Not Looking for the Perfect Church, but …

Not Looking for the Perfect Church, but …

Via Allan Bevere I located this interview with Scot McKnight, in which McKnight makes a number of interesting statements. The one that caught my attention most was:

… A proper kingdom theology leads people to the middle of the church, not away from it. So it makes a difference when church is on the decline and people are saying they are committed to the kingdom but not so much to the church. You can’t have kingdom without church.

First let me note that I am a very churchy fellow. Except when I was not a (practicing) Christian, I have been a member of a church congregation, and those congregations have largely been deonominational. I’m the sort of person who finds a church in the phone book when traveling on a weekend, and goes and worships with a local congregation. I’m a member of First United Methodist Church of Pensacola, who, I am sure, would rather not be blamed for what I say! First UMC is not a perfect church. I’m sure that can be said of all the First UMC of ____ congregations around. Nonetheless the gospel is preached there, and much good ministry is accomplished.

Second, Allan Bevere is a friend, and co-editor of the Areopagus Critical Christian Issues Series published by my company, Energion Publications. I like Allan. What’s more, I agree with him on many things, especially what he said about this topic.

Third, I found very little that I disagree with theologically in Scot McKnight’s comments.

My problems are largely practical. It’s all well and good to tell people to connect with the church. I’ve been doing that myself. In fact, I find that most people who are struggling spiritually have one thing in common—they’ve lost that connection.

But here are some of the reasons I’ve heard just recently for not connecting with local churches:

  1. The church lacks convictions. Face it, fellow Methodists (I’ll leave the rest to check their own surroundings), we’re not a church of terribly strong convictions. When I was looking at joining a United Methodist congregation I was told by one pastor that he didn’t care what I believed. If I wanted to “enjoy their fellowship” I could join. I’m not sure whether he wanted me to abstain or lie during the membership vows.
  2. The church has convictions, but people can’t live with those convictions. I’m not referring to any particular issue or any side of any particular issue. I’ve heard this from people across the theological spectrum. Really!
  3. The church is so little oriented toward kingdom work of any variety (any of the five elements to which McKnight refers) that the person doesn’t how he or she could work for both the kingdom and the church.
  4. The church is so fractured, that people have a hard time identifying what is actually Church.
  5. The church behaves as though it is a kingdom in the throes of a civil war.
  6. The king is, at most, a figurehead.

I could go on, but I won’t.

I have personally felt elements of all of those things. Of course the kingdom and the church should overlap, but sometimes I feel that the theologians and preachers are hammering the people who are trying to accomplish something for the kingdom, as problematic as that may be outside of the church, while the churches (to be distinguished from Church) continue to fail to make it possible to accomplish much of anything. It often sounds like people should be able to find and identify a good church, one that will truly be part of the kingdom, without any particular guidance. When they get there, the reason they should stay is that they need the church, whether or not it is functioning for them.

Now I’m sure readers are going to get all tense about the phrase “functioning for them.” I believe that the primary issue in finding a local congregation is discovering the place where, and from which you can best serve Jesus. This is necessary because we don’t have a single church. Paul didn’t write to the Corinthians about our sort of problems, because we’ve gotten much worse. Not only do we have divisions; our divisions are institutionalized. So I have to locate a church congregation where I can be part of the Church, and thus carry on kingdom work. The followers of Cephas, Apollos, Paul, and Christ have separated themselves into different buildings with signs and trademarked logos.

Once I find this congregation, I’m as likely as not to be pushed into various congregational or denominational programs to make sure that I’m properly socialized to the way that particular congregation does business. I recall being pursued early in my time in the United Methodist Church by folks from the Lay Speaker program. I needed to be certified before I spoke. I needed to coordinate before I spoke anywhere, because I might be seen as representing the UMC. But I wasn’t being invited to speak for Methodism. I had other things going on. Once I’ve checked off the boxes, the congregation wants to make sure I’m doing things for that congregation. Perhaps we should recognize that people gain skills in other churches, other denominations, and even in their secular occupations.

Now because I am fully convinced of what Allan and Scot are saying, I will find that congregation and I will be a member, and I will make my kingdom work part of Church. What I won’t do is find myself stuck with that congregation or denomination. If I can get together with other parts of the Church irrespective of denomination, I’ll do so. But we get back to “functioning for them.”

I’m seeing a great deal of hostility to any notion that a person should get something out of church. But the fact is that if you don’t get something out of church, you’re not going to be doing any ministry from church. No, you shouldn’t be self oriented. You should look for a place where you can serve. But a church congregation (and the whole church), should be a place where we serve one another. We give and we receive. And if we don’t receive, we won’t be giving for long, I don’t believe.

That’s one of the problems with our expectations of pastors. The actual job description for our pastors—I mean what you’d get by following them around and describing what they actually do, not the paperwork lies we use—is both ungodly and stupid. Nobody can do the job. We put men and women into a place where nobody can truly succeed. Those who do succeed at all remold the job. I do not mean to denigrate the many fine pastors I know who are doing wonderful kingdom work from their church congregations. The problem is that we require them to be paragons just in order to succeed. We make every effort to destroy them. That’s the extreme of giving but not receiving.

