By Chaplain Mike
Note: When I originally ran this series on another blog, I introduced the “Mission” issue by telling the story “Who Is My Neighbor?” which was posted on IM January 20, 2010. You can read that post here.
ROSES AND LILIES CHRISTIANITY
This year, we held a series of Lenten services at our church. We read and discussed Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic book, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community. Written out of his experiences of living in intentional community in an underground seminary in Germany during WWII, Bonhoeffer teaches believers what it means to relate to one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. However, the book opens with an important reminder that is all too often forgotten by believers today…
It is not simply to be taken for granted that the Christian has the privilege of living among other Christians. Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. At the end all his disciples deserted him. On the Cross he was utterly alone, surrounded by evildoers and mockers. For this cause he had come, to bring peace to the enemies of God. So the Christian, too, belongs not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the thick of foes. There is his commission, his work. “The Kingdom is to be in the midst of your enemies. And he who will not suffer this does not want to be of the Kingdom of Christ; he wants to be among friends, to sit among roses and lilies, not with the bad people but the devout people. O you blasphemers and betrayers of Christ! If Christ had done what you are doing who would ever have been spared?” (Luther) (p. 1f)
The problem with much contemporary American evangelicalism is that it has created an alternate “kingdom,” one which is OF the world but not IN the world (the opposite of what Jesus intended). The freedom and prosperity we enjoy in this country has allowed us to withdraw from meaningful interaction with our neighbors in the context of real life situations so that we might spend time in “Christian” pursuits.
Churches are organized to satisfy this centripetal impulse. Life for many American Christians revolves around the “temple” and its program of activities for all ages and interests. It seems that the purpose of the church is to provide what Luther called a “roses and lilies” experience for people that protects them from the harsh realities of the world and the challenges of learning to relate authentically with those who don’t share our faith.
This pattern is “of the world” because it grows directly out of the American suburban ethos. Suburban living is about comfort, security, and prosperity. The modern evangelical movement has capitalized on these desires by providing superbly outfitted temples that cater to the consumerist cravings of their congregations. It provides “safe places” where parents can be assured that they and their children will never have to rub shoulders with pagans, never be disturbed by ideas or concepts that challenge their Sunday School faith, and never have to deal with the uncomfortable realities that live next door.
Nor have I even begun to speak about the Christian publishing industry, the Christian music business, the host of Christian enterprises that provide unlimited “edification” opportunities for believers so that they need never find themselves in an uncomfortable atmosphere of ungodliness.
A church newsletter from one of our local megachurches contained an article about their new sports program and their new multi-million dollar recreation facility, written by the elder in charge of this “ministry.” When asked why he had signed up to lead this “ministry,” he related a story about how one of his children had a bad experience with a soccer coach in a community youth league. Apparently this coach was always yelling at the kids. The elder decided he would head up the church soccer league so that no child in his program would ever have to have suffer such indignity. Imagine having to deal with that.
So… the answer in this situation, as we find so often in the evangelical approach, is to withdraw from the world and start something of our own that will be “safe” and promote a more godly way. Sure, we say we will invite the community and “win people for Christ,” and we do to a certain degree, but at the root lies a desire is for protection, safety, and non-involvement with a messy world of sinful people. As Luther said, we want “to be among friends, to sit among roses and lilies, not with the bad people, but the devout people.”
As we’ll see in the next post, this approach denies one entire aspect of the church’s identity. The church is called to live out its life in Christ in two contexts in this worldâ€”as the church gathered and as the church scattered. Unfortunately, we seem mostly to have retreated into fortresses of our own making, satisfied that we are fulfilling the Great Commission by lobbing gospel tracts and culture war diatribes over the walls, and occasionally inviting someone on the outside to come in and take a tour of the castle.
We are thus losing the ability to relate to our neighbors on the basis of a shared humanity in the context of real-life situations.
This is the missional issue in a nutshell.
LIFE BETWEEN SUNDAYS
My first glimpses of understanding about the missional nature of the church came when I was in seminary and pastoring a small church in suburban Chicago. I read two small books by Dr. Richard C. Halverson, called Between Sundays,
and How I Changed My Thinking About the Church.
Dr. Halverson has a simple practical ecclesiology, one which I think is still being missed by the church in America…
- The church exists in two basic forms: (1) the church gathered, and (2) the church scattered.
- The first we might call the Sunday church; the second, the church “between Sundays”.
- When the congregation gathers, it does so to do “church work”â€”the work that takes place among God’s people, and which also includes maintaining and supporting the institution. When the church scatters, it does so to do “the work of the church”â€”fulfilling God’s mission in Christ in the world.
- One primary purpose of the church’s gathering is to equip the church to fulfill its mission when scattered throughout the week in various places where the routines of everyday life occur.
