As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner.
Have you noticed how there seems to be a constant flow of new emphases and adjectives for what it means to be church? I’m not talking here about issues of preference or attraction like worship styles, megachurch versus small church, established church versus church plant, or skinny jean relevance versus suit and tie respect. Instead these issues are more substantive, having to do with identity and purpose.
You may have heard of a few of the more recent emphases in this regard, including Christian community development, the emergent church movement, integral mission, missional church movement, Fresh Expressions, and new monasticism.
If we skim across church history, we see a pattern of similar ongoing reform movements. The Desert Fathers and early monastic communities longed for an intimacy with God that seemed to be missing elsewhere in the church. The sixteenth and seventeenth century Reformations in Europe demonstrated a desire to detach the gospel from the distorted teachings and practices that had taken root in the church. The Great Awakenings and revivals that swept through Britain and the United States ushered in a desire for personal holiness. We could also point to Zinzendorf’s emphasis on the community of God’s people and the Moravian zeal for missions, William Booth’s emphasis on Christian action transforming society by caring for those entangled in poverty, or the Azusa Street Revival. Church history is full of similar movements and efforts to answer anew what it means for the church to be the church.
In each of these situations, those who launched renewal movements sought a more transformative practice, a more biblically rooted doctrine, or a more robust and personal piety than they had experienced in the church of their day and age. Their reform efforts attempted to address gaps in the church’s character and witness as they realized that the church in their particular contexts was not yet what it was intended to be.
In one way or another, it seems Christians keep coming back to the question What makes the church the church right here, right now? I’d suggest that’s a good question for us to keep asking.
This pattern of reform movements in the church is not really about proving who is right or wrong, or even about discovering what the Belgic Confession calls the marks of the true church (Article 29). These efforts are more concerned with our character formation: In what ways are we becoming more and more like Jesus Christ? How can we more fully, more faithfully align ourselves with the good news that God is reconciling all things to himself in Christ Jesus? (Col. 1:20). These renewal efforts are part of the long road of our sanctification in the midst of ever-changing cultural contexts and personal relationships.
In order for the church to be the church, we need a certain amount of holy dissatisfaction with the way things are, and especially with the way we are living as God’s people. As much as we’d like to think that we would have mastered Christian discipleship by now, we still have a lot of growing to do. The Heidelberg Catechism reminds us that we are to continue praying for the Holy Spirit’s grace that we might “be renewed more and more after God’s image” (Q&A 115), which we will receive in full in the new heaven and new earth. Anticipating that gift from God, we are called to strive all the more toward living faithfully in our present circumstances, not just as individuals but also as local communities of God’s people.
How can we more fully integrate right doctrine (orthodoxy), right affections and relationships (orthopathy), and right actions (orthopraxy) in our particular contexts so that we “live as Jesus did”? (1 John 2:6)
On a big picture level, all of us who are part of the Christian church in North America have some pressing circumstances to address. What will it take for the church to become a place of safety, hope, and healing in our relationships with each other while we live in a culture marred by sexual degradation and abuse? With the increasing isolation and mental health challenges facing our culture, how can the church become a welcoming community in which people really know and love each other? Divided as we often are by economics, race, education, and politics, how can we become a community in which we delight in the rich diversity of God’s children rather than alienating or demonizing those who look, sound, and think differently than us?
Locally we might ask additional questions. How can I alter my pace of life so that I can get to know and love the people who literally live next door to me? What are the tangible ways that I have expanded my knowledge of Jesus Christ and his grace this past week? How have I experienced God’s goodness lately and with whom can I share that experience? Who am I spending Tuesday lunch or Friday evening with? When was the last time I actually asked another person for forgiveness? How can I walk with, serve, and advocate alongside someone who is encountering injustice, discrimination, or suffering?
Over the past 30 years or so, a lot of people have been asking questions like these. In response (just as with other times in church history) we’ve seen a surge of new church renewal efforts and movements—and that gives me hope. In the midst of the church’s public failings, there is a growing desire within the church that our actions, relationships, and theology would more fully and more faithfully align with Jesus Christ. We desire to grow into the righteousness of Jesus, and that type of reform is a good thing. As our Reformed tradition has emphasized, the Spirit is always at work reforming the church, so that God’s people are conformed to the image of God’s Son, Jesus Christ (Rom. 8:29) May it continue to be so with us today.