I have been a practicing ecclesiologist for the past fifteen years. As much as I love thinking and writing about the kingdom of God, resurrection and new creation, following Jesus, or authentic community, I always come back to this core question: What is Church? The secondary questions flow easily from there. What does it mean to be the gathered people of God? What is our mission? Who gets to lead and how? What defines our priorities? How do we measure success? How should we relate to the world around us?
It would be easy to write volumes on any of these questions, but the last one is what I have been thinking about most lately. From my observation, churches have been implicitly or explicitly answering this question and in turn allowing that answer to define how the other questions are addressed. Let me state that another way. Instead of starting with the question, “What is Church?” and allowing that answer to shape answers to the other questions, churches have started with “How should we relate to the world around us?” and let that define how they answer “What is Church?” The result are churches that know how to draw clear lines in the sand on “issues” but have no idea how to love their neighbor, heal the sick, set people free, or proclaim hope.
Hope. Shouldn’t that be towards the top of the list of what we are known for? Somewhere between love and faith? Sound familiar? There is tremendous pressure for churches to “take a stand” on some of the very public and very hotly debated issues of our day. Consequently, it is inferred that by taking one position or another, we are either taking a stand for biblical faithfulness or becoming a voice for the voiceless; having compassion on the hurting or prophetically calling out the sins of our culture. Never mind that all of those things are important for the church to do. Instead, we are defined by our position on the issues which lumps us into one camp or another. And woe be to the church which sides with one camp on one issue and the opposing camp on another issue. Ye be double-minded and shall be cast into the lake of wishy-washiness.
Do you see the problem? The world is a complicated, messy place. We are bombarded by media – social and mainstream – that is unrelenting in its wranglings about “the issues”. “As a dog returns to its vomit, so a fool repeats his foolishness,” the proverb says. So it becomes natural to think that our response to these issues is of utmost importance. If we don’t respond, we will be accused of collusion with the wrong side (whatever that means to you) by association or set aside as irrelevant (aghast) and belittled for our lack of courage. How should we relate to the world around us? By taking a side.
Jesus said, “A good tree can’t produce bad fruit, and a bad tree can’t produce good fruit.” If a church primarily defines itself by what it is for or against in response to the surrounding culture, the tree will suffer. Fighting endless battles that never resolve is like pouring poison on its own roots. New battles will announce themselves at every turn and slowly, the tree will stop bearing fruit. It will simply try to survive.
The alternative is so much better (and more fun). A good tree – a healthy, sustainable church – starts with the primary question, “What is Church?” What does it mean to be the sign and foretaste of God’s kingdom in the midst of a broken, hurting, imprisoned world? With its roots firmly planted in the soil of God’s love, it relies on the Holy Spirit to provide the best conditions for growth. It is cared for by gardeners who protect it from poison and keep it well watered and fertilized. As a good, healthy tree, it can’t help but bear good fruit. But its fruitfulness is measured not just by quantity, but equally by quality. The tree might have a thousand apples that look pretty on the outside, but are rotten to the core. The true judge of its value can only be made by the Master Gardener. If the tree remains healthy and bears good fruit, it naturally (effortlessly!) becomes a blessing to the world around it. People will be fed by its fruit and its leaves will heal (man, that sounds familiar). The tree will become a source of hope and symbol of the goodness of God.
Perhaps I am a voice crying in the wilderness. Taking a stand on serious issues feels so right, so necessary. And certainly, there were times in the church’s history when it kept silent to its peril and other times when a portion of it rose up to denounce a horror or champion a cause with astounding results. But so much of what the world needs to hear from us now can again be boiled down to those three simple words – faith, hope, and love. We have faith in a big God who loves us and sets us free from our bondage. We hope in the power of the resurrection and the glory of the coming kingdom that sets the world right. We love each other as God loves us. And we love those around us who simply just need to know that in God’s world, they belong.