The Church

the-church

What is the Church’s identity?

Who are Christians?

What is the Church all about?

Why is the Church important?

Maybe you have wondered what in the Sam Hill this church thing is all about, or what it is supposed to be about.  It could be that you have abandoned the notion of “church” altogether, opting for a more private spirituality free from the machinations of power people in a broken system.  Let’s face it: there just may likely be more unhealthy churches in America than healthy ones.  After all, in a chaotic topsy-turvy world, folks end up making church in whatever image they’d like.  It seems to me this points to a great need to recover a more historic and robust understanding of this practice of “church.”  So, let’s explore how church ought to be and seek to live into it’s distinct vision for believers in Jesus everywhere.

The Church’s identity:

            The Church is made up of people who have been reconciled to God through Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross and brought to new life in the Spirit.  This special relationship that followers of Jesus enjoy with their God is a covenantal relationship, and, so, the Church is a covenantal community.  That is, believers in Jesus are receiving the blessings first promised by God’s covenant relationship with Abraham in the Old Testament that all nations would be blessed by grace through faith.  God’s covenant with his people means that God has graciously committed himself to acting on their behalf through election, predestination, adoption, and redemption.  The new covenant community, the Church, receives the promises of God and exists to follow Jesus Christ in all things.  The Church is not a voluntary society, like every other human institution, but is the divinely called community of the redeemed whom God has joined together through his Spirit to Christ.  Therefore, an individual, theologically speaking, does not join a church; instead, God joins the Church to Jesus.

BeChurch

The Nicene Creed* describes the Church with four identifying marks:

  1. The Church is one. The unity of the Church comes from God’s covenant people being in fellowship with him through Jesus in the Spirit.  This unity is expressed through the bond of love and a common worship that includes the spiritually forming practices of preaching, liturgy, and sacraments.  Since believers serve a triune God of Father, Son, and Spirit who exists in unity, so Christians are to work toward maintaining their unity through the bond of peace.
  2. The Church is The Church is holy by virtue of Christ’s finished work.  Therefore, the members of the Church are saints, called by God to live in holiness and participate with him in carrying out his purposes on earth.  As God is holy, so believers are to be holy in all they do.  Since Christians are holy through God’s justification in Christ, so the Church as saints must uphold justice in the world.
  3. The Church is This means that God’s people are found in all parts of the world throughout all times in history, including every race, class, gender, and ethnicity.  Since the Church includes all kinds of people from different cultures, these believers must work together.  The Church, across all kinds of denominations, ought to minister together to the total life of all people through gospel proclamation and good works done in the Spirit.
  4. The Church is Apostolic means “to be sent.”  The Church is not only a people who are gathered for worship and teaching; they are also sent into the world as salt and light to those who remain in darkness.  Where the Church goes, the rule and reign of Jesus goes with them so that the gospel is spread to all nations.

The Church’s mission:

  1. The Church is called to love God. The Church is the temple of the Holy Spirit, and the house where God dwells.  The Church exists to glorify God and enjoy him forever.  Christians are to develop intimacy with Jesus through the Spirit.
  2. The Church is called to love one another. The Church is the Body of Christ and is to be a haven for saints.  The Church exists for community and is the place where believers are strengthened in faith through the proclamation of the Word in preaching and sacrament.
  3. The Church is called to love its neighbors. The Church is the people of God, being a hospital for sinners.  The Church exists to serve the kingdom of God so that God’s benevolent and gracious rule might extend to all creation.

These three dimensions define the Church as being a “missional” community of redeemed persons who are concerned and focused on making disciples of Jesus Christ.  That is, the forward direction of the Church is to come ever closer to Christ through faith, be strengthened in that faith together through the Word of God, confidently stepping into the world to engage it with the love and grace of God so that others may come to faith in Jesus Christ.

