Richard C. Halverson (1916-1995), chaplain to the U.S. Senate, was credited in 1984 for a speech before the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church: ‘In the beginning the church was a fellowship of men and women centering on the living Christ. Then the church moved to Greece, where it became a philosophy. Then it moved to Rome, where it became an institution. Next it moved to Europe where it became a culture, and, finally, it moved to America where it became an enterprise.’” *
From relationship, to philosophy, to institution (to government as well), to culture and to corporation, and now the corporation is becoming something else, but what? There are deconstruction movements, missional movements and church-revitalization movements, but where are they leading? I’ve been pondering the direction of the church for the last twenty years of ministry, trying to wrap my head around what is missing from our missiology, what is it that we have added that bolsters the business of church, but not the main purposes.
I often hear congregants say that “we need to get back to basics”, but what they are implying is to revert to a time period when it was presumed to be the golden age of their particular fellowship. Still, there is something to be said for looking backward through church history to better grasp the progression, or digression rather, of what it means to be Christian and in a follow-ship with Jesus Christ. It is better to perhaps call the church to living backwards as a means to becoming forward thinking Kingdom people.
I hope to break down the meaning of this living backwards concept over the course of several articles, but the premise is simply this- the world is pulling the church to be forward moving and thinking, but by their standards and values. As the North American culture has become increasingly more dependent on entertainment, for instance, so have our Sunday services. However, we rationalize what we do quite cleverly. We make room for what we want and how we want it to the extent that churches are known for which styles of worship service they offer to people, what kinds of programs they offer families with children and teens, which brand of Bible and what kind of preaching style is available. This seems right to us, but isn’t there something in our guts that feels the superficial-ness of it all? Isn’t there something that is pulling us deeper in and further down the Emmaus road with Jesus than styles, colors, programs, appeasements and entertainment? If the philosophy has become, “this is how to get the world into the church”, then I propose we move in a backwards direction and discover together, “how to get the church out into the world.”
What is interesting to me is that a key word in church growth conversations is relevancy. We fear losing relevancy to the world around us. We want our churches to be attractive and engaging so that people will come, and keep coming, and bring their friends….wait. What are building here again? The word itself is actually on target, but misapplied. The world needs the church to be relevant, but relevant next door, at work, at school and in our marriages, parenting, families, ups and downs, and in our failures and defeats. Relevancy is not that we have the same iPhone. Relevancy is the ability to relate through what is common. That is the missing key of our missiology. We do very little to really relate, and we are often far from common ground, because we don’t hang out with people that aren’t like us.
We have lost the art of finding what is common, what makes for peace, and the bridges into relationship with others. Evangelism and discipleship have become events and programs, instead of how we simply relate to other people. We act as if we really want the organization of the church to use our membership dues to engage with other potential members, for the purpose of adding more benefits of being a member for ourselves.
Instead, our Spirit-derived DNA is wired to have conversations about Jesus. We are living in opposition to how we have been created in Christ. As the world continues to call us into a less and less personally engaged space with one another, we will be forced to make a choice. We either continue to find rationalized labels for ourselves that support the business of growing these things we call churches, or we take a step backward, review the life and ministry of Christ and the Apostles, to find what it means to reveal that the Kingdom of God is among men.