Friday, October 9, 2009

"Church"? ...A Way Forward!

Part 1 of this discussion.
Part 2 of this discussion.

As we continue to discuss “church," many believe the organized structure we call “church” is lacking.  Often, it causes people to feel disenfranchised, floating, and maybe even an outcast.   Even people who love Jesus may struggle with the tension between being faithful to Jesus and being faithful to an organized “church” that constantly identifies itself as THE way the people of God commune.

Add to this the further complications of denominations and distinctions of various organizations.  Also, the drive to be relevant to a demographic, to market and brand, to be friendly to outsiders, to tailor to families, to hit the general audience of infotainment who are not habituated toward stimulating cultural conversation and intellectual stretching.  The mix becomes more complicated and the way forward less clear.

We cannot just wipe the slate clean and start over.  The 19th century proved that becomes a hotbed of cults and strange new “organizations,” usually creating more faction than unity.

However, we can step back and get a bigger picture, allow for the various expressions of the “church” and then give ourselves the freedom to be responsible for ourselves without decrying that some people don’t like “church.”  We have to be okay with their leaving the “church” is not a bad thing.  If denominations dwindle their influence and power, if fewer “churches” are being planted, we have to be okay with that not being a bad thing.  If our friends, family, or children do not want to be affiliated with “church,” we have to be okay with that not being a bad thing.

Where do we step back?  Some have spoken for the need to be Scriptural and not just cater to our frustrations.  Duly noted.  The way forward must coincide with God’s larger story as revealed through Scripture.  Some have spoken that we need to be relevant to today’s needs.  Also duly noted.  The Scripture gives plenty of space for cultural context, not requiring we all wear togas, eat kosher, and quote Plato before we can engage healthy spirituality.

So what is “church”?  I raise the question this way because unless we know what we are, we cannot proceed forward.  And I think this is part of the identity that has been lost, like the guy who wanted to start a company to make chocolate and got so involved in accounting and marketing he forgot his love for chocolate.

It is important when we look up the meaning of “church” in the Scripture, we don’t just see how Strong’s defines “ekklesia” in Greek.  We have to note how this word is used in different contexts.  For example, “church” cannot mean the building on the corner when mentioned in Matthew 18 as a place for discipline.  There was no “church” of that kind.  So we have to wonder at what Jesus is referring to and if the same meaning can be brought forward.  Or take Acts 7 when Stephen talks about the people of Israel at Sinai.  The KJV actually translates them as the “church” of Israel.  Other translations call it the “assembly” of Israel.  This also is not the building on the corner as we know it.

“Assembly” is the plain definition of “church.”  And, throughout the Scripture, it seems to refer to either a local gathering or the identity of a larger group of people.  You might say you have an assembly in Ephesus or an assembly on the earth.  The assembly of Ephesus is part of the assembly on earth.  When we say “church” it has these different meanings depending on where you stand, though they are tightly connected as a concept for people under the same banner.

Another thing to note about “ekklesia” in the New Testament is how it is used in the Greek Old Testament.  In the Old Testament it refers to the “Assembly of Israel.”  In fact, the Hebrew word behind “ekklesia” is the word “kahal” which is the “House or Commonwealth of Israel.” 

The important link for us to consider (and this is the part that many people refuse to entertain) is that the New Testament was written by Jews who wrote with Hebrew concepts behind their word choices.  So when they say “ekklesia,” they are thinking of the same way they use “ekklesia” as Jews.  They aren’t creating a new concept.  To the New Testament writers, “Ekklesia” is the “House of Israel.”  As one Jewish scholar notes, “There is no ‘church’ in the Scripture!”  He, of course, means no “church” as we  usually define it.  The identity of believers of the God of Israel are part of the House of Israel.  Read Romans 9-11 and see how Gentiles are grafted into the Jewish story.  If we really want to be organic and “big picture” we have to cast our identity in with Israel for there is no other identity for the people of God but through them and their Messiah, Jesus.

Okay, that’s big picture.  The “church” wasn’t invented 2000 years ago.  It was created and chosen by God.  Beginning with Abraham, the nations are being reconciled to God through Abraham’s people and all who will be part of that story.

That big picture, if we really sit in it, will affect everything else we think about theology, our identity, and our purpose.  The Catholic Church believed (and still does) that the Jews are replaced by Christians, hence all the Jewish temple imagery imported into cathedrals.  The Temple has been rebuilt, complete with sacrifice on the alter at every Mass.  The Reformers also carried this idea forward, believing they replaced the Jews.  Notice how many reformed theologians and preachers (some of whom are a household name for church-folk) will quote the Old Testament and replace “Israel” with their own view of “church” as inheritors of promise.  A variety of Protestant churches still call the front of their church the “alter” and have “alter calls” as the “mercy seat.”  This is all Temple talk as if something in our church and our gathering has replaced God’s real Temple and the Jewish people.

I do not believe the Gentile church has replaced the Jews.  I think we're part of them as younger siblings.  This is how we are very different from the Abrahamic faith of Islam which continues the replacement tradition, replacing the Jews, then the Christians.  Rather, the Christian story is the Jewish story.  It's one story.

If I had one guess why today’s “churches” are covered in criticism, it is because God is moving among us.  He’s gently pointing out that our idea of church has missed the larger picture of his work in the world.  Until we see Israel as the center people of the story, we will miss what is going on.  While this may raise just as many questions as it answers, we have to press forward.  The fragmentation of “church” as we know it, may not be a bad thing.