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The Church’s importance:

  1. The Church is a Trinitarian community, birthed as a free expression of God’s love through Word and Spirit. As people created in the image and likeness of God and redeemed for his purposes, believers reflect the image of the triune God.  The Church was important enough for Christ to die for.
  2. What the Church “does” flows from its identity as a redeemed community, being the people of God. So, then, the Church’s mission is not so much about establishing evangelistic programs so much as it is to listen to the Spirit of God and live in the power of the Spirit as it rubs shoulders with unbelievers.
  3. Just as the Father sent the Son, and the Son sent the Spirit, so the Church is sent into the world armed with the grace and love of God as if believers were ambassadors for Christ in a ministry of reconciliation.
  4. God has moved in a “downwardly mobile” way in order to bring reconciliation to all of creation. God has gathered the Church on earth to be sent as witnesses of Christ’s person and work through humility, meekness, and gentleness so that God’s mercy and peace might become realities in this world.

Therefore, the Church is to glorify the triune God by embracing its missional identity and mandate by making disciples of Jesus Christ through worship, community, and outreach.  The Church is to aim its love toward God, one another, and neighbor through Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit.

ibelieve

*The Nicene Creed

We believe in one God,

            the Father, the Almighty,

            maker of heaven and earth,

            of all that is, seen and unseen.

 

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,

            the only Son of God,

            eternally begotten of the Father,

            God from God, Light from Light,

            true God from true God,

            begotten, not made,

            of one being with the Father;

            through him all things were made.

            For us and for our salvation

                        he came down from heaven:

                        was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary,

                        and became truly human.

            For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;

                        he suffered death and was buried.

                        On the third day he rose again

                                    In accordance with the Scriptures;

                        he ascended into heaven

                                    and is seated at the right hand of the Father.

                        He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,

                                    and his kingdom will have no end.

 

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,

            who proceeds from the Father and the Son,

            who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified,

            who has spoken through the prophets.

            We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.

            We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.

            We look for the resurrection of the dead,

                        and the life of the world to come.  Amen.

Keep It Real

take up your cross

Keep it real.  The only true path to Christian discipleship is through being a real person.

You know the disingenuous type.  The dude who sits in the church pew looking like he’s never passed gas in his life.  The lady who can purse her lips so tight she looks like her head’s going to implode.  The poor kid who wants to break it down in the church aisle, but Mom and Dad are so into how it all looks that they shush him like a steamroller over marshmallows.

Then, there’s the pastor.  Sometimes he (it always seems to be a he, not a she) is either so stiff and bashes on every people group on the planet except his own that you wonder if the guy’s ever been seen in public without a chaperone, or he’s overly trying to be hip and cool to the point of looking like a hippo stuffed into skinny jeans.

C’mon, man, let’s just keep it real, okay!?

How about we drop the pretense, the preening, the posturing, the positioning, the pedigree-ing, and any other p-word we can come up with?  Let’s try on something else on for size: humility; vulnerability; authenticity; genuineness; and, being real.  That’s the cost of discipleship.

Let’s consider Jesus for a minute.  I just can’t bring myself to ever picture the Lord of the universe looking like any of the dubious aforementioned persons in the church.  But I certainly can envision him just the opposite of them all.

I’m not trying to make Jesus in my image.  I’m just attempting to gain a glimpse of the unfiltered Jesus, minus the weird white-European-I’m-stuffing-all-my-emotions-down-to-my-intestines Jesus.  The unvarnished Jesus we see in the New Testament Gospels is a God-Man who gets angry at injustice, cries with others over a death of a loved one, has unbounded words of grace for marginal people, heals those who know they need it, and has no problem knocking down proud Pharisees to size, instead of cuddling up and trying to make them happy.  The Lord I see is a complicated bundle of emotions, paradoxes, seeming contradictions, and eagle-eyed and laser-focused on doing his Father’s will.

I don’t know about you, but I want to be like Jesus, not anybody else.  I want to learn to love with abandon, teach like I mean it, be secure and confident in my own skin, and constantly commune with Father God.  I want to get rid of anything that gets in the way between me and doing God’s will, and to speak with authority without being a jerk about it.

