Monday, January 22, 2007

Marks of the Church

In late November 2006 the Saturday National Post Toronto magazine ran an article titled “God finds a home on Bay Street.” King-Bay chaplaincy, a ministry with a long a solid history, is featured, but also the fact that small groups that focus on prayer, Bible study or both, are beginning to proliferate in the financial district of Toronto.

For some these spiritual oases, as one person describes them, almost function as church. George Barna, in his book Revolution, says that this sort of this is what is beginning to replace traditional church. So the question: when is a group a church?

I think Barna might say that the question is irrelevant. The theological concept of identifying what is a church and what is not a church is simply a misconception. His perspective is completely modern, that is, focused on the individual. The individual must move forward in discipleship, becoming a person who meets the marks of a disciple as found in the New Testament. That is all that matters. Any means by which an individual can get help in doing that is fine. There is no need to worry about the legitimacy or illegitimacy of the service provider, so to speak.

I think the answer lies somewhere in the middle. I think the church is something in and of itself. The New Testament seems to make this clear – but in this piece I don’t want to go into a lengthy exposition of that. So, on that assumption, the church does have a particular place in the economy of God and her health and well being are matters of both concern and interest.

There are things which only the church can provide. These constitute the marks of the church. They include sound teaching that has an accountability structure behind it, and the sound administration of the sacraments, among other things.

At the same time the proliferation of groups and ministries in the market place has to be one of the most exciting spiritual things to happen in Canada in decades. People can and are moved forward in discipleship in these and other venues.

So, I wish to affirm and ratify such things. But, until the full ministry that God wishes to provide is provided through them, they are not church nor are they a substitute for church.

As I write this I am trying to do checks on myself to make sure that I am not doing “bunker mentality” stuff. If anyone wants to correct me, I will listen. Marks of the Church


Coutts said...

I think you're right. Smorgasbording parachurch groups doesn't cut it. However, how often do we keep too much of church ministry inside the walls when we ought to perhaps be doing it in the community. these groups can be extensions of the church. Barna seems to want to make them replacements for the church. the book is a good, and necessary, wake up call, but not a revolution.

Ron Baker said...

I'm also trying not to go into "bunker mentality."

I work with small groups and individuals who have been burnt by the church, and yet they read their Bibles constantly and seek to live in obedience to Christ. Their greatest question deals with the way in which churches have "excommunicated" people. In other words, they struggle with inappropriate use of authority. Thus they are more concerned with participation (one example -- sacraments are open to all and administered by all) and freedom to speak without immediate condemnation.

I struggle because all organizations have a structure -- even "house churches". Every structure has boundaries. Can you be in when you are outside the boundary? Is "ex-communication" just proclaiming what is obvious?

PS: relationships in these small groups and with individuals tends to make them more open to being a part of a larger whole -- as long as the whole looks like the smaller part in which they are currently participating.


Black Riders said...

I think you've brought up an important point, Franklin. A growing Christian life needs to have a church as a foundation, as a home base. Other ministries have a role to play, but groups like PromiseKeepers or the Navigators is not a church. A Bible study group is not a church. A youth group is not a church. A few people getting together to pray and talk about God is not a church.

So when is a group a church? I’ve been asking myself that for years. I know it’s not about the building. Other then that? How about…

When it sets out to be a church –- intention. When it behaves as a church should -- expectation. When it serves its members as a church -- action. When it is recognized as a church by The Church, meaning the institutional church, the denomination. When it is recognized as a church by its own members. In particular for Christian churches, when it can trace its roots and practices back to the early church. When it follows the Biblical model of Christ, the apostles, and the first churches. And finally, when it starts a building fund (kidding… sort of…).

Franklin, you mention two marks of the church, "among other things." What are those other things? For me this is still a new area of discovery. Is there such a thing as something like a Nicene Creed for a church?

