What is “Church“? Who is Church for? The lost? The disciple? What are Sundays for?
Many pastors jump right to the Great Commission and define “Church” through the lens of a “heaven and hell” crisis. The church invariable gets defined by what it does or what it ought to be doing. But with God, identity precedes activity. Adam and Eve were made in God’s image before they were given a vocation. So, we need to ask what Church is…or more precisely, who Church is.
Before we can begin to properly wrestle with this question, we need to zoom out all the way out and ask who Jesus is. How we think about Jesus and the salvation He brings affects the way you think of Church and our mission.
To say it in theological language:
Our Christology shapes our Soteriology;
Our Soteriology shapes our Ecclesiology;
Our Ecclesiology shapes our Missiology.
Or in a series of questions:
Who is JESUS? (Christology)
What is SALVATION? (Soteriology)
Who is CHURCH? (Ecclesiology)
What is MISSION? (Missiology)
THIS IS HOW WE TEND TO THINK THROUGH THE LIST:
Jesus = my personal Lord and Savior
Salvation = forgiveness of sins and a ticket to heaven
Church = a collection of saved individuals who pass time in the meantime
Mission = optional extra credit
Jesus = my personal Lord and Savior
Salvation = an escape from Hell
Church = a lifeboat (functionally: God’s sales and marketing team)
Mission = a mandate to rescue lost souls
What results is an often frenetic pace of ministry, where the whole focus is on getting people to come to church or get saved. Songs and sermons are aimed at going “wide” on Sundays, while other “environments” are created for going “deep.”
But imagine if you ran your home this way: What if you were constantly telling your kids to keep the house clean because guests were coming over? What if you told them to eat on their own time or in the back room? Eventully, the house would cease to be a home; it would be a showroom. The children would stop being family and would become housemaids. This is, in fact, how so many staff members at many churches feel. Everything is geared for the “outsider.”
[The rebuttal is often, “But we do a mid-week service for believers…Sundays are for the unsaved or unchurched.” I hope to address this in the next post…but my short answer is, our practices are formative. What you do when you gather becomes what you are. This is perhaps most true of our most prominent gatherings: the weekend service. One might say, “What you do with the most people becomes who you most are.”]
THIS IS WHAT WE SEE IN THE BOOK OF ACTS:
Jesus = “Lord” (YHWH & Caesar– King of Creation & of the nations) and “Christ” (Promised Savior) Acts 2:36 (ESV) “ ‘Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.’ ”
It is not untrue to call Jesus our personal Lord and Savior– the Triune God is deeply personal. But the Lordship of Christ is not, as Leslie Newbigin reminded us, a private opinion but a public truth. The rulers of Rome wouldn’t have trembled if the Apostles preached Jesus as their personal Lord who was living in their heart. No– Herod and Caesar and all the other “powers” trembled because these Christians were announcing Jesus as the true Lord of the Cosmos. For them, the resurrection and ascension were not “Jesus going home” (as though He were ET!)…but Jesus being enthroned!
Salvation = God working within His world to redeem and restore all things Acts 3:21 (ESV) “…until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago.
By the same token, salvation is much more than the forgiveness of sins. It is the setting right of all that is broken in the world. At the heart of what is broken is the human; and he must be set right with God. So, it is not wrong to emphasize the forgiveness of sins. It’s just not the whole Story.
Church = the Kingdom community, formed by the Spirit, living now as it will be then. Acts 2:42 (ESV) “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”
Church becomes not a collection of saved individuals but a new community. The first priority of the eleven apostles in Acts 1 is to replace Judas. Why? Because 12 was a significant number– it signified the Church as the new Covenant People. The Church is a sign of the Kingdom– a people who live as if Jesus is King now, and whose very love for one another point to the Future that Christ is bringing.
Mission =to announce Christ as King here and now and to anticipate the Kingdom Acts 8:6-8 (ESV) “And the crowds with one accord paid attention to what was being said by Philip when they heard him and saw the signs that he did. 7 For unclean spirits, crying out with a loud voice, came out of many who had them, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. 8 So there was much joy in that city.”
We are not told to build the Kingdom. We are not called to expand it. Rather, Paul tells us to build for the Kingdom (1 Cor. 15), to do things here in Christ. So, we announce Christ as King– we preach the Gospel– and we live in anticipation of His Kingdom arriving in fullness. This idea of anticipation is how N. T. Wright frames works of justice and restoration done in Jesus’s name. We are beginning to live now as it will be then. In living this way, the Gospel is both seen and heard.
There are many more questions to be wrestled with regarding church, not least of which is how we ought to think about our gatherings. I hope to address that in the next post.
But for now, how does this broader framework change your understanding of Who Church is?