Monday, October 21, 2013

The Church's Glorious Goal

Imagine football with no end-zones. Imagine baseball with no home-plate. Imagine basketball with no goals or golf with no holes. You’re left with people just moving around, individually or in groups, passing or hitting or dribbling a ball with no aim or purpose. They might have some fun. They might even put on a good enough show to draw a crowd. But what they don’t have is a clearly-defined goal. And, as a result, the fun and the show and the crowd become the goal.

Such absurd scenes painfully resemble the life of many churches. We move around, individually or in groups, carrying one program or another up and down the field, without any real idea of our God-given goal. Tragically, in this void, we have turned to putting on a show and drawing a crowd as our purpose. It’s easy just to blame the egos and worldliness of leaders and the consumerism of parishioners. And I believe these have much to do with it.

But I also think a major reason for the church’s aimless wandering is a lack of pastoral theology and ecclesiology. We don’t really get what pastors and churches are supposed to be about. What is this Body of which nothing less than the Son of God is the Head? The answers are astounding and daunting and the quest is mysterious and difficult, so much so that we shrink and turn away. Instead, for a couple of generations we have turned to the business and entertainment worlds to try to find some answers. Bad idea. Utterly irrelevant, actually. I propose we set out on that daunting quest again, that we begin seeking God more earnestly regarding our purpose. What does God say is our end-zone, our home-plate, our goal?

Living the Hidden Life
“Now the main point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, a minister in the sanctuary and the true tent that the Lord, and not any mortal, has set up” (Heb. 8:1-2).

As the earthly tabernacle was thought of as a model of the cosmos, with the Holy Place modeling heaven, Jesus has now ascended to the true Holy Place, occupying the true temple and not an inferior earthly copy. He is in the place of power and authority…now.

Indeed, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations…,” immersing those disciples in the reality of the Triune God, teaching them to obey all that Jesus has commanded—to be fully-devoted apprentices learning the way of the always-present Master (Mt. 28:18-20). It truly makes the mind boggle, but, "At the center of all this, Christ rules the church. The church, you see, is not peripheral to the world; the world is peripheral to the church. The church is Christ's body, in which he speaks and acts, by which he fills everything with his presence" (Eph. 1:20-23, MSG). Now we're getting somewhere!

For it is not Christ alone who dwells in the Holy Place but, “Since, then, y’all have been raised with Christ, set your hearts [wills] on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For y’all died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:1-3).

Our lives are also in that inner sanctuary--hidden with Christ in God--yet we live here and now. We aren’t phantoms or figments. We live real, corporeal lives. But we live them from the place of Christ’s authority, from the place of sacrifice and worship, from the Trinity’s reality…bringing all of that to bear not only on our lives, but on the church; and not only on the church, but in the larger world. This is the kingdom of heaven coming to earth.

But it starts in my heart and mind being set in that Holy Place—not day-dreaming about some other place, but actually setting the will and the thoughts and, thus, the life and actions of the body, in and from that reality. For it isn’t some other place. It is as close as the Holy Spirit is—the Breath of the new creation, the Agent of our living that life, the life that is “in Christ.” It truly is, not just our getting into heaven, but God’s getting heaven into us, that we are about.

Being the Temple
And the church, far more powerful than the individual’s experience, is all of this happening corporately. As we come together, sharing in the divine life, submitting to one another under Christ’s loving, very-present authority, we bring that life “in Christ” to bear ever more strongly in our willing and thinking and acting—not just individually but en masse. And as this happens, our worship in the shadow temple becomes our worship in the inner Holy Place, God’s heavenly temple. For, indeed, the church is the temple of God. Our lives hidden in Christ are revealed to each other, and then to the groaning world, to the glory of God alone!

What does this look like? In a word: Jesus. We start by putting down that latest "leadership" book, tearing down the tyranny of metrics, and immersing ourselves in the Gospels. Pastors should do this individually, of course. But it should also be done with boards/committees/teams. Take a year, meet monthly, and spend a good chunk of the meeting time praying and studying the Gospel of Mark together. Don’t get caught up in drama and letting ten minutes worth of business take an hour. Learn the way of the Master…together! That's what we are about and what the world needs to see in us.

The Holy Spirit guides us into all truth and wisdom. Jesus is the Light, the bright revelation of our Father-God in whom we are constantly born anew. This is the goal of our formation, the goal of the church, the goal of communities and humanity, and ultimately the goal of all creation: to be so immersed in the life and reality of the Trinity that all that’s left is face-to-face. Oh glorious Day! But until then, Oh glorious goal!

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Church: Blockbuster or Indie?

Masterpiece (1962) by Roy Lichtenstein
Hollywood serves up one blockbuster after another—usually a sequel to a previous blockbuster. A common element of these blockbusters is that you leave it in the theater. What I mean is, such movies might be a fun ride, but when it’s over, you get off and move on. This, for me, is a characteristic of bad art.

