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WHAT KIND OF CHURCH … AND SO WHAT? (Notes from Knaphill 12)

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Philip Yancy tells of a Christian man, who worked with street people in Chicago, who was approached by a prostitute in a desperate situation. She didn’t know he was a Christian … just that he was someone who might be able to help. She was sick, she was a drug addict, she was homeless, she had a two-year-old daughter she couldn’t even afford to buy food for. With tears running down her face she confessed that in her desperation she had even gone so far as to sell her little girl for sex to pay for drugs. The man was horrified but tried not to let it show. He asked if she had ever thought of going to church for help? The woman looked at him in sheer amazement: ‘Church!’ she said, ‘Why would I ever go there? They would just make me feel even worse than I already do!’

In my previous ‘blog’ (in this series) I explained that when Julia and I moved to Knaphill in 2015 our remit from the Deacons and Church Meeting was to help the church to find a new direction. They knew that they needed to change and believed that God had a new direction and purpose for them, but they were unsure as to what that direction and purpose was. We did not come with any pre-conceived ideas but simply with the intent to prayerfully explore the way forward together with the church leadership and congregation. We began by spending our first year in Knaphill exploring what many scholars believe to be the first, and most important, theological question: ‘What kind of God?’ and ‘So what?’ In that blog I outlined some of the conclusions we had come to as a church.

In our second year in Knaphill we moved on to prayerfully consider a second important question – a natural follow-up to the first question really – ‘What kind of church?’ and ‘So what?’ For me this is a key question, not least because there is so much confusion about exactly what the word ‘church’ means. Many today understand ‘church’ as a building but this is not the biblical understanding of the word. The word ‘church’ comes from the Greek word ekklesia which literally means ‘called-out ones’. The root meaning of ‘church’ is not a building, but a people. It is ironic that when you ask people (even some professing  Christians) where the local church is they usually point, or direct you, to a building, but when the Apostle Paul, for example, speaks of the ‘church’ he means ‘people’ not a building. Thus, in his Letter to the Romans, he refers to ‘the church that meets in [Priscilla and Aquila’s] house’ (Romans 16:5) – a clear reference to a group of people that may meet in a building but are clearly not the building itself.

Now the primary purpose of this blog is not to provide an ‘in depth’ biblical or theological study about the ‘Church’. Theologians helpfully wax eloquent about the ‘universal church’ and the ‘local church’, the ‘church triumphant’ and the ‘church militant’, and so on. If you are interested in following up on the various definitions of the ‘church’ you can find plenty of information on the internet. My purpose in this blog is to concentrate on the local church and share some ad hoc reflections on what kind of local church we need to be to both fulfil the purpose and plan God has for his church, and ‘scratch where people itch’ today.

Perhaps the first thing to say is to acknowledge that, like it or not, we are ‘stuck’ with the church!   An academic friend told me recently that he had read a very interesting (and some would say ‘controversial’) PhD dissertation, the thesis of which was along the lines that ‘in order to fulfil the missio dei we have to leave the church’. In essence, the writer was suggesting that ‘the church’ (as it is perceived, understood, and functions today) actually gets in the way of mission, evangelism, outreach, etc. rather than enhancing and enabling it. I am sure that such a view would elicit a great deal of sympathy from many church members, especially those of us in pastoral charge of a local church who have consistently struggled with the inability of churches to change and adapt. However, we cannot ‘junk’ the church because it is intrinsically attached to Jesus Christ himself.   We are told in various places in the New Testament that ‘Christ is … the head of the church, which is his body’ (Colossians 1:18) and we cannot separate the head from the body. Moreover Paul also tells us that ‘Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her’ (Ephesians 5:25). The solution to the problem of the ineptitude of the church therefore, is not to desert the church (like rats on a sinking ship) but to continue to prayerfully and wholeheartedly work for the renewal of the church.