I certainly concur on the two you mention. A couple of Sundays ago, one of the Bible readings in our service was Luke 4:14-21, which I learned was the first instance in the Bible of Jesus reading the scriptures. And he reads it in church, in community, with commentary following -- Christ demonstrating the first mark of the church you mention, sound teaching, just as he set the example for the sacraments of Baptism and Communion. But I would love to hear what other marks of the church there are.

Coutts, I could not agree with you more. So much more of church needs to happen outside the church walls. Some would argue that all of church needs to start happening outside of church walls.

Ron, it pains me to hear of the people you work with. I also know many who are followers of Christ, but are part of no church. The church I attend is one that seems to have been called up to gather up at least some of the "leakage", to provide a church for one small group of Christians who have not found a place of belonging elsewhere. So rather than following Christ in isolation, we now gather in fellowship, study and learn together, support one another and hold one another accountable, share in Communion, join in communal worship and prayer and service, have a church to call home. In that regard, I take some heart in the idea that to be excluded (in fact or in perception) from one church does not have to mean exclusion from THE CHURCH. God will not turn anyone away. And fortunately it seems as though the “church homeless” still recognize that truth for the most part. So for me the question is how to be a church, and stay a church, and still gather up the sheep that prefer climbing trees and eating daisies?

I also want to disagree on one point from your postscript, Ron. I don't think the whole necessarily has to look like the smaller part in order for the smaller part to want to be a part (did you follow that? I almost got lost myself!). Rather, it's the whole insisting on every smaller part looking just like the whole that has some smaller parts, and single cells, trying to break away or feeling pushed away. That said, our church looks very little like the whole of which we are a part, to be quite honest, but we still believe that it is where we belong and we are trying to play our part, for our church, The Church, and THE CHURCH.

But by the Grace of God...

NewWord said...

Hi there,

This is the first time I've blogged (if there such a word?) I just want to add to the comments regarding the "Marks of the Church." First, indeed the people of God not the physical building structure are the Church. A group of believers in Christ who meet together are indeed the Church regardless of the size of the group and where they meet. The Church is the Church while playing a game of ice hockey on Wednesday evening. If, while the group of believers meet they pray, study God's Word, partake in sacraments, and so on, then this is the Church participating in traditional acts of worship. These acts of worship can be considered "marks of the Church", but do not necessarily have to be confined to a traditional Church setting to be "marks of the Church." Our traditional view of the Church as a group of people who meet on Sunday morning in a established church building needs to be re-examined. I know individuals who in their home administer the sacraments to themselves and their group or family. We are living in a post-modern society. The use of the word "post-modern" is almost already outdated. The traditional idea of Church is dying in many locations in Canada. We need to carefully understand the "times" in which we live. Elders and Pastors need to look at themselves and ask am I helping or hindering the cause of Christ. I personally tend to think many Elders and Pastors are so arrogant that they are forcing new generations of young people outside the traditional Church. This needs to be addressed. Many Baby Boomer Pastors I meet are so full of themselves that they turn many people way, not only X'rs. Pastors need to be guided by the Holy Spirit not their professional status, their achievements, or title. Much of the new generation is very anti-establishment in its thinking, they are not guided by Baby Boomer values. If Pastors really want to reach this generation they need to look carefully at how they project themselves. Most Pastors today look like Yuppie Capitalists rather than like Jesus. Ultimately, the Church needs to wake up, examine itself, and let the Holy Spirit guide it into new ways of "being" and "doing" Church.

Yogger said...

I have struggled with the perception of church for the last while. NewWord, I agree with much of what you are saying; however, I think it is unfair to clump "pastors" into a big category of "arrogant" and "Yuppie Capitalists." Many pastors share the mindset/conviction that you obviously have. Making changes from the inside is much tougher than it looks. Our North American perception of Church has been ingrained in our heads because we've grown up in it (most of us). This makes it very tough for pastors.

