The immense value of the Church

I am enjoying a bit more time for reading, so this summer I am revisiting some recent gems I’ve read on ecclesiology. I walked through Simon Chan’s Liturgical Worship last week. This week it is Exploring Ecclesiology by Harper and Metzger. Chan is a Pentecostal while Harper and Metzger are evangelical. Their journey helps me frame my own journey.

In my own “tribe” we are poor on ecclesiology. The church has become something that caters to my needs. As I pastor, I am supposed to go find out what people outside the walls need in the way of a service (and services) to come darken the doors of my church building. If I, as a believer, don’t find a church that “meets my needs,” I am free to wonder on to the next one.

The church as a unit, a body, a family, just simply has escaped us as evangelicals. Maybe we like our church, meaning the one we try to get to on a Sunday, but often we have no idea what it means to love the Church, the Body of Christ. As a matter of fact, if we can somehow detach ourselves from it, and then make fun of it, all the better. The more angst driven we are about the Church, the better it plays on social media.

But we need the Body. Just as we need the Head, the Head needs the Body. You don’t get to worship a “head” sitting on a table.

So, as I work my way through Harper and Metzger’s book, I will probably put up some interesting quotes from them.

For today:

The church becomes the new family unit because it is God’s family unit, God’s household, and God dwells in its midst… Jesus shares his name with us and makes the church a dwelling place in which God dwells through his Spirit (1 Cor. 3:16).

Book Review — Exploring Ecclesiology

When Society for Pentecostal Studies was at North Central University earlier this year, I purchased Exploring Ecclesiology: An Evangelical and Ecumenical Introduction by Brad Harper and Robert Louis Metzger. Over the past couple of years I have been stirred to learn more on the subject of ecclesiology. This book has become a primer for me. After 20 plus years in the ministry, I am finally getting around to defining my theology of the church! It’s about time!

Harper and Metzger are evangelicals and approach this subject with that background in mind. Their critiques of the evangelical church ring true. They know the system. This is far more meaningful for me because I know these critiques to be true. It is different hearing it from an evangelical who knows the system than a Catholic theologian who may not know the system at all.

Harper and Metzger are evangelical, but their ecclesiology is incredibly powerful. While evangelical theology is individualistic, these authors fly against the grain. From the opening paragraphs they make this clear: The church is our mother. (Sounds downright Catholic.)

What is vital is the life of the Church. As believers, and especially evangelicals, we have divided up the gospel and made it individualistic and consumer driven. We need to gather once again around the foundations of baptism, the Eucharist, the Word, and the creeds. We need our faith pared down to the simplicity of this gospel. We need to thoroughly engage our world through the power of the Spirit. The Church is where we learn our uniqueness in Christ. And we ARE unique. We ARE different. We need not apologize for it.

I have blogged somewhat extensively on different thoughts from this insightful book. This is a book that needs to be digested thoroughly by every evangelical pastor in America. We need to shake off consumerism and our ghetto mentalities. It is time to worship the incredible Savior and engage this world through sacramental living. We are unique. Let’s live like it.

Christ and Culture — The Question We Fail to Ask

In their fine book, Exploring Ecclesiology, Harper and Metzger take up the question of Christ and culture in Chapter 13. They use H. Richard Niebuhr’s model of Christ and culture, Christ vs. culture, etc. They also use the model of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and how he stood up against Germany in a time when Germany nationalism was so incredibly strong.

Bonhoeffer’s original stance was to love mother Germany and do it as a Christian. To be Christian was to be German. That blew up on the fields of France in World War I. His older brother Karl was killed in battle and the young Bonhoeffer lost his cultural compass.

The question of being too nationalistic is one we struggle with in America. On the conservative evangelical side (where my roots are), we made fun of “liberals” getting too involved in government back in the 1960s. As “conservatives” we want “limited government.” So, what does “limited government” mean? Electing the “right” officials who will overturn Roe v. Wade and make legislative decisions that keep morality in the culture. (Sounds like limited government, right?)

But on the “right” and the “left” the Church in America has leaned too heavily on government action. We have missed out on identifying the Church’s witness in terms of the power of the cross. We place our confidence in the government doing the right thing. On the right, for example, it’s turning over Roe v. Wade. On the left, for example, it is passing universal healthcare. We need the government to act like the church.

Then, we find a Church searching to be “relevant” to our culture. We have “Relevant Church” or “Real Church” or “Real Life Church.” (Yep, before our “Real Life Church” came into town all you had was “Fake Life Church.” Good thing we are here now!)

Harper and Metzger make this interesting argument about relevance: The gospel creates its own relevance. Go figure.

We’re going around like salesmen for some gospel tonic and the Holy Spirit actually transforms people? Really? How come we didn’t get the memo on that one?

Instead of selling a product, we are to be witnesses to a Kingdom. We are participating in the life a new kingdom. A new reality. Our king is one who is abundant and we participate in that abundance.

So, while the question, “Is God relevant to our culture?” is being tossed around, we are afraid of the larger question.

“Are the church and surrounding cultures relevant to the Triune God, who indwells, interrupts, and invites the society at large to participate in the church as the eschatalogical kingdom culture here and now?”

We’re asking, “Is God relevant to the culture?”

We should ask, “Are we being relevant to the Triune God?”

We are to be shaped by the power of the Spirit. We are not to shape God into the influence of our culture.

Tough question. No wonder we don’t ask it. We’d have to actually change. Who needs that?

