Saturday, January 08, 2011

What about church? (4)

So far in this series about church I've talked about the things I've got a problem with, things I definitely want to avoid. Religion, which is essentially synonymous with legalism, was one. Religion is definitely a deal-breaker. The least hint is likely to guarantee no return visit. The alternative to religion is the gospel, of course. More on this in a moment.

Also in this series, I worried over the issue of promoculture in the church. Promoculture is our culture, we're embedded in it, and it is a culture that is promiscuous about the truth, for it's purpose is profit, not knowledge. The wider culture is heavy with promotional rhetoric, endeavoring to entice, urge, cajole, convince, rather than to enlighten or encourage. And yet promoculture is rampant in the church.

Finally, in the third and most recent post, I highlighted the "pastor-centered" problem. Or call it the pastoral mystique. This one is so entrenched, it will be hard to avoid, but perhaps at best there will be a good deal more emphasis on the reading of the Word and less on the reading of the sermon. This is not to disparage all the hard work of many fine pastors, mind you. But look at it this way: we are often encouraged to think of the church body as our family, and yet no family I know sits in rows and listens to the patriarch for an hour every time it gets together. It's far more likely they would get together for food and conversation. There's just no getting around the fact that for modern evangelicalism, despite all the talk about family, the church is more aptly compared to an audience than to a family. My ultimate point here is that the audience-church template can actually inhibit the family-forming possibilities within the congregation.

Before this series of posts ends I hope to rise to the occasion of describing what I'd really hope to find in a church, but I want to address the question first that a friend of mine recently brought up. That question is this: is the church--any particular church--alive or dead?

This question makes me cringe a little, because I fear we draw our definitions of these words from the culture. Anyway, alive usually means passionate, while dead means staid, routine, dreary. Alive is up-tempo, dead is lugubrious. Alive is emotional, dead is formal, restrained, subdued. You get the picture.

I'm not exactly buying into all this, but I'm not exactly rejecting it either. There is such a thing as a dead church. I know this because Jesus warns about it here:
“And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: ‘The words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars.
“‘I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you. Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy. The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’ (Revelation 3:1-6 ESV)
In this quote you see that aliveness and deadness have everything to do with incomplete "works."
for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God.
The key correction to this, you'll notice, is not to hurry out the door to dispense charity somewhere, thereby getting back on God's good side, but to remember something!
Remember, then, what you received and heard.
Something you've seen, something you've heard. A message. Remember it, and repent. This is the the foundation that precedes "works." Here's the ESV Study Bible note concerning the Sardis passage:
The church in Sardis is in a deep spiritual coma, approaching death but not beyond Christ's summons to wake up, to strengthen what is about to die, to remember and keep the message of grace that the church had received and heard, and to pursue the holiness that flows from grace.
And here's the upshot of all this for me. A church may be noisy or quiet, rocking or meditative, hub-bubby or contemplative, but none of this has to do with real aliveness or deadness.

If recollection of the Gospel message--what we have seen and heard--is the foundation that precedes or underlies holiness, then the key thing in a church, the thing to be looking for, is a congregational experience that brings that message back to our attention. Whether through the music, the prayer, the reading of the Word, and yes even the sermon, we are having the message of the Gospel called to mind again. It might at times be disconcerting. It might make us repent. It might make us at other times feel like dancing. But aliveness and deadness in a church has nothing to do with worship styles. It is simply a measure of Gospel mindfulness. That's all.


Anonymous said...

good post.

look forward to more.

Mark Babikow said...

The key correction to this, you'll notice, is not to hurry out the door to dispense charity somewhere, thereby getting back on God's good side, but to remember something!
Remember, then, what you received and heard.

Bob...this is some deep Gospel stuff here...stuff that makes me think of my own salvation and its basis...I don't often remember and I often look for works that appear alive and are probably not...who will save me?????? Please tell me tha it is Jesus!?!?

Bob Spencer said...

Romans 8:1, friend!