What’s Church For? Church as Body

So far we’ve been on a very brief and highly selective and impressionistic trip down the last few decades to look at how the church (or at least my bit of it) has changed and developed. Now it’s time to get more biblical, as we look at how the church is described within the NT (mainly). It’s worth noting that there are many different terms used of the gathering of those who are followers of Jesus, and that the Bible contains some which are clear descriptions, and others which are more vague allusions or pictures. So let’s begin with perhaps the clearest – the Church as the Body of Christ. What are the strengths and weaknesses of a church community which thinks of itself in these terms?

 

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The first thing to say is that it is one of the most biblical pictures. In 1 Cor 12, the key passage, Paul states clearly that ‘you are the body of Christ’ (v 27). You can’t get clearer than that! He uses the same language in Rom 12:4-5, and, if you believe he also wrote Ephesians and Colossians, a couple of times there. The idea is that all of us who are in Christ, the head of the body, are bits with different roles to play. As I’ve already mentioned the church rediscovered this notion along with charismatic renewal in the mid-70s, and it really was a liberation from centuries of clericalism and priestly domination. Along with the mood of the times it encouraged people to find their niche and grow to their full potential, and it released into the church an army (see later!) of lay ministries without which we might never have survived. It is an organic model, rather than a mechanistic one (although the NT has those as well), and it emphasises the importance of all, not just a few.

However, as we will see with all the different models, it is not without its problems. Indeed Paul anticipated some of them and addressed them head on in 1 Cor 12. Basically there are two issues: ‘I’m more important than you!’ and ‘You’re more important than me!’ The fact is that as in any area of life some jobs or roles feel more important than others. However much you big up the deputy washer of the church tea-towels, the worship-leader or preacher seems to be far more important. Paul addresses this too, illustrating his words with some different bits of the human body, some of which, vital though they may be, are usually less visible! To cultivate a culture where everyone is equally valued is nevertheless not an easy thing to do, and this may be where some other models become more helpful.

The other great weakness of the ‘body’ model, though, is that it tells us little about what the body is there to do. Churches which major on this model in their self-identification may find that it doesn’t help them to be purposeful, and whilst it does have a growth imperative, that growth is only in the direction of personal and corporate maturity, and not necessarily in size. A human body which started growing new members, an extra leg or two or a few more fingers, would be a grotesque thing indeed. It does not take seriously the Lord who adds to our number: it seems to be merely about how to make a self-sufficient closed system work better.

That’s why we need all the different biblical models, and not just one. Next week – Church as Qahal and Ekklesia (bet you can’t wait!)

 

What’s Church for? Widescreen Church

Following the dashed hopes of revival something radical changed in our understanding of church during the noughties, with the advent of what I call the ’16-9′ gospel. But in order to understand it, we’ll need to go backwards a bit. One of the biggest points of contention during my teenage years was the ‘Evangelism vs Social Action’ debate. In other words, is it the job of the church to win people to personal faith in Jesus, or should we be out feeding the hungry, clothing the poor etc? Whilst in theory we kind of knew that we ought really to be doing both, in real life Christians polarised to one extreme or the other. We’re not here to be social workers, one lot said, while the other lot replied that we couldn’t possibly expect people to hear the gospel while they were starving. It was suggested that we should do social action things in order to do evangelism, which was after all the real task, which Jesus himself did, but then Jesus actually did feed the hungry and heal the sick too. So the debate went on, and where you found yourself was, of course, highly dependent on which kind of a church you had been nurtured in.

Along with many others in the church, I came to realise that the gospel I had been brought up with, and had sought to communicate to others, was a gospel which began with personal sin and ended with personal salvation. I was a sinner, Jesus came a died on the cross for me, so if I wanted to I could have his forgiveness and a new start. And of course we had the right Bible verses, in the right order, to back this up: Romans 3:23 ‘All have sinned …’, Romans 6:23 ‘The wages of sin is death …’ John 3:16 ‘God so loved the world that he sent …’ Romans 10:9 ‘If you declare with your mouth and  believe in your heart … you will be saved.’ Bob’s your uncle.

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I don’t have a problem with this as it stands, but we caught on to the fact that this was a ‘centre cut-out’ view of the gospel. On my telly, if you want to watch old films with subtitles, films which were made in a 4:3 format, you have to set it to centre cut-out, so you can see it properly but have two black lines down the sides of the screen. But for more modern wide-screen programmes you change the format to 16:9 and the black bands disappear, allowing you to see the whole picture. Thus it was with the gospel: switch to 16:9 and you can see that things began with creation, the story of a God who made, loves and sustains the cosmos. The story will one day end with a renewed creation, as a new heaven and a new earth, restored by their creator, come into being. The personal fall and personal salvation of human beings are merely the middle chapters of the great drama of God’s redemption.