Maybe you, like me, are concerned for all the “none’s” out there, that is, the persons who don’t affiliate themselves with any religion, much less Christianity.  I feel like I understand them.  In a way, I feel like I’m one of them.  I find myself having a zero tolerance for pretentious “Christians.”  The fact that I keep sensing the need to put adjectives in front of the word “Christian” tells me that something is terribly awry in the church – “real” Christians, “fake” Christians, “authentic” Christians, “Pharisaical” Christians, “grace-filled” Christians, “legalistic” Christians… on-and-on ad nauseum.  Sometimes I get fed-up with the adjectives and just want to start labeling myself a “fartknocker” Christian just to keep everybody on their toes.

If you’ve stuck with me this far, I’m finally going to get around to quoting some Scripture.  Jesus said:

“Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:24-25, NRSV)

“I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:61-62, NRSV)

“There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (Luke 18:22, NRSV)

“Those who serve me must follow me. My servants will be with me wherever I will be. If people serve me, the Father will honor them.” (John 12:26, GW)

And the Apostle Paul said:

“Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 11:1, NRSV)

“You imitated us and the Lord. In spite of a lot of suffering, you welcomed God’s word with the kind of joy that the Holy Spirit gives.” (1 Thessalonians 1:6, GW)

Christians are people who follow Jesus, period.  They live into the words and the ways of Christ.  Many of the “none’s” just can’t reconcile their experience of church and their observations of Christ, so they jettison the church while finding Jesus compelling.

But what if they found church compelling, as well?  What if, instead of seeing pursed lipped women, uptight men, and restricted kids they instead found a bunch of fartknockers just trying to discover Jesus and live for him?

Maybe I’m preaching to the choir, or perhaps I’m ruffling some peacock feathers.  It could be that I’m being too banal with sacred things, like some cornfed yokel.  But it might be that I’m not being hackneyed enough and need to go further into the ordinary.  Maybe we have come to the place of so much bromide religion that we are left with a vapid soul.  In short, we’ve lost our way.

Well, if that’s the case, Jesus is the only person who’s going to save us from our humdrum life and platitudinous pandering of kitschy Christianity (there I go with the adjectives again).  It’s likely high time we leave it all behind, get real with ourselves and follow him.  Wax figures sitting in pews can’t follow anybody – only real blood and guts people with actual insides can do that.

Lent is almost over.  If you haven’t gotten around to reading one of the Gospels, hurry-up!  Get to it!  Okay, I’ll throw you a bone: The Gospel of Mark is the shortest of the four.  For the compulsive overachievers out there, Luke is the Gospel for you.  Whether you need to get up earlier or stay up later at night, I encourage you to make it happen.  I’ve never known anyone who has read an entire Gospel in one or two sittings and not walked away profoundly changed in some way.

If you do it, come back and tell me what it was like to read a Gospel. I’m curious and wonder what you get from it.

And give it to me straight.  Keep it real.

The Church Playground

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At first glance, when you drive by any school at recess the whole thing looks like a bunch of random kids descending into chaos bordered by a fence to keep it all from spilling out into the streets.  But there’s much more going on than the quick peek tells you.  There are all kinds of petty little groups that make up the playground.  It kind of reminds me of church.

The Presbyterians head outside into recess and can’t believe the lack of order going on.  They try their darnedest to get some organized games happening, but the Baptists aren’t having it.  They’re too far separated from all the other kids to care about playing with any of them.  Besides, nobody is playing by the rules and if there’s one thing Baptists can’t stand is a lack of legalism.  The Pentecostals all seem completely oblivious to anything that’s going on.  They’re just having too much fun going as fast as they can on the merry-go-round to see that the Catholics are totally aghast at their lack of guilt feelings over hogging the equipment.