Today, a few pertinent quotes from Dr. Halverson to flesh this out a bit…
The Christian life is elliptical; it revolves around two foci–one an invitation and the other a commission. The invitation is that of Jesus Christ, “Come unto me….” The commision, also from Jesus Christ, is “Go ye into all the world….” The healthy Christian life revolves around the coming and the going. (How I Changed…, p.21)
He further observes that this “coming and going” lifestyle must be balanced. There are those who are always “coming”â€”who build church-centered lives and devote most of their time and attention to being involved with the Christian community. Others, perhaps disillusioned with the institution, are always “going”â€”devoting their lives to doing good in their community but neglecting the edifying fellowship of other believers.
However, these complementary spheres of Christian living are meant to balance and support one another…
If one were to begin from scratch to build a theology of evangelism and mission on the basis of what he found in the New Testament epistles, he would probably be impressed with the paucity of material upon which to build….
…the weight of the exhortation and instruction in the epistles has to do with the relationship of believer with believer in the community, in the body of Christ. The implication can be clearly drawn that when these relationships are right, i.e., when the brothers and sisters love one another and when they are abiding in Christ, evangelism and mission will be the normal and healthy result of such relationships….
…Here one does not find the churches organizing to reach the world with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But what one does find is the Gospel being scattered widely and rapidly because the church is in such a healthy condition that this can happen. (How I Changed…, pp. 63-65)
The true work of the church happens when this kind of congregation scatters and each member engages the world of his neighbors daily in the context of real life situations…
It became apparent that the work of the church is not what is done for the institution, the organization, the establishment. The real work of the church is what is done between Sundays when the church is scattered all over the metropolitan area where it is locatedâ€”in homes, in schools, in offices, on construction jobs, in market places. This is the work of the church and it requires every single member. The responsibility of the pastor is to equip every member to do the work of the church wherever he is between Sundays. This radically alters the pastor’s way of thinking about his responsibility to the congregation. No longer do they represent men and women who are to be mobilized to do the work of his ministry; but on the contrary, they have a ministry wherever they are and God has called the pastor to equip them for their ministry….
One of the reasons the institutional church has become irrelevant to the extent that it has in our contemporary life is that many Christians have become so busy in church work they have not had time to do the work of the church….
The view persists that the serious Christian, the one truly committed, will be active in the life of the religious institution. If he loves Christ he ought to be doing “something for the church.” The program of the establishment is equated with service for Christ. As one does this he is “spiritual.” In everything else, except as he may sporadically talk to someone in an effort to win him to Christ or get him into the church, he is “secular.” The truth is, everything we do in the church organization, in the church building, in the church program ought to contribute to the church’s effectiveness when it is not involved in the building or the program or the organizationâ€”when it is out in the world.
…In other words, the measure of the effectiveness of a congregation is not what one sees when the congregation is gathered, not the size of the building, nor the size of the budget, nor the size of the congregation or the Sunday school. The real measure of the effectiveness of the congregation is what happens when the congregation is not in the sanctuary or the Sunday school or meeting officially as boards or committees or councils. The measure of the effectiveness of any local congregation when it is gathered, is the measure of what that congregation is doing when it is dispersed. (How I Changed…, pp. 71-77)
Halverson summarizes the missional focus of the church in this succinct, earthshaking statement:
Think of it this way. The program of our church is everything all the members are doing between Sundays. (How I Changed…, p.106, emphasis mine)
Why is this so earthshaking? Because it challenges the fundamental understandings and deeply ingrained practices of a vast majority of churches.
- Isn’t the church’s program what we announce in our bulletins, calendars, newsletters, and websites?
- Doesn’t the program of the church consist of what we do here in the church building?
- Isn’t our mission in the world contained in the outreach programs we organize and run?
My answer is “no.” Hear Halverson again: “The program of our church is everything all the members are doing between Sundays.” I think he is right. But this kind of thinking is rare, and betrays an institutionalized, programmatic approach that says more about our cultural commitments than it does about living out our Biblical calling to be Christ’s people in the world.
Being a Neighbor
There is a lot more talk these days among church leaders about churches being “missional.” I hope progress is being made. What I fear is that this will become a just another way to add more programs to the churchâ€”directed toward outreach, yesâ€”but with the same mentality that says if we don’t organize it, it ain’t real.
While there is nothing inherently wrong about organizing or running a program to help people, show them Christ’s love, and reach out to them with the Gospel, programs should be seen as the dessert of missional living, not the main meal.
What I long to see, in my own life, and in the church, is more real life, next-door neighbor, face-to-face, building of relationships and practicing grassroots Christianity in our communities. To paraphrase John the Baptist, may the church program decrease and may living with Christ among our neighbors increase.