EMC #4: The Location of Community

Author: Stuart Lindsell

In Christ and in the city – the location of community

Jim Thwaites says, “It strikes me as strange that people who are the church are constantly trying to find out where the church is and what form it should take”. In the ongoing and apparently never ending debate about what constitutes church Lesslie Newbigin reminds us of the significance of the fact that ‘Jesus did not leave behind him a book, a creed, or rule of life but a visible community’. Salvation was committed to that community. It was not a community gathered around an idea but the community was primary. The Church is. This means that it is the only location on earth for a follower of Jesus.

Paul in addressing his letters wrote to believers or ‘saints’ as he liked to honour them, in Christ and in the city. The believer is located in Christ in the heavenly realms and in the reality of life in the city whether it be Corinth, Rome or London. All believers for Paul have been baptised by the Spirit into one body and made to drink of one Spirit.1 The community exists because Jesus called it into being. The church is God’s gathering – gathered not to a meeting but gathered out of darkness into light and the kingdom of God’s son.2

Another helpful contribution that Lesslie Newbigin makes to the question about church is by suggesting that we cannot define church outside of two primary biblical doctrines. They are missiology and eschatology. The church has only two end points, the end of the age and the ends of the earth. The church is therefore always pilgrim – on the move – moving to the ends of the earth and the end of time. It has never arrived, is never static and cannot be defined, other than in terms of where it is going. In that sense the church is always emerging. Only at the return of the king will it come finally to fullness. When the church ceases to be pilgrim and missionary it contradicts its own nature. Tom Wright has similarly argued that eschatology defines mission and mission defines church. Where is God taking us, where are we heading – nothing less than to the renewal of the whole creation (not escape to the heavens). He says we have a mission that is creational in scope and the church has to be wide enough and imaginative enough to embrace that mission.

In his Kerr lectures in Glasgow as far back as 1952 Lesslie Newbigin was aware that Christendom was already breaking down. The synthesis between gospel and culture in Western Europe could no longer be taken for granted even then. He argued that the Reformers had some major deficiencies in their doctrine of church. Reformation theologians took it for granted that society was ‘christian’ and therefore when they defined Church they did not do so through a missionary lens. They were defining church over and against the doctrines of Rome whose basic structures they largely took for granted.

Local Church or church in the locality

What is a church anyway? When is a church not a church? Churches we should remember are at the end of the day human institutions with particular sociological structures. They are therefore shaped from generation to generation not only by biblical guidelines but current ideas as to what social institutions are all about. We need to constantly evaluate in the light of our theology two things: – the reality of our experience and the relevance of our practise.

In the protestant world the doctrine of the local church has become a very strong position. You often hear leaders especially, making statements about their belief in the local church. What they mean by local church is less clear. It usually means autonomy so that each local church has strong boundaries around it. Those in leadership feel responsible for everyone committed to their particular expression of local church but not much beyond their own borders. These expressions usually have an identity like Baptist, Methodist or Community church or these days an incredible range of other names and identities. In biblical terms these are surely pseudo-identities. I know of Christian communities which have refused to give themselves a name but regard themselves as disciples of Jesus based in a city. They see themselves as part of the church, not sufficient within themselves, but making their contribution to the church in the city. They have refused a name and have therefore guarded themselves against having to serve a name above the service of the name of Jesus.

To create a local church usually requires someone calling themselves a pastor, or leader, officially ordained by a denomination or recognised by an apostle of a network. A regular gathering is essential, in a home at the very least but preferably a public meeting with a group of musicians to lead worship. The other ingredients include financial commitment, usually tithing and the authority of scripture is wielded to show the members that they are doing the right thing by giving their tithe to ‘the local church’.

The other essential is of course obedience and submission to leadership because they are ordained by God to care for our souls. This is where the word accountability comes in. The suggestion is that by sitting in a regular meeting of the congregation a person is more accountable than a person who does not. The real issues of accountability of course are not accountability structures but relational faithfulness. We continue to see leaders falling from grace who have preached long and hard on the importance of accountability for their members but did not have the kind of authentic friendships which would have perhaps saved them from their isolation in the midst of busy and growing churches. Frank Viola exposes much of the politics behind the accountability question is his book ‘Who is your covering?’

However despite all the issues raised by the local church model Jim Thwaites argues that we must understand that the current activity of God is not about another model of church but a fundamentally new Christian landscape. He describes ‘New Landscape’ as an experience of church that is defined by the way people live and work. Rather than defined simply by a weekly gathering. It is about Church that is people rather than organisation, about church that exists and is growing in every sphere of life – in family, in business, health, education, media, government, the arts, and sport. It is about church that has as its centre, not corporate managers but the saints themselves. He pleads that the church does not disappear when it is not a public meeting. We must move away from the mindset that church is always somewhere else. We are the church even if not ‘a church’ which is another question. Bill Hamon of ‘Christian International’ also sees a major shift coming to what he calls “The Day of the Saints”. In his book by that title he talks of a new saints’ movement. Addressing leaders he says ‘instead of being pre-occupied with our leadership titles, positions and authority we will become more saints orientated’.