There is nothing wrong with what is happening in our churches today: God is being honored, worshipped, and servanthood is taking place. I do not attend a "traditional" church - even though I'm not sure what that means anymore. I attend a small church that meets in a coffee shop, although there are still many aspects of the "traditional" church in our worship service.

What is a Church?
I think one of the problems with "church classification" is a narrow view of what(who) Church actually is. For a growing number of people, church is the one hour service on Sunday morning. They have problems picturing church happening outside of this time frame. To tell people that my church service is Sundays at 5pm causes them to ask, "Oh, so it's not real church, it's kind of like a bible-study?"

This type of thinking is dangerous. Since I have been a pastor, I know the amount of people who attend Sunday morning services, and I also know the number of them who were committed in some type of ministry. This thinking presents two dangerous flaws (probably more too):

1) The individual thinks Sunday mornings (and maybe Wed night bible studies) is church. They miss the fact that Jesus commissions us to help the poor. They miss that Church is clearly defined in Acts 2.

2) The individual who is NOT involved in any "ministry" at the local church is thought to be uninvolved, yet he may be downtown helping the homeless, but since it is not under the banner of Heavenway Church (example), it is not valid.

There are so many areas that I could talk about, but I feel that I'll get too off topic so I'll stop here... knowing that I'm only a little off topic :)

NewWord said...

O.k. perhaps I shouldn't label all pastors as arrogant, yuppie capitalists. I'll try to step out of my little corner of the kingdom and visit a few more pastors. I guess my concern is that many (not all) pastors I have met over the past 10 years seem to be more concerned about proclaiming their title than with proclaiming the gospel. This has to stop. It seems somehow we've allowed pastors to idolize their collar, title and office(beit Rev. or Pastor), and permitted them to continue to do so unchallenged. I believe pastors need to walk as Jesus walked...onto the sidewalks and into the alleys, identifying with the population...showing people Christ's love on their turf. This isn't just a task for congregants or missionaries...this is the call of all believers including pastors. Pastors today need to be missional in thought, demonstrating incarnational, missional leadership. We have to rid ourselves of the idea that "missions" is just for the missionaries (as if they are second-class in the kingdom) and just overseas. It is for here, in Canada, now. Pastors who are not willing to extend themselves - in person - beyond their office need to re-assess their call. They have sold out to modern ideology, status, professionalism, and CEOism rather than to God, and this will not cut it with future generations. Perhaps many pastors are doing a great job reaching this generation inside and outside the walls of their church building. That's great. Then, their Church is likely healthy and growing. Yet we know the Church in Canada is not booming. I offer a few ideas and reminders for ponderance: 1) Pastors needs to be facilitators of love and unity. They need to encourage love for God and others. Reducing divisive language by dropping the usage of words such as "clergy" and "laiety" or "paid pastoral staff" and "volunteers"; "pastors" and "missionaries;" "us" and "them," is a start. Denominationalism is a major source of divisiveness, but we must begin at the individual level and begin using INCLUSIVE language. It is essential that loving unity be built up in each local Church, from there will flow a desire to share the love of Christ with others. 2)Seminaries need to work with pastors on helping them experience love and unity and understand incarnational, missional leadership. Pastors are the major role models in our Churches...they need to be able to demonstrate to others what the gospel is all about. I feel too much emphasis today is being placed on pastors as CEO's. Again, I am not trying to overgeneralize and clump all pastors in one pile, nor am I trying to suggest that all the problems of the Church are a result of pastors - no doubt we all are responsible to God. Yet, pastors are our major role models of a life lived for God. My prayer is that Pastors and the Church as a whole will spend more time being guided by the Holy Spirit establishing loving, unity through which we will be empowered to reach this generation in creative ways in a variety of settings. Peace, grace, and love to you in the name of our Lord,Jesus Christ.

Len said...

SOunds like your direction is toward centered set rather than bounded set conception... see Frost and Hirsch and they way they use this under the metaphor of "fences" or "wells."