I would suggest also that we need to recognise that some of our ‘well-worn’ traditional convictions about the church actually ‘don’t hold water’.  I recall somebody once saying to me (some years ago now): ‘If you discover your theology doesn’t work … change your theology!’ I have found that very helpful down through the years. One aspect of our inherent sinful nature (which, by the way, is not eradicated when we become Christians) is our tendency to pride and stubbornness. This particularly reveals itself in an unwillingness to accept change, especially the older, and more set in our ways, we get. As a theological student back in the 1960s I was invited to preach in a country chapel out ‘in the sticks’ somewhere or other (I cannot recall exactly where now). Before the Service I found myself left in the vestry with an older man (somewhere in his 80s) who proudly told me that he was a ‘Life Deacon’ and had been a Deacon in the same church for over 50 years. Seeking to make conversation I congratulated him on his length of service and commented that he ‘must have seen a lot of changes in the church during that length of time’. ‘Indeed I have,’ he replied, ‘and I opposed every single one of them!’  No doubt that particular Life Deacon has been ‘promoted to glory’ by now (I hope he likes it) but I suspect the attitude still prevails in many churches? As the Baptist ‘light bulb joke’ goes: ‘How many Baptists does it take to change a light bulb? Change! Change! Who said anything about change?’ The simple fact of the matter is that ‘constant change is here to stay’!

One major change that we need to implement immediately, I would suggest, is a conscious decision to move away from seeing the local church as some kind of ‘self-preservation society’ to seeing the local church as a ‘missional community’. As the late Archbishop William Temple once famously said: ‘The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.’ I want to say more about this in the next blog in this series – ‘What kind of mission? And ‘So What?’ – but for now I simply want to ‘flag up’ the vital need for us to change the way we ‘do church’.  Essentially this means that we need to look up and out rather than in and down. For this to happen there needs to be a sea-change in our corporate (as well as individual) thinking. I was recently in conversation with a church who run a successful Messy Church programme on a Saturday afternoon once a month. They regularly get around 30-40 non-church parents and children to this event. Instead of rejoicing and being encouraged by this, however, they were full of moans because none of these non-church families came to church on a Sunday morning. The church people could not get their heads round the fact that for these families Messy Church was their church. Instead of seeing the potential of ‘doing church’ differently, and trying other alternative ways to engage meaningfully with non-church people, they were still stuck in the mindset that to be a ‘proper Christian’ you must go to church on a Sunday morning at 10.30 a.m.

A natural corollary to this is that we need to recognise the existence of the phenomena of what some are calling ‘the gathering church’.  The twin concepts of ‘the gathered church’ and ‘the scattered church’ is not a new one to Baptist-Christians. The idea of the local church ‘gathering’ together for worship, teaching, prayer, and mutual encouragement and envisioning (my understanding of the primary purpose of the regular Baptist church ‘business’ meetings), in order to then fulfil the missio dei by being ‘scattered’ throughout the world to infiltrate and engage it with the gospel is not a new idea and remains a treasured one to Baptist-Christians in particular, especially given our commitment to ‘congregational government’ within the local church. Back in my youth (c.1960s) the concept of ‘the gathered church’ was very clear cut. ‘Belonging’ followed on from ‘believing’ and therefore an individual confessed Christ as Saviour and Lord, usually through ‘Believer’s Baptism’, and was then admitted to membership of the local church. We therefore knew (or thought we did) who was ‘in’ and we knew who was ‘out’?!   

In recent years, however, we have seen an interesting sea-change taking place in a number of churches (probably reflecting a growing recognition that we all have a ‘spiritual’ side to our nature, and that we are not just physical, mental, social and emotional creatures), where people are ‘joining’ churches in the hope of finding ‘something’ in the company of others who are on the same journey. Many times, new members of the congregation have said to me something like: ‘I am not sure about everything you people believe, and I don’t know what you are on about a lot of the time, but I like it here – there is something going on here I feel drawn to, and I need to know what it is?’  It is suggested that this is a major reason behind the success of such things as the Alpha Course, Messy Church, and so on – people wanting to explore the Christian Faith in the company of other ‘seekers’ like themselves in the hope of finding that ‘something’ they are looking for together? Instead of ‘belonging’ following on from ‘believing’ (as with ‘the gathered church’ model), ‘believing’ stems from first ‘belonging’ (hence, ‘the gathering church’ model). Perhaps this phenomenon offers another way of interpreting Karl Rahner’s (1904-84) ‘anonymous Christians’ view, i.e. that there are those ‘out there’ who, at this moment in time, are not yet Christians but who will in the future become Christians … they just don’t know it yet!?   The existence of the ‘gathering church’ means that, local churches, need to ‘buy into’ this phenomenon and create opportunities – such as running Alpha Courses, Messy Church, etc., etc. –  for these friends to make use of in their search, rather than try and ‘squeeze them into our traditional mould’.