In the New Testament we see Christian community expressed in many different dimensions. Geographically for example the church in Galilee, Judea and Samaria is called one church.3 We also find churches in the plural.4 We also find the church in the home5 and church as mobile apostolic team.6 The latter is the primary definition given by Jesus. This was certainly the model Paul worked with and while it is true that he began his ministry based in Antioch it is a stretch of our imagination to suggest that this was the local church that sent him out and to which he was accountable. There is no mention of the church elders sending him out anyway – it was a group of teachers and prophets according to Luke. Paul’s experience of church was his mobile team which was fluid but very strongly relational. Current expressions of local church cannot insist on being the exclusive expression of community. They are part of the Christian landscape and clearly will continue to meet some people’s felt needs particularly as certain stages of spiritual growth. However for the sake of mission they cannot be allowed to claim centre ground.

Richard Fleming has an interesting model of church he calls ‘incubator church’. He sees incubator church as a community where new believers are discipled, taught to hear the voice of God for themselves and where foundations are laid. However he sees the point where people outgrow that stage of development and need to be released from the incubator to participate fully in their calling to serve God in the city. ‘The city’ being a metaphor for the context in which believers exercise their life ministry through work. This model provides one remedy to a major issue in Pentecostal and charismatic churches, identified by Alan Jamieson in his book ‘Churchless Faith’. The problem is that believers are never to allowed to grow up. It is what Juan Carlos Ortiz used to call ‘the perpetual childhood of the believer’. Church members are always regarded as spiritually immature and dependent on the organisation less they should backslide and lose their way. Jamieson’s book certainly recognises that some church leavers do indeed lose their faith but the picture he found was that by far the majority still had a Christian faith and devotion but were expressing it in much more concrete ways than when they were attending local churches. It is still an issue that what is called church ‘growth’ does not refer to people either transferring out of darkness into the kingdom of God’s son or spiritual progression toward maturity but simply Christians re-arranging themselves on the Christian landscape. The church is not growing it is just getting fat.

The problem of spiritual growth in local church is especially felt by the business community. Often very successful entrepreneurs feel their only value in the local church is to provide funds. They feel they are categorised as business people as opposed to ‘spiritual’. I know of one Christian charitable organisation that is run by very competent and mature Christian people. However they have attached to them a group of local church leaders who are called ‘spiritual’ advisors. The very language portrays the dualism that is endemic and destructive to a healthy functioning Christian community. Often business men and women express frustration with the programmes of local church where they feel they are continually being trained but they never arrive. Many that I talked to have lost confidence in the ability of the local church to deliver any successful community programme.

Life – the demonstration of community

The theologian Gordon Fee reminds us that “The only worthwhile theology is that which is translated into life”. Whatever our theories and theologies of church the unbeliever has a valid question in asking what the life of a Christian community looks like? What do followers of Jesus look like in their day to day existence? As a young convert once said to Jim Thwaites ‘do Christian do anything else other than meet’? Clearly not every thing that calls itself community is Christian community. Some have reacted to the idea that Christian friends meeting together in the local pub can be called church. So what ingredients might we expect to find in authentic Christian community?

One suggestion is that such a community should be expressing the order of the Kingdom, the ethics of the Kingdom and the dynamics of the Kingdom. That would certainly chime in with Lesslie Newbigin who says “The church is not an end in itself. Church growth is not an end in itself. The church is only true to its calling when it is a sign, an instrument and a foretaste of the Kingdom”. Paul reminds the Philippian church that our citizenship is a heavenly one implying that our communities should afford a little taste of the spiritual realties of the heavenly places. However if we are honest what signs of the kingdom are evident at the typical gathering of the local church? Maybe not a lot more than a few friends drinking and enjoying fellowship at the local pub.

Missional communities have to acknowledge that everyday life is not a hindrance to the way God works in our lives. It the primary way God works in our lives. Jesus brought his kingdom to bear on the day to day realties of life. There is eternal significance in the little and ordinary. Jesus suggested that faithfulness in the little things, even a cup of cold water to those in need would not go unnoticed by his father. The simplest acts of love and words of kindness are the things on which eternity is built.

Notes:

1. 1 Corinthians 1:13.
2. Colossians 1:13.
3. Acts 9:31.
4. Acts 16:5.
5. 1 Corinthians 16:19; Romans 16: 5.
6. Matthew 18:15-20.