Friday, January 7, 2011

On what the church is, part 1

I almost titled this post, "On what the church is, and could be," but I'll go ahead and give away the punchline: the church is the body of Christ. It should work to be the body of Christ, whatever that looks like, and it should seek to be nothing else.

Of course, it is not quite so easy. There are two specific issues the church has got to deal with, if it is to truly be the body of Christ. The first issue is that the church needs to figure out what that means--being the body of Christ. The second issue is that the church need to figure out how to live in the world as the body of Christ without losing its essential character.

In this post, I'm going to be dealing with the second issue--that of how the church can live in the world as the body of Christ, and nothing else. In a few days, I'll take up the bigger issue--just what being the body of Christ means for the church--but in this first installment let's explore how the church lives out its call.

I have been thinking a lot about vision statements lately, and my provisional ministry group is supposed to talk next month about visioning: how a church does it, what the process looks like, etc. I am thinking about visioning in light of two different arguments I've been hearing about the process of visioning for a church.

The first argument goes something like this: the vision is everything. If it does not fit in the vision, it is not done. The church's vision, for reaching the lost or transforming the world or whatever it is, informs all that the church does. The pastor--and leaders of the church--must take great time to discern God's vision for the church, and painstakingly ensure that the vision is implemented. You can find the vision on the church's website, you will find it on signs in the church, you may even read it as a congregation. The vision is everything, and if the congregation is not moving towards that vision, then the church is being unfaithful to its calling.

The second argument is that a church having a vision fundamentally warps that which God has called us to be. A body does not have a vision--it simply is. Once you add a vision to a church family, it ceases to be a family and begins to be a purpose group.

I must admit that if I had to choose one stark reality or the other, I am on the side of vision. I find that writing things down is helpful--this practice helps us all get on the same page and keeps us from scheming. So much harm is done in the church because of folks scheming to bend things their way, and a stated vision helps focus us. If there is one thing I know about churchpeople, it is that we are not a very focused bunch.

I am also sympathetic, however, to the idea that the church is not only a group of people who do; it is a group of people who are. It is true: once we steer people towards a goal, and push them to work towards it, we necessarily lose some of the emphasis of being and begin to focus on doing.

I was reminded, in an interview I read from Bishop Willimon (hat tip), that Jesus's message to us is "follow me." As much as I worry about what happens when the church becomes a group of doers, Jesus's message is a "do" message just as much as it is a "be" message. Yes, Lord, I want to be a Christian in my heart, but I also want to follow Christ, which may be something else entirely.

Following Christ means that the church is called to live in the world with a message of redemption, but also with an agenda of action.

And this call to action, of course, has profound implications for the first question above--about what it means to be the body of Christ. There is a certain model for church (and, I'd say, a certain model for mainline church in the United States), and I have a deep and abiding love for it. But if God is doing a new thing, how can the church reevaluate and retool in light of its, well, vision of being the Body of Christ?

I look forward to exploring that issue next. I have some thoughts that are surprising me.

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