Where is the Church?
This post continues a series in The Shape of Practical Theology by Trinitarian theologian Ray S. Anderson. For other posts in the series, click on a number: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9,11, 12, 13, 14, 15.
|Photograph by Steven Pavlov
used with permission granted via Wikimedia Commons
The humanity of God in the person of Jesus Christ seeks incarnation in the soul of the city before taking up residence in the sanctuary of religion. The "soul of the city" has become a metaphor that speaks of the humanity of a people who share a common destiny and whose lives impinge on one another in a struggle for survival and sustenance (p178).Sadly, many churches have withdrawn from the city both literally (into the suburbs) and spiritually (into self-protective shells). Anderson notes that "the church's flight from the cities is a retreat from the struggle for the soul of a society" (p179). He responds with an impassioned plea for churches to "repent of being the church" (p180), in the self-protective sense.
While it is true that the apostle Paul admonished the house churches in Rome to "not be conformed to the world," he also admonished them to be "transformed" in their thinking into the likeness of Christ himself (Romans 12:2). Paul made a similar plea to the Christians in Philippi, to whom he wrote: "Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus"---a mind of humble self-sacrifice for the sake of others (Philippians 2:5-8).
What we see in Jesus is the mind of God that is for the world, not against it. We then learn from Jesus that he sends the Spirit into the world to form and call the church not to run from the world but to share in Jesus' ongoing ministry for the sake of the world. As Anderson notes, "the church exists in the world and for the world, though it does not 'belong to the world' (John 17:16)." Sadly, however, many churches focus more on the "not belonging" part and overlook the "existing for the world" part. That being so, Anderson insists that "the church must repent of being the church in order truly to be the church of Christ" (p181). He comments further:
Christopraxis begins by calling the church itself into a radical conformity with the Spirit of Christ as the formative reality of new humanity. Christopraxis becomes the hermeneutical criterion and spiritual conscience of the life and mission of the church (p182).Anderson refers to this radical change of mindset and strategy as repentance that is theological, social and Christological. The church needs this multi-dimensional repentance because it often has been "found opposing the mission of God for the sake of preserving its own institutional and traditional forms" (p182). He comments further:
Social repentance is demanded of the church when its institutional life demands a privileged space in the world for God's grace without expressed concern for those without benefit of food, shelter and justice. Christological repentance is demanded of the church when it binds Christ solely to its rituals at the altar, abandoning the naked and imprisoned Christ.... As the mediator who stands with humanity as advocate, healer and transformer, Jesus Christ is not primarily a principle by which ministry is defined but, as James Torrance has reminded us, is present with and among us as the ministering one (p183).The "world," in this instance, is humanity at large. And it is healed not merely by Jesus, but in and through him---the eternal Son of God who, through the incarnation, is God with us as a human person. The church, which is to be Jesus' body in the world, is called to participate with Jesus, by the Spirit, in his "with us," incarnational ministry, standing with and not apart from the world. Anderson comments:
In becoming the church through repentance and renewal, the church makes visible its reality as the dwelling place of God's Spirit on earth.... The reality of Christ in the world is his body, the community of believers indwelt by the Holy Spirit (p185).At the "practical" everyday level, this means that the church is called to make manifest in its practice the presence and reality of Christ in the world, making accessible the healing only Christ can provide. As Christians, we live out this calling to ministry with Jesus principally through relationships---ones with other believers, yes; but also with non-believers. Anderson concludes this discussion on the nature and calling of the church with this comment:
If the church is to be the redemptive presence and power in the world that God intends, it will be where the Spirit of Christ crosses the boundary and breaks through the wall that separates us from each other, and where the world and the church live separate lives. Even so, come Lord Jesus! (pp185-6).