in their hearts. This is the primary motivation for their good deeds, and it keeps them from the fear of persecution or opposition. With Christ as Lord, they need not be afraid of rejection, oppression, anger, retaliation, or persecution. With Christ as Lord, they are to continue to follow His call, emulate His example and serve others in His name. If they are persecuted for these kinds of deeds, they are blessed. This is not to say that they are to pursue persecution and instigate oppression to acquire this “blessing.” It is merely to echo the New Testament assertion that if Jesus himself was persecuted for these acts, those who follow His way will also be persecuted.

From this place of encouragement and assurance, Peter then instructs the church to be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks for a reason for the hope they have. This is true apologetics. True apologetics is giving a reason for the good things we are doing, not defending our overly systematized doctrine. True apologetics is naming Christ as the source of our hope in desperate times, peace in conflict, joy in suffering, generosity in want, kindness in the face of anger, love for our enemies. This is worlds away from the argumentative proof-texting debates between Christians that we have called apologetics. This is worlds away from the superior posture we have assumed when initiating debates with other faith perspectives trying to prove our worldview as correct and theirs as uninformed.

But Peter continues… “do this with gentleness and respect.” This is the biggest oversight in our current culture of apologetics. When we hear our contemporary apologists speak or debate, they sound anything but gentle or respectful. Not only are they instigating debate rather than giving an answer for their hope and good deeds, they are instigating this debate in an aggressive and arrogant manner. They seem to be turning the old sports cliché on its head, “the best defense is a good offense.”

As an alternative to our current posture and practice of apologetics, I offer the ancient Christian apologetic known as The Epistle to Diognetus (c. 130) as an inspiration and pattern.

http://www.ccel.org/ccel/richardson/fathers.x.i.ii.html

*I suggest starting with the section subtitled “The Church in the World” (paragraphs 5&6)

defining “church”

What exactly is a church?

It seems to me that this would be an essential task for those of us that say we belong to, or work for, a group of people that gather in a place for the purpose of “church.” What we realize as soon as we begin to consider this question, however, is that the term “church” has become very ambiguous. It is one of those words we use assuming that everyone around us automatically knows what we mean, even though we may not be exactly sure what we mean. This collective uncertainty shows up very quickly as we consider a few questions that clarify the conversation further like:

  • How would you distinguish a church from a group of friends, a family, or a tribe?
  • What would an organization need to exhibit to be characterized as a church rather than a charitable organization, service club, or religious institution?
  • Is a church a specific kind of gathering, a specific location for that gathering, a person or group of people gathered for a specific purpose, or something altogether different?

At first glance, finding an authoritative description of this term should be very straight-forward. We should be able to open our Bibles to a specific chapter and verse that defines this entity in the same way we can define a Christian understanding of love (1 John 3:16), or faith (Heb. 11:1). If we can’t find a specific definition of church in a single location, we should be able to identify quite simply the essential tasks or functions of the church in a verse or two in the same way we can with the most essential commandments (Matt. 22:36-40) or the cost of being a disciple (Matt. 16:24). The frustrating truth of the matter is that I find no such objective definition in the text.

What we do have to guide us in this work are the descriptions of the churches in the NT. Using these seminal witnesses, we can glean the organizing principles and essential functions that these early followers of Jesus used to form their community expressions of the faith. Once we have harvested these “churchy” traits, we are left to the fundamental task of embodying these characteristics in a faithful, localized manner. We will get some of this incarnating work right, and we will get much of it wrong. We will need an epistle or two to correct the “embodiments” we are making… but the most important part of the conversation to this point is that church is not a static “thing” you can nail down and define. It is, rather, a living, adapting, incarnating lifeform.

From here, I think we are safe to assert the following essential components gleaned from the witness of the NT church.

  • the presence, energy, counsel, and conviction {both meanings intended here} of the H.S.
  • the intimate and unified community that forms around the organizing principle of living our lives as Jesus would if He were us, shaped by the Gospels and informed by Epistles {not the other way ‘round}
  • the passionate pursuit of the Kingdom of God
  • the embodiment and incarnation of the values of the Kingdom of God
  • the intentional commitment to teaching/learning, worship, service, and fellowship with the maturity of all its members as the expressed “end” of this work

At this point in my exploration, I am willing to say that if a group of people does not exhibit {at least} these 5 characteristics, they are not a church.

What are your “core components” of a church?