What this means is that we are saved for a purpose: to work with God towards the renewal of all things, and the defeat of all that spoils and mars his beloved creation. If I am a character in a novel, my task is to behave throughout in such a way that when the final dénouement comes on the last page my part has made sense. So, the church came to realise, there is no great war between evangelism and social concern: they are all part of God’s great redemptive plan in which he calls us to join. We live now in the direction of the future which we believe is coming.

Next week we’ll look at church from a slightly different point of view as we begin to examine some biblical models of church, their strengths and weaknesses, and the effects they may have if we focus on them too exclusively.

What’s Church for? Church as Disappointment

Last time we thought about the halcyon days of the 80s when the church, or at least the evangelical/charismatic bits of it, thought of itself as an army, trampling down Satan and bringing in the promised revival which would usher in the return of Jesus. Inevitably disappointment was to follow, and although there is some evidence that we did see church growth in the 80s it fell far short of the tales we had been devouring from Wales, the Hebrides and other places. we emerged into the final decade of the 20th century, designated by the C of E ‘the decade of evangelism’ sadder and wiser, and determined to apply a slightly more rigorous business model to church growth. Many of the teenagers who had worshipped and prayed so heartily were now busy making money and getting married.

Of course the management gurus had been making inroads into church strategy and planning for a while, and of course were greeted with cries of ‘Unspiritual!’ from many who would rather trust in the Lord than in John Harvey Jones. But in the 90s we began seriously to think about vision, strategy and planning. Meanwhile the worshipping life of the evangelical church changed dramatically, reflecting a new vision of what it was we thought we were supposed to be doing.

Under the joint influences of the growing movement towards political correctness and the ever-widening influence of the Vineyard churches (especially on ‘Anglican’ churches through ‘New Wine’, which began in 1989) worship songs began to be less about taking the nations and beating down Satan and more about personal intimacy with God. Our ‘hearts’, our personal and secret relationships with God seemed to be the most important thing, eclipsing any calling or ministry we might have to the nations. Intimacy with God has always been the core value of worship in the Vineyard movement, and worship (for which read ‘singing’) was seen much less as spiritual warfare and much more as a chance for me and Jesus to draw close together. Some unhelpful exegesis of the Greek word ‘proskuneo’, which, we were told, means literally ‘to approach to kiss’, backed this up. In fact the word means ‘to make a cone-shape towards’, that is to bow down with your face to the ground and your bum in the air, a classic gesture of submission to a conquering king rather than a lover’s kiss.

Of course we didn’t altogether stop talking about revival (although we pretty much stopped singing about it), but it seemed that our hearts weren’t really in it. This decade, call it the decade of evangelism or not, was about the church drawing closer to God. But then quite suddenly in the summer of 1994, we were hit by a new phenomenon, the so-called ‘Toronto Blessing’. Starting from a Vineyard church near Toronto Airport (although with some prehistory before that) it swept the British charismatic church, bringing joy and dismay in equal proportions. Some thought it really was a brand new move of the Holy Spirit: others that it was a Satanic deception, designed to divert the church from its real task of obeying Scripture (except of course those bits which told us to be filled with the Spirit).

My own take on this, as a parish priest at the time, was that it was immensely important for our congregation and our city, and I believe that the fruits of this blessing are still significant today. Others, with hindsight, tell us that a slightly jaded movement like charismatic renewal would inevitably have some kind of an attempt to kindle new excitement (although I never actually heard anyone say that except with hindsight). But as a decade of evangelism the general reflection is that it was a failure, and that growth during the 80s had been much more significant. But the new millennium brought new hope: wouldn’t it be great if Jesus returned as we entered the noughties?

What’s Church for? Church as Army

A weekly series exploring how church has changed in its self-understanding.

Last time I recalled the church of the 70s in which I grew up as a teenager, and our rediscovery of Paul’s doctrine of the Body of Christ. But things moved on in the 80s, with two major developments in our life and style. In many ways I look back on this period with great nostalgia, but also with a more critical eye and the benefit of hindsight.

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The first is that the predominant model of church moved from ‘Body’ to ‘Army’. The songs we were singing in my bit of the church were unashamedly songs of warfare and victory, about trampling down the Enemy (who was an intensely real figure for us), and above all about the coming revival. Books about past revivals were consumed avidly, and the great cry was ‘Lord, do it again!’ This was long before the church had heard of political correctness, and if as the Body we were a bit hazy on actually ‘why?’ we were very clear now: we were the army destined by God to bring in the great revival which would usher in the last days. Intercession was rich, fervent and faith-filled, and worship songs were loud and triumphant. The mood of victory was palpable, and this was a spirituality which particularly appealed to young people and men, in contrast to the slightly feminine Body stuff. This was about power and action, not intimacy and ‘sharing’.