The little group of Episcopalians are lost in some funky inferiority complex and retreat into their liturgical games while the popular kids, the Non-denominational group, break out singing Chris Tomlin songs so loud that the Methodists go scrambling for their Book of Discipline to see what to do about it.  The Lutheran kids are so busy fighting each other about who is the true Lutheran that they can’t hear the non-denom kids anyway.  And the Reformed are those annoying kids who keep acting like the teacher instead of just enjoying being a kid on the playground.

There are two things about the church playground: the groups of kids don’t play very well together; and, the entire playground thinks it’s the only one in town.  They don’t realize there are other playgrounds with all kinds of other kids.

We live in a big world.  How we interact with that world is going to determine if the school gets shut down, with no more playground.  After all, what parent wants to send their kid to the school where nobody gets along with each other?

What’s more, how we interact with each other on the playground of Christianity says a lot about our view of God.  For far too many groups, God is the high and lofty Principal who’s only seen when something goes wrong, not realizing that he is really the encouraging teacher who’s daily in the classroom offering kind words and self-sacrifice that changes your life forever.

Instead of lamenting that Christendom has vanished from its grand position in society and that the moral fabric of our country is down the toilet along with the janitor’s cigarette butt, maybe we should stop giving the other kid a swirlie long enough to see that our bullying and belligerent ways are anything but the words and ways of Jesus to a world who needs spiritual care, not spiritual abuse.

I’d suggest we use our detention time to think about what we’ve done.

Logical Church Fallacies

logical church fallacies

It’s that time of year again.  Winter is nearing its end, the hope of Spring is just around the corner, and the logical church fallacies come out to play.

I learned a long time ago that reason and logic often get thrown under the bus when it comes to church folk and their thinking.  We all have this nasty tendency to make decisions far less on measured logic and a whole lot more from our stubbornness.  Churches typically aren’t known as places of being into dialogue and change, and sometimes they’ll do some mighty tall mental gymnastics to keep things the way they are.

Identifying some erroneous thinking is kind of like my annual Spring cleaning.  So here we go with some of my favorites I’ve heard in the past year….

The Strawman

The reason this logical fallacy is called “The Strawman” is because there are folks who chronically tend to misrepresent, exaggerate, oversimplify, or just downright fabricate another’s viewpoint.  They set up a scarecrow to keep the status quo and oppose alternative views.  If you’ve ever heard some parishioner say something like “the pastor hates the organ; he always has praise songs in the worship service” or “the Sunday School Superintendent is trying to turn us into stark-raving Pentecostals since she doesn’t use the denominational curriculum,” then you’ve got a Strawman running amok in the pews.

The Bandwagon

You likely know this one all too well.  Church folk seem particularly fond of the Bandwagon fallacy.  It’s an appeal to a perceived popularity that is designed to shut down any sort of substantive dialogue.  “Everyone hated that sermon.  Nobody liked what the preacher said,” is meant to tame that crazy firebrand from proclaiming the Word of God as he/she sees it.  If we were at our better moments, we would engage in conversation around the points offered.  Instead, the Bandwagon Committee is formed to make sure ears are properly tickled and fancied.

Tu quoque

This is a Latin term which literally means “and you also.”  This fallacy is so ubiquitous and done with such frequency that we might take it for granted.  It’s the old time-honored saw of an appeal to hypocrisy.  The tu quoque is meant to discredit the opposing argument by not even acknowledging it.  Perhaps you have seen this one splattered in social media and around the narthex after a church service: “Don’t even talk to me about how guns kill people and how the government isn’t doing anything about it when we have legalized abortion and babies are killed every day.”  Whatever you think about abortion (I happen to oppose it) is not the issue.  If guns and gun control is the issue being discussed, then that is the issue to be dealt with.  Bringing up another issue gets us nowhere.

Ad hominem

Since we’re on the Latin terms, let’s keep it going with a fallacy which isn’t going away any time soon.  “Ad hominem” means “to the person.”  Rather than attacking the argument and engaging the issue, this fallacy just attacks the person.  This is especially rife when it comes to anything to do with LGBTQ issues.  Individual rights, justice, and treating persons with civility and respect don’t get discussed.  Instead, the person using the ad hominem just paints all same-sex oriented persons as having illicit and/or immoral thoughts and behaviors, thereby shutting down any sort of helpful discussion about the proper treatment of a group of people.