So what about that building on the corner?  This has been the larger puzzle for me.  I can’t say that I’m totally confident in my view on this yet.  I haven’t heard others talk about it, so that always leaves me cautious.  However, this won’t be the first time I’ve stumbled on some ideas and found out later that it was a clearer path.

The building on the corner we affectionately call “church” is actually a community center.  Just as my little town of Steamboat has a community center, so the “church” in Steamboat has a variety of community centers.  These centers have names like “Baptist,” “Methodist,” “Christian” in the titles.  But they are not the church.  The church is believers in the Messiah of Israel who are part of the House of Israel.

These believers create all sorts of community benefits: community centers (formerly called “churches”), hospitals, universities, shelters, pregnancy care clinics, non-profits, etc.  When believers want to create a building in which to meet, that is their choice.  The sad part is when people feel guilted into going to the community center every week to be part of “church.”

This is where I differ from many church critics.  I do not want us to abolish community centers (formerly called “churches”).  If people want to run them as a place to meet others, for non-believers to investigate biblical questions, for weddings and funerals, for therapy, then that is their prerogative.  I don’t see any Biblical reason why this should not be so.

Many may agree with this and find this a normal way to think about the building organization.  But I invite you to watch your language and see how you speak about the community center.  Do you call it the “Lord’s house?”  Do you call it the place of worship?  Do you speak of going to the center as “going to church”?  Are you frustrated when the numbers and down which triggers a feeling that fewer people love God today?  These are all evidence that we really have identified the church as the organization on the corner.

I find it interesting when Paul speaks of the church in Ephesus.  Think of the House of Israel in Ephesus, the gentiles included.  Think of the people assembling together, in homes, or however they gathered to worship and share.  While people together will organize, this does not mean people together automatically become an “organization” as we see it today.  This wasn’t an organization with large offerings for the local community centers.  This wasn’t an organization complete with pastors, elders, deacons in every gathering running the show.  Each assembly may well not have had their own elders, as each assembly may not be that large or may have people coming and going to different gatherings around the town.

This may be why many people feeling more connected through their coworkers are their work, through coffee shop conversations, through informal get-togethers with friends.  It may be that we are being a community by living in community.  The community center called “church” moves away from the center of our attention to the periphery.  Just like there is more to Steamboat than our community center, so most of our identity as God’s community needs to take place outside of any community center, indeed, even without one.

So where to the people God gifts with being pastor/teachers, elders, deacons, etc, fit in?  I’m still unsure if these are “offices” as we use the term today.  They may just be recognized gifted people just as the Jews saw their elders, teachers, and servants (the same titles of appointment are used for those who assisted Moses).  They assist the larger church, sitting at the gates with the other Jewish elders, likely going to differing gatherings and participating in a larger community.  I believe elders were over the whole city of people, not just over one street corner as we have it today.  Notice when Paul commissions the elders of Ephesus in Acts; he doesn’t commission them to their local gatherings but over the “church of God,” the House of Israel in the area. Imagine that being the case today, where elders weren’t limited to a board of directors in a community center, were not “professional” ministers, but were considered watchdogs against abuse and harmful ideas in the larger body. 

I can really see how positions of leadership in this kind of setting safeguards against the narcissism we see in many leaders today.  They would be recognized by the people rather than appointed by a few.  And if people didn’t see them as elders without the qualifications Paul lists in Timothy, then their authority would be unrecognized.  It would be the people of the House of Israel who would recognize them, not the institution that put them on payroll.

What about membership?  Membership means you’re part of the House of Israel.  You can make a membership at the community center, just like you can if you started a Christian Golf Club.  But the Scripture doesn’t speak of membership in those terms.  It is always being a “member” of the organic body of Israel with the Jewish Messiah as the Head.  Many members, one Body, with Jesus as the Head.

What about the disenfranchised people who struggle over leaving their community center and painfully believe they are leaving the “church”?  We pray for them.  We get involved in their lives.  We do not pretend the community center is what unites us.  We might even join them as they seek to implement the faith in fresh ways.  And we start taking responsibility for ourselves with a bigger picture of who we are as the people of God. 

Perhaps this could well answer Christian Smith’s call to adjust “church” for emerging adults, as he talked about in a recent interview.

"Lost in Translation" interview with Christian Smith,

Many churches are set up to cater to married couples with children. This is a well-known fact. And they may try to do something for teens and emerging adults. But trying to be more conscious and intentional about the language they use, the programs they offer, so those who are not married and don't have children are not sidelined—that's a start. But it probably will require more creative thinking about context—I don't even want to say programs—but ways to form communities and places where people can connect and work out common interests beyond the standard worship service and Sunday school.

I like his reference to "context."  Yes, on my view, we need to place our whole paradigm within a different context.

I could be way off.  I need to be convinced that I'm not.  If this larger vision is what God is up to, reminding his people that they are not disconnected from the House of Israel, preparing the world for Messiah’s return, are we willing to step away from our religious loyalty to the community center and consider the wilder following of the Spirit in the broader House of God?  Are we willing to gathering however the Spirit leads us in unity, engaging in spiritual growth, intelligent conversation, prayer, sharing, song, and teaching one another?
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