This brings me to a final suggestion about changing the way we ‘do church’ which is that every local church needs to be an ‘inclusive church’ not an ‘exclusive church’.  This, I would suggest, is the problem with the way we have often interpreted or understood ‘the gathered church’ model in that it has tended to make us ‘exclusive’ rather than ‘inclusive’. We have made it difficult for people to join rather than easier, and often we have done so in a hard, harsh, legalistic, judgmental way?! Hopefully things are changing. Julia and I have made a concerted effort in recent years to get the various churches we have pastored to move away from the formal interview/report to the church meeting approach to a more ‘user-friendly’ approach which is deliberately more ‘relational’ than ‘institutional’, but we have often still suffered from the intervention of ‘barrack room’ lawyers who see the church constitution as more important than the Bible?! Don’t get me wrong, church constitutions are important because we do need ‘rails to run on’, but we need see the church constitution as ‘the servant of the church and not its master’! We do need to be discerning as to whom we allow into church membership, but our emphasis must be on seeking to be as inclusive as possible – welcoming, encouraging, enabling new converts to enter in to the fellowship of the church and grow in their discipleship in relationship with the rest of us.

Now, of course, from God’s viewpoint, the concept of ‘the gathered church’ – a ‘called out’ body of people – is absolutely valid. After all ‘the Lord knows those who are his’ (2 Timothy 2:15). From our point of view, however, it is a completely different matter. At best, we can only make an educated guess as to whether someone who professes to be a Christian is genuine. The truth of the matter was then (back in the 1960s), and is now most probably, that some who we think are ‘in’ are actually ‘out’, and some that we think are ‘out’ are actually ‘in’. I have known professing Christians, who have fulfilled all the outward requirements required for ‘church membership’ – profession of faith, baptism, regular attendance at worship, involvement in church activities etc. – but who had very little of the ‘Spirit of Christ’ about them, if truth be told. Conversely, I have known others who outwardly had fulfilled little of the requirements for ‘church membership’ but who were very ‘Christlike’ in their talk and behaviour. No wonder Abraham declined to pass judgment on the people of Sodom and Gomorrah recognising that only God, and God alone, had the ability to make such judgment calls – ‘Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?’ (Genesis 18:25).

With God there is always a way out, a way back, a way up, a way forward, and for several years now we have tried to instil into our various churches an understanding that it doesn’t matter too much what someone has done in the past (or even what they are doing in the present). It is not our business to change people – only God can do that – and that is more likely to happen when those people are in fellowship with a loving church, where the Word of God is faithfully taught, and where the Spirit of God is moving, than by us trying to put them right in a moralising, legalistic way! I think of one young couple who were ‘living together’ and who started attending church. No one tried to ‘put them right’ but simply made them welcome. They were trying to find their way to God and over the next few weeks and months we saw them slowly start to change – commitment to Jesus Christ, followed by conviction of sin, a determination to put their lives in order, marriage, baptism, church membership, and finally service overseas. This is just one story of many I could share to illustrate the principle I have just outlined.

I began this blog, sadly with a rather negative story about the local church, so let me end with a more positive one to show how a ‘good church’ can make a difference, sometimes immediately! Dorothy was a High School teacher whom I met whilst speaking at an Assembly at a local school a few years ago. In the Staff Room afterwards she was very sceptical about what I had had to say about ‘knowing God’, and particularly about the Church. She told me bluntly that all churches were out of date, boring, and ‘rubbish’. ‘Well … you have obviously never been to my church’ I replied. She looked quizzical, so I told her bluntly that she couldn’t condemn ‘all churches’ in the way she had without visiting them. Feeling ‘in the flow’ I challenged her to come to my church (by which I mean the church where I was the Pastor, not that the church belonged to me) for three Sundays running and, if she hadn’t been converted in that time, then she could justly criticise my church. I didn’t really expect her to come to church, if I am honest, but the following Sunday there she was sitting in the pews at the morning service. After the service she asked to see me and told me that I had got it completely wrong. Now it was my turn to look quizzical? ‘You said that it would take three Sundays for me to become a Christian but actually it has only taken one … will you please pray with me because I want to commit my life to Jesus Christ!’

Jim Binney

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