Appeal to authority

I’ve got to admit, this one really irritates me.  If I hear one more person characterize myself or a group of other Christians as people who “don’t hold to the authority of Scripture” I think I’ll scream… then scream some more.  The problem here is a blanket statement.  No actual biblical arguments are offered, just the appeal to biblical authority.  If an issue is exegetically and hermeneutically possible, then it ought to be allowed a hearing in the arena of ideas.  Not even engaging an idea or entertaining an argument based on generic appeals to biblical authority have no teeth.  It’s fallacious, not to mention offensive.

No True Scotsman

I just like the way this one sounds.  “No true Scotsman” is a way of reinterpreting evidence to prevent any kind of rebuttal or further debate.  In other words, it’s changing the rules.  Recently, when I was discussing with a local church elder about that church’s denominational ruling on an issue, he simply said to me, “Well, that’s the denomination’s view and not the Bible’s view.”  It was meant to shut down any discussion and not consider an issue he didn’t like very well.  But even though he didn’t like it, he’s a part of a group of people who decided together to hold to some common policies and procedures.  The proper approach would be to engage the issue and work through proper channels to see his view through.  But he wasn’t willing to do that.

Another example (I had a lot of these in the past year) is the congregant who was convinced the world was going to end.  When the blood moon thing didn’t align like he thought it would a few years back, he just reinterpreted things to accommodate more apocalyptic stuff into his homebrewed theology.

False Dichotomy

A better term for this is probably the “black or white” fallacy.  This sets up an issue as being an either/or instead of a both/and.  It has the design to shepherd people into a certain position without considering any alternatives.  I recently heard a guy make the following statement in a church attempting a discussion about war: “Either you support our military and our country, or you don’t.”  This was a black or white implication.  For him, to oppose war is to oppose our flag and our men and women in uniform.  But there are a whole range of conversations to be had around the issue.  To boil them down in such stark black and white terms is a false dichotomy.

I could keep going.  It was a busy year for me dealing with so many logical fallacies.  But more to the point: You and I need to be mentally vigilant as to the kinds of things we think, and the notions we listen to from other people.  Sometimes we simply don’t stop and think through what we’re saying, or what we’re listening to.  My hope is that we will slow down, think through issues with some sound reason, consider all angles, the consequences of our thoughts, and take the posture of a learner and a grower.

 

Ephesians 4:7-16

 
 
            The Body of Christ without love as its skeletal structure would be as ridiculous and silly as a boneless chicken ranch.  “We must stop acting like children… Love should always make us tell the truth.  Then we will grow in every way and be more like Christ, the head of the body.  Christ holds it together and makes all of its parts work perfectly, as it grows and becomes strong because of love” (CEV).
 
            When Jesus ascended to heaven, ten days later the day of Pentecost occurred.  The Holy Spirit came upon the small band of believers and the church became a full-fledged phenomenon, growing and expanding.  The gracious gifts of the Spirit are given to each and every Christian in order to grow and strengthen the Body of Christ in love.  Each gifting might be different from person to person, but every one of them is meant to be used in love for the benefit of the entire church.
 
            The church will be weak and ineffective without any bones or skeleton.  It might look like a church, but will not be able to do anything in the world.  It is quite necessary that every single Christian in the church learn his/her spiritual gift and use it in love to build up the Body.  This is the only means of realizing a mature and functional church. 
 
What is your passion and desire for Christ’s church?  What issues stir you emotionally?  What group of people do you feel most attracted to reach?  What area of your church’s ministry would you most like to influence?  Are there people whom you notice that others seem to ignore?  Will you step out in faith and learn how God has wired you for ministry?  Will you speak and serve in Jesus’ name?
 