Therapy Over Theology

The Church in America has moved from teaching what is true to teaching what works. Personal growth and satisfaction take precedence over truth.

“The ultimate consequence of Christianity centered on personal issues and self-improvement is that theology becomes therapy, the search for righteousness is replaced by the search for happiness, holiness by wholeness, and truth by feeling, and God’s sovereignty is diminished to whatever it takes to have a good day.” (Harper and Metzger, Exploring Ecclesiology: An Evangelical and Ecumenical Introduction.)

Sacramental Witness — Part Two

Part One

Harper and Metzger call the church in North America a “little flock.” It is convicting to read those words. We think the Church is huge. Maybe it is not.

Their words are sharp. It is almost like reading one of the letters to the seven churches in Revelation. We need to hear this message.

In the past generation we, as the Church, have been ghettoized. The principalities and powers of our culture have made sure the Church stays divided up. The key is to get people excited about causes… just not the same cause. More importantly, do not get them excited about the sacramental witness that is key to worship.

So, the Republicans took up the cause of “pro-life” and “pro-family.” They ghettoized the conservative evangelicals. The evangelicals were promised the moon if they would vote for their guy.

The Democrats took up the cause of the poor and the planet. They ghettoized the “liberal” mainline churches.

It was vitally important to pick only one or two causes because if you pick too many, you lose people. Focus. Then, blast away at anyone who just doesn’t see it your way.

And through all of this we’ve lost our passionate love for Christ. We have turned our eyes from the throne, we have abandoned the story, and left the Table. We have taken up political causes because the attention is nice. For conservatives, it was nice to be invited to pray at national conventions. Then, mainline and some evangelical leaders were called on to pray at the Democrat events. It’s heady stuff.

So, “conservatives” and “liberals” have blasted away at each other, using straw men like Rush Limbaugh or Keith Olbermann. But as we rail against those straw men, we dig trenches around our encampments as believers and refuse to sit down at the Table together. We will have the occasional “ecumenical” service, but that’s about it. Even then, there is the temptation to through in our little jabs and shroud them in Scripture.

What would happen if the Church decided to come together again? What if we gathered around the significance of baptism and the Eucharist once again?

Well… we’d lose power. The principalities and power handlers would not be happy. Tax deductions would go away. Our giving would potentially dry up because we don’t have that tax shelter anymore. (God forbid we would give because it’s WORSHIP.) We wouldn’t get invited on TV… the attention would go away.

We would then have to turn back to Christ and gaze on HIS beauty. We would have to focus on the commonality found in our spiritual community as believers. While the principalities and powers would consign us to the curb… or worse.

So… we will stay in our ghettos because having national attention is whole lot more fun than suffering. Who has time for that?

Sacramental Witness

I am currently working my way through Exploring Ecclesiology: An Evangelical and Ecumenical Introduction, by Brad Harper and Paul Louis Metzger. It is a look by evangelical scholars into the issue of the church having far more meaning than we have given it, as evangelicals, in the few decades.

The most recent chapter on “The Church as a Sacramental Community” is kicking my tail. While I am reaching these same conclusions in my own life, theology and ministry, it doesn’t make it comfortable.

Without a lot of detail offered in this post, the authors  relate the church to Israel. We have demonstrated “rites” that we need to undergo as a community. Not just individually. As community. (It’s already kicking some of your tails, I would suppose.) The need for those passage is necessary to tell our story, just as Israel used the feasts to tell their story. Our rites are baptism and the eucharist. They represent our entering the life of Christ. It is a life of suffering. We enter in and await the coming of the Lord, and during that waiting is our time in the equivalent of Egypt-Babylon-Rome. But this is the incredible importance of baptism and the eucharist. In the eucharist we are to understand that Christ is with us in this suffering. We are not alone. No other god does this.

When we practice liturgy together, we rehearse the story. It is an important story. If we fail to understand the power of the story, we continue on with our individualistic religion. We will be divided as the Church in America. We will still be under the control of principalities and powers that want us divided and in our spiritualized ghettos.

This book is important. We need our spiritual tails kicked on this issue. We have allowed the political winds and the market-driven winds of our culture divide us up. We are carved into “liberal” and “conservative” Christian camps. We argue over what divides and fail to come together over what truly unites. And as long as we do that, the principalities and powers of our culture are just fine. They are happy.

There is much more to say on this subject. I will be posting my letters to my “liberal” friends and my “conservative” friends in future posts because I don’t want any one post getting too long.

One story, though. The city where I pastor enjoys a great fellowship of pastors. We meet once a month for lunch during the school year. A few years ago we struggled to meet because we had discussion come up that basically led us to discuss what divides us as denominations. No one wanted that conversation. Even me.

Finally, one very wise pastor came up with some things that we could do as churches that would unite us in Christ. What could we do together in the name of Jesus. It was a brilliant stroke. We met as friends. We committed our resources to common causes.

We also disagree. I remember a very tough conversation with a very good friend over a theological issue we would not agree on. But our commitment was to remain friends. Our friendship is only more solid. We come together in Christ.

We also disagree on politics. A lot. But it is not our focal point of conversation. And as a result, we have a deep abiding friendship because of Christ dwelling with us.

Let us come out of the ghettos forced on us by political power. Let’s “dry out” from our binge drinking at the political power table. Being able to speak at a party convention or say a prayer for a party convention or giving a national address on behalf of a political party is intoxicating. And we need to get sober. It’ll cost. But in it, we may just find Christ.