What Is the Church?

I had the privilege today to be part of a panel of pastors speaking with the students at Auxano, a discipleship training and service program run out of Camp Imadene. Our role, as a guest panel, was to talk about our understanding of the purpose of the church, and to dialogue with the students about how they understood themselves to be part of the church, both now and as future leaders in the church. The discussion was stimulating and thoughtful, and I found myself richly blessed by the emphases and ideas of the other pastors.

One of the frustrating elements of such a discussion time is that it generally flies by all too quickly, when there is so much more that could be said. Yet the experience encouraged me on so many levels. First, it was such a delight to meet this group of young people who were committed to their faith in Christ and who desire to be, not just casual participants but active leaders, in the church as it continues to re-discover itself in this post-Christendom and increasingly secular age. Declining attendance at worship and the aging of much of the Church often sparks collective hand-wringing and bemoaning about the death of the church. While old forms of church may be passing, I witnessed Christ’s Church very much alive, vibrant and faithful in these young adults.

Secondly, it was a joy to be part of a panel of pastors from a variety of denominational backgrounds and traditions, all of whom had a profound love for Christ’s church, regardless of her “warts and wrinkles.” And while we might represent different theological elements within the broad sweep of the Christian church, we shared one heart and passion for the essentials: the Lordship of Jesus, the centrality of the Cross, the work of the Spirit, the call of Christ upon his people to incarnate Jesus on a daily basis in their ordinary lives, and the primary gift of being a people who “glorify and enjoy” our God. While liturgical styles may differ and our theological quirks and distinctive may stimulate respectful debate, there was an essential unity in wanting to honour our Saviour in all that we are and do, and to let the transforming grace and beauty of Jesus be seen in the quality of our relationships with the world around us but especially in community.

Indeed, this aspect of authentically and humbly living out the freedom, power and grace of the gospel within community became the topic around which most of our conversation flowed. Of concern to the pastors and students alike was that the biggest challenge for the church today was that we be seen to be a people who truly love one another with an intentionality, integrity and loveliness unlike anything else the world may witness. The pressing challenge is not a matter of what we declare to the world, nor the correctness of our doctrine. Rather, what the world longs to see in the Church is changed lives and changed relationships. The greatest witness the world is waiting to see about the power, relevancy and worth of the Christian faith is in how we live and interrelate as a people who have been healed and transformed by the grace of Christ, and live with a gentleness, vulnerability, honesty and servant heart that reflects who Jesus is and what he has done in and for us. Or to put it a different way, the watching world will be far less moved by what we say Jesus can do in a person’s life than by what it is obvious that Jesus has done both in our individual lives but much more so in our corporate life and relationships.

The expression of awe about those who professed faith in Christ in the first centuries of the church was “See those Christians – how they love one another!” Too often, the watching world today would only say: “See those Christians – who they squabble with one another!”disagreement

More and more, my longing and prayer for the Church, and for our congregation, is less the speaking out of the gospel (as important as that is) and more the living out of the gospel. There are no end of ways in which that can happen, but here are some of the most essential forms.

The first is to be a people who simply can never get over the wonder of what Christ has done for us, and that God has chosen to lavish his love upon, of all people, us! Living out the gospel is first and always a matter of rejoicing in the Lord who gave himself for us, and in rejoicing simply, humbly and lovingly in him.

The second is to be a people who are far more intent on letting God change them than they are in telling God how he should change other people. A people who are living out the gospel never forget that, as Paul put it, they are the chief of sinners, but praise be to God, the Lord is not finished with us yet. I’m not counseling a pathetic self-absorption, but as Christians we are always on a journey of discovering and receiving more and more of Christ’s healing, grace and Spirit. I cringe when I hear people talking about being “mature” Christians – we are all of us mere kindergarteners in the school of becoming like Jesus. Indeed, it is only as we continually discover what it is to be a deeply loved people that we will be able to love deeply; only as we learn what it is to be a forgiven people that we can become a forgiving people; and only as we surrender to the transforming and healing mercies of God that we will be able to embrace one another and this sad old world with the powerful saving presence of Jesus.

One-AnotheringThirdly, living out the gospel means striving to fulfill the “one-anothering” commands which we find in Paul’s letters (i.e., honor, forgive, respect, encourage, exhort, serve, forbear, love one another). Jesus took the form of the servant, the lowest of the low, and washed the feet of his disciples, yet too often that sacrificial, self-forgetting, grace-filled servant-heartedness is so terribly absent from the church. Mother Teresa of Calcutta was known for the ability of seeing Jesus in the weak, the forgotten, the addict, the prostitute and all the other invisible people to whom she ministered with tenderness, respect and grace, serving them “as unto the Lord.” What miracles might abound within our churches, within the Church, if we choose to see Jesus in one another, and acted accordingly?

Finally, I think of an old piece of wisdom given to pastors that says a congregation “does not care how much you know until they know how much you care.” In a similar way, if the world doesn’t seem to care much about what the Church says today, it just may be because the world, which God so loved and for which Christ died, has not seen much compelling evidence of how much it is cared for by us. As I give the benediction Sunday by Sunday, I often remind our folk that “the world is waiting.” Waiting to see heaven’s love, in us. Waiting to experience the Lord’s mercy, through us. Waiting to taste the mercy and goodness of God, from us. Waiting to know the healing and forgiving grace of Jesus, because of us.

The world is waiting to know that the gospel is true and that heaven’s love is present and powerful, and to see that reality in and through the church. Thus the prayer: Revive us again, O Lord, that the world may be won for you.”


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