 

            Loving God, you have graced me with spiritual gifts for the sake of Jesus Christ.  Use me for the loving strengthening of the church, and for positive influence in the world.  Amen.

Revelation 3:14-22

            I am a pastor in the Reformed tradition.  That means I have a high view of God’s rule and reign over the world, his ability to deliver people from disobedience and hell, and his divine prerogative in judging the living and the dead.  In short, it’s all about God’s ability because apart from him I can do nothing.  Yet, having said that, this does not mean we lack responsibility before God, as if whatever is going to happen is going to happen and I’m just a passive player.
 
            Today’s New Testament lesson is Christ’s words to the ancient church in the city of Laodicea.  It seems the church folks in that city were less than zealous about their faith.  Maybe they thought God was going to do whatever God was going to do and felt no compunction to act.  Their attitude seemed like a “Meh, whatever” kind of response to the Christian life.  It was as though they wondered if what they did or didn’t do was really noticed, or really accomplished anything substantial.
 
            The Laodicean believers got noticed enough to warrant a letter to them from Jesus; I’d say someone was watching!  Please notice this interesting response of Jesus to them:  “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.  If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.”  Jesus does not break down any doors to accomplish his will; Christ does not impose himself.  Instead, our Lord is persistently knocking, waiting for us to respond and answer.  If there is anyone not noticing, it would be us, not Jesus.  He desires fellowship and interaction with us.  Jesus longs for us to respond to his overtures to meet with us.  Will you let him in today?
 

 

            Lord Jesus, forgive me for those times in which I thought you weren’t paying attention.  I hear you knocking, and I am answering the door.  Let us meet together and enjoy one another’s company.  Amen.

Why Does the Church Exist?

 

          Well, it ought to be obvious, right?  The church exists to meet my needs and expectations, and not to bore me to death.  Or maybe it exists to be the guardian of truth, and to never change anything, especially the worship style!  Rarely do we say this out loud, but often this is the bottom line of why we think the church exists.  Too often it comes down to personal preferences and homogeneous thinking, sort of like joining a good book club or a zumba class.
 
         

          Rather than being locked into such pragmatic concerns, a classic definition of the church that has existed for most of its history is that the church is the continuing presence of Jesus in the world, called and blessed by God to be a blessing to one another and to the world. The church is not a voluntary society of like-minded individuals that have come together for their own interests and happiness. Instead, the church is a group of people who have been called by God and joined to Christ with the Spirit’s direction and enabling.

Here are some important implications of this definition –

1. It is God who makes a person a member of the church, and not my individual choice.
2. People often leave a particular church because they see it as a voluntary society which is not meeting their interests and making them happy.
3. The church exists to further God’s glory and interests, not mine.
4. Jesus wants his church to continue his ministry and presence outside the church walls and programs.
5. The gospel is the good news of God’s hospitality (literally “love of strangers”) toward us.
6. The church is made up of called and redeemed people who are to be a community of hospitality, extending grace because we have first received it from Jesus.

The list could go on, but the point is that the church exists not for me, nor to promote itself. The church is to have an outward focus of extending forgiveness and reconciliation in the world. The questions to ask, then, are “how can we be a blessing to others?” and, “what does it mean to be the presence of Jesus?” Not, “what’s in it for me?” or “how can we get more people to give more money?” as if church were some sort of Scrabble game of personal point grabbing and no holds bar winning.

No, I’m not some crotchety spiritual curmudgeon who bemoans the lack of genuine involvement in church while totally oblivious to the needs of church members around me.  It’s just that the whole focus of church is not that I or any individual joins a church; rather, God joins me to his church.  The action is God’s.  And because it is all about God, it ceases to be about us.  When it is about Jesus, then the amazing grace of God surprisingly forgives and meets the deepest needs of our lives.  Church then becomes a place of incredible blessing as God himself shows up to offer authentic unity, real reconciliation, and spiritual cleansing.  And those are things that transcend time and immediate needs for entertainment.  Thanks be to God for his indescribable work!