A new twist came in the mid-80s with the visit of John Wimber from Anaheim, California, with his message of ‘Signs and Wonders and Church Growth’. It isn’t enough, John maintained, just to tell people about God: we should be showing people God in action, through miracles, healing and deliverance. He then taught us in great detail just how we should pray for the sick, and undergirded it all with some very solid theology of the Kingdom of God. To the powerful intercession and warlike worship was added the possibility of real action, as people learnt to pray for the sick and to expect miracles. Paradoxically the worship-songs went entirely in the opposite direction, and became slow, gentle, some would say ‘boring’, and all about intimacy with God and nothing more.

These were heady days, and as far as church was concerned we had a very clear idea of what we were about. Inevitably with hindsight we were a bit disappointed as the promised miracles didn’t materialise in the quantities we had hoped for, as the revival failed to happen, and as the advent of PCness made us all feel just slightly guilty about the militaristic language of our songs and sermons. John Wimber’s theology, so convincing at the time, began to be open to question in one or two of its tenets (does the NT really teach that all Christians should be miracle-workers, or is the Apostles who pray for healing most of the time?). And while the Vineyard churches, which grew and developed in the UK as a result of John’s ministry, were very keen on ministry to the poor, it tended to be on an individual basis rather than any great struggle against unjust structures.

Personally I think we had a lot going for us in those days, and the loss of so-called ‘militaristic’ language, a theme to which I shall be returning, is a tragic loss to the church and its mission. Naive we almost certainly were, and I wonder whether the prayer God really enjoys is not ‘Lord, do it again!’ but rather ‘Lord, so something new!’. But as we moved into the 90s there was to be a major new twist.

What’s Church for? Church as ‘Body’

Last time I got all nostalgic about the church of my childhood, the fortress into which we barricaded ourselves lest we should get polluted by the naughty world about us and start sinning, God forbid. So imagine the liberation when I grew up a bit, moved on, and discovered St Paul’s doctrine of the Body of Christ.

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The charismatic renewal movement of the late 60s and early 70s will most readily be remembered for its emphasis on the gifts of the Spirit from 1 Corinthians 12. But important though that insight was, I reckon far more significant was the other bit of the same chapter, the rediscovery of which by the charismatic movement provided a major watershed in the life of the church. Before that, you see, religion was a personal and therefore a private thing. This was the spirituality of the Anglican 8 o’clock Communion service, where the Lord’s Table was a table for two, where you ‘made your communion’, and if possible escaped without any human interaction with your fellow-worshippers.  But suddenly all that changed, and one’s spirituality was out in the public domain. Demonstrative and emotional worship, liturgical dance, small groups for ‘sharing’, prayer ministry when you were in need and didn’t mind people knowing it, an emphasis on using your gifts for the benefit of the whole: these and other new ingredients in church life formed the significant spin-offs from the renewing work of the Holy Spirit.

The musical backdrop to this movement within the church consisted of short, simple and emotional ‘choruses’, often about how much we all need one another. People like David Watson in York were putting their lives where their mouths were and experimenting with community living, and ‘faith-sharing teams’ were going on the road to spread the gospel of every-member ministry to other churches not quite so far down that road. They were heady days, and great fun to live through.

But with hindsight, whilst I rejoice that one small chapter of the Bible could so radically affect the church in such a short time, I can’t help but ask myself the question ‘Why?’ Try as I might to remember, I’m not sure exactly what gospel we were living and proclaiming in those days. If anything it certainly was a gospel of personal salvation, but I think the ‘get baptised in the Spirit’ agenda was more dominant. It was a time of great internal church renewal, but I’m not sure at that stage that we had much to offer those outside the fold. All that was to change, and maybe we needed a period of getting our own house more in order, but on reflection I wonder if it all seemed a bit navel-gazing and self-obsessed.

So how well did the church in Britain learn the lessons from that era? Pretty well, actually, I would argue. Most of us do now believe that worship at least ought to be a bit inspiring from time to time. Most churches would have some sort of homegroups or study groups, even if only for the weeks of Lent. Every-member ministry has become de rigeur pretty much everywhere, at least in theory, and many churches would at some time or other offer some kind of prayer ministry. Some would argue that the charismatic renewal movement peaked and died as a movement not because it failed but because its work here was done. But I’m still left with the nagging suspicion that in spite of all that, many of us are still not sure what we’re meant to be doing with it all. If God was preparing his church, we’re not quite sure for what, exactly.

How far are the lessons learnt from this era part of your church’s life?

To what degree is your spirituality and its expression public property?

If you lived through this era in church circles, what are you fond and disturbing memories of it?