(Yes, Jesus said it’s better to give than to receive. But if we have an entire Church of people giving, there will be a lot of receiving going on as well!)

It isn’t wrong for a couple with children to want to see that the church congregation they join will help them raise and nurture their children. It’s not wrong for a person who is ill to hope to be visited, encouraged, and prayed for. It’s not wrong for missionaries to want a home base that will actively support what they do and who will want to listen to their stories when they return. It is not wrong for the elderly members to expect that they will be helped and respected in their declining years. All of those things involve the congregation “functioning for” various people. If I want to support children’s ministry, the elderly, service to the sick or imprisoned, or engage in social action, why would I join a congregation that shows it’s intention not to do those sorts of things?

But, object many of my fellow churchy folks, there are good congregations out there. People should be more determined. They should seek out the right congregation. They should find a way to serve! They can start those ministries!

And here you’re expecting the non-theologically trained, non-church-oriented, ordinary people who just want to get about doing good to fix your church first. If the church is spending 70% or more of its budget just maintaining the machine, why would someone who really cares about the poor, for example, decide to join up and handle the problem before they do what they are called to do? That’s what we ask of many of them. We are dedicated to the buildings, to the structure, to the programs, and to the traditions, so they should come on board and be satisfied with just a tiny percentage of the effort and money of the church going to the sorts of ministry to which they are called.

I don’t believe that the solution to our church problems will come by persuading this generation that they need to come on board and solve our problems before they can do kingdom work. Those of us who are in the church need to be prepared to be radical. Sometimes one must acquire buildings, but very frequently one must get rid of buildings. If a church is failing, it may well be time to shut it down.

I’m not opposed to paid staff. But our paid staff should be people who help get the rest of us out doing ministry. For example, I would be very sorry to see a scholar-pastor such as Dr. Wesley Wachob at  my home church in a bi-vocational ministry. I think the best use the church can make of him is in a full-time teaching role. But his job (and I’d be surprised if he doesn’t understand it this way, but don’t blame him for my words!) is to get another 3,000+ of us out there doing ministry, not as paid ministers, but as every member ministers. (Every member in ministry is a good Methodist program. Too bad “every” is such a small number in so many cases.)

Do I have a solution or is this just a rant? Well, I admit it is somewhat of a rant. But I do believe that each of us who are in the church can make a difference by being different. Have convictions. If you don’t know what they should be, study. Learn. Be prepared to stand aside and see things done differently, even in ways you don’t think will work, as new people come in the door. See the church everywhere believers may be found, and not just in your congregation.

And for the 21st century in particular, realize that social relations are different now. I hear moaning in church about a decline in people knowing one another as aging church members (and I must admit these aging church members are my age!) talk about how social media is ruining everything. They ought to be in church or at our Sunday School party, but they’re on Facebook. Yes, indeed! They’re on Facebook. And that’s part of their social circle and how they connect. And because I want to be able to connect with the current generation and those between, it’s one of the ways I connect. Many of my closest friends now I met through electronic media, some long before it was called social media or the internet became so universal.

For example, I met Elgin Hushbeck, Jr. on the CompuServe Religion Forum in the days when I had to dial-up a CompuServe outlet in order to connect. Elgin is now one of my authors. He spoke some years ago at a pastor’s conference I was coordinating. It all started through non-traditional media. It was through Elgin that I met Dave Black, who I now count as one of my closest friends. They’re part of the Church, I am connected to them, and it didn’t start in a church fellowship hall.

Then there’s Allan Bevere, who I know is committed to the church and is committed, I believe to all the types of ministry I’ve discussed and more. Further, he’s willing to be in the heart of the fray. I met him via blogging. In fact, I think our earliest exchange involved him telling me I didn’t know what I was talking about! We’ve met in real life since, but it all started among the blogs. He, in turn, introduced me to Bob Cornwall, a Disciples pastor in Michigan, who is also one of my authors and the lead editor for a series I publish. My point here is not to invoke these people in support of my views. Rather, I’m pointing out that there’s a whole new way of congregating in the 21st century, and we churchy folks need to get used to it. It may not just be an adjunct to what we consider “real” socializing. It’s more likely a new reality.

All of these people are in the Church with me, as I see it.

I don’t think the concept of the church is out of date. The media may change, but the idea is there. What we need to do is truly practice being the body of Christ in whatever place and by whatever means there are at hand. In doing so, we need to be radical, in the sense of pulling up by the root those things that keep us from doing what we need to do. Our theology on the importance of the church won’t bring these people in. I hope it will convince us that we need to get real about the message and practice of the gospel.

3 thoughts on “Not Looking for the Perfect Church, but …

  1. That the church and kingdom are synonymous can be argued. It’s hard to argue that the kingdom’s pull, heard mostly in Scripture, is muted in the church. The rich emphasis on a counter-cultural church as seen in the New Testament is largely missing today. So it’s no surprise to me that people find the kingdom compelling and the church wanting. It goes with the same trend that people find Jesus compelling and not the church. The difference is palpable. The fact is, we have kingdom without the church right now. (Of course there are notable exceptions, but they prove the rule.)

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