I might do better to say this is a characteristic of much pop art, which is not by definition bad, but is typically mass-producible and disposable. But the best art—the film or painting or story or music that really takes hold of you—is not so easily consumed and tossed aside. You finish the viewing/reading/listening experience but are still thinking about it, maybe days or weeks (or years) later.

A chief reason for this is that the artist/s didn’t do all the work for you. The art requires something of you. And so, as you keep working out what it all might mean, it becomes part of you. Subjective as it is, that—for me—is a sign of good art.

Blockbuster Church?
For a while now we have treated the church like a blockbuster. We have dumbed things down, blown things up, conformed things to proven templates, and marketed for mass consumption, all in a desperate attempt to produce a blockbuster. Tragically, many have succeeded.

But we have been given the makings of good art! We have been entrusted with “the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Eph. 3:9ff). Whoa! Maybe read that again. THAT will stick with a person.

This “wisdom of God” and “plan of the mystery” are the cross-shaped reconciliation of all to God and to each other. The “eternal purpose” of the darkness of the Father’s depths has come to light in Christ, who now gives us access to the Father—gives all of us access. His is the name given to every family in heaven and on earth (v. 14). This is the DNA of the church: the Father’s love.

This is a dramatic invitation into the Trinity-life (vv. 14-21): As we bow our knees to our Father, we are strengthened in our depths with power (a word rooted in “dynamite, dynamism”) through his Spirit. And we are indwelt by Christ, who roots and grounds us in love.

We join all the saints—the Father’s family—in living in awe of his incomprehensible love, surpassing all knowledge, as we are filled with nothing less than “all the fullness of God” (v. 19). About this fullness, John Wesley noted in his Notes on the New Testament that we are filled “…with all [God’s] light, love, wisdom, holiness, power, and glory. A perfection far beyond bare freedom from sin.”

This is the life of the church…or it should be. This is the power—the explosive, dynamic presence of God—“at work within us, able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.” His glory comes “from the church and from Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” What a picture: The church connected to Christ Jesus, glorifying God to all generations, forever and ever. The possibilities are limited only by our desire just to churn out another blockbuster sequel, rather than do the real work of living into the grand expanse of God’s mystery.

Indie Church
I propose that, from this passage (Eph. 3), church leaders can draw something of a broader and deeper checklist, a checklist for “doing church” that really requires something of leaders and of the church--moving from blockbuster church to more of an art-house or indie way of thinking about church. So, here are some things to consider:

  • Is the church characterized as making known the wisdom of God in its rich variety?

  • Is the church carrying out God’s mysterious plan, revealed in Christ, to reconcile the world to God and to each other?

  • Does the church bear the Father’s DNA of love and unity?

  • Is the church experiencing the explosive, dynamic power of the Spirit?

  • Is the church rooted and grounded in Christ’s love?

  • Is the church filled with all the fullness of God (“…with all God’s light, love, wisdom, holiness, power, and glory. A perfection far beyond bare freedom from sin”)?

  • In short and in summary: Does the church glorify God as part of the glory that characterizes Christ Jesus?

What does each of these look like? Indeed, what do God’s wisdom, mystery, glory, power, love, etc., look like when active in the daily life of the church? This checklist is challenging, one might say abstract. In fact, we might disregard such concepts as too abstract. We disregard these concepts to our peril as leaders and to the gashing detriment of the church.

We must move beyond the leadership concepts from the business world and from get-big-fast consultants. We might find helpful instruction on management and marketing here, but nothing of mystery. Take the lessons on structure and organization and move on! And don’t move on to another business book—move on to the “wisdom of God” and “the plan of the mystery.”

It’s scary, I know. It takes creativity. It takes working it out in community. It takes faith…BIG faith. You can’t just watch another seminar online or take your staff to another leadership conference. You actually have to learn to seek God together. Then you have to figure out how to share the God you find…in tangible, meaningful, sometimes messy and meddlesome, ways.

It’s easier to let someone else do the work—a leadership guru, a marketing expert, a church-growth wizard. These folks have their place, but it is only as an early step or an occasional corrective on the way to something deeper. It is certainly not THE means or, God forbid, THE end.

No, it’s time to move past the mediocre-to-bad art we’ve made. It’s time to draw from God’s wisdom and mystery, from God’s fullness. It’s time to create something worthy of the sprawling glory of the Trinity. It’s time to be conformed, not to some generic church template or best-selling model, but to the DNA of God’s love and reconciliation and unity. It’s time for a new definition of church health and success, for a new checklist.

It will not look like a blockbuster. It will not look like a sequel. It will challenge, take hold, and stick with us. And that's what it comes to: Do we want church to become part of us? Or do we just want to fill the theater?

My Friend Thomas

I met Thomas when we ditched school together. We were 16, and my friend Scott and I had planned to skip out after homeroom and take Scott’s ...