god's own gift: glimpsing tomorrow's church today

"But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you" (Isa. 43:1-2).

“Do not fear.” “You are mine.” “I will be with you.” This is the surprising news that God—through the prophet Isaiah—speaks into the despairing souls of congregations that find energies dwindling, numbers depleting and doors closing. Exiled far from their familiar home, they no longer know how to navigate the cultural map of a strange new twenty-first century world. The evidence suggests that it is only a matter of time before this people is no more, subsumed into the culture of consumption in which it now swims. But the prophet sees otherwise. There is a future for the people God has brought into being.

After over three decades of ministry in The United Church of Canada, I must confess that it has taken me most of that time to come to believe God’s promise to be true. It did not take long to realize that the congregations I served were struggling to adapt to huge cultural shifts that made their traditional patterns and familiar models increasingly unsustainable. But it has been much more difficult to accept that the future of these congregations was not dependent upon me, their minister, or upon themselves—but upon the God who creates and forms them.

Somehow along the way I began to hear and to see evidence of the One who speaks this unlikely promise through the prophet Isaiah. Life took us through deep water together. We had our share of baptisms by fire. Being followers of Jesus Christ meant journeying through the valley of the shadow as often as through green pastures. In the congregation that I now have served for nearly two decades, it meant letting go of the church building that had been so central to its identity. It meant learning how to be a church without owning something that we called “the church.” But the main thing we have learned along the way is that God— as promised—has been with us; the waters have not overwhelmed us; we need not have been afraid.

Yet why does God continue to call out and to form congregations (Greek, synagōgai) and assemblies (Greek, ekklēsia) that are known by God’s name? Isaiah voices God’s answer: “Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; I will say to the north, ‘Give them up,’ and to the south, ‘Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth—everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made’” (Isa. 43:5-7). God pledges to call together a church from this generation’s scattered offspring “for my glory.” The glory of God is, in Hebrew, the kabod of God. It is, literally, the weight of God. God’s glory is God’s gravitas. It is God’s huge energy for life and awesome power for newness. God is forever forming a people whose life together is meant to testify to the glory of God “as though reflected in a mirror” (2 Cor. 3:18).

To be honest, this can be difficult news for pastors and congregations. We can forget God’s intention in calling out a holy (“set- apart”) people. We can begin to dream of a church that is shaped by our grand visions. This is not a new problem. Before speaking a word of hope to the exiled community, Isaiah speaks a word of judgment to a forgetful people: “You turn things upside down! Shall the potter be regarded as the clay? Shall the thing made say of its maker, ‘He did not make me’; or the thing formed say of the one who formed it, ‘He has no understanding’?” (Isa. 29:16). Writing out of his experience within the Confessing Church of Germany in the 1930s, Dietrich Bonhoeffer observed that "on innumerable occasions a whole Christian community has been shattered because it has lived on the basis of a wishful image . . . The bright day of Christian community dawns wherever the early morning mists of dreamy visions are lifting . . . Christian community is not an ideal we have to realize, but rather a reality created by God." (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005, 35, 37, 38). How I wish I had remembered these stories when we spent entire Saturdays in attempts to brainstorm a mission statement for our church. As if Jesus has not already given us a big enough and good enough mission.

But how are we to recognize the shape of the community that God is forming among us? What are the features of a congregation that reflects, as in a mirror, “the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6)? These are the primary questions that have emerged in my ministry as I have struggled to let go of my dreams of what a congregation should be. Looking back, things began to shift when wrestling with these questions became central in the congregation’s conversation. We had been thinking of the church as one more voluntary association requiring generous volunteers to keep it going. Now we are learning to receive the church as a gift from God, sustained by the energy—the glory—of God.

The shift is noticed in small but significant ways. Instead of thanking people when they step forward to take a share in our common ministry we are learning to thank God for calling them to serve and for giving them the energy to do so. Instead of imagining that, as the pastor, I am like a manager who is responsible for “running the church,” I am learning to see myself as a gardener whose vocation is to cultivate God’s garden (See “Missional Community: Cultivating Communities of the Holy Spirit” in Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America, ed. Darrell L. Guder Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998, 142-182). Some seasons are fertile, others are barren. The pastor’s calling is faithfully to tend the garden through abundant harvests and through times of blight and drought that are often beyond her control. These subtle shifts in the way we speak about the church teach us to put the emphasis on what God is up to in our life together. They remind us that the church is God’s creation, not our own. Slowly we recover our trust in God to create and form a people in our time and place. We begin to notice that we are no longer afraid or overly anxious about the future, that we are living less in despair and more in hope, and that we are being given eyes to see God’s new growth.

An eye-opening moment for us in University Hill Congregation came when we were introduced to five marks of Christian communal life. We discovered them in a book by Maria Harris, who maintains that the development of educational curriculum in congregational life involves a holy participation in God’s fashioning of a people. (Maria Harris, Fashion Me a People: Curriculum in the Church, Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1989, 16). She posits that the medium which is the material of God’s artistic endeavour in forming the church is a set of forms—or marks—of Christian community that are first named in the Book of Acts (Acts 2:42, 44-47).

There we find in one place the most detailed description of the first Christian community doing what will in time become the classical activities of ecclesial ministry: kerygma, proclaiming the word of Jesus’ resurrection; didache, the activity of teaching; liturgia, coming together to pray and re-present Jesus in the breaking of bread; koinonia, or community; and diakonia, caring for those in need (Harris, Fashion Me, 16).

With these five marks of Christian communal life we are given a language to describe the shape of the community that God is forming among us. They act as lenses through which we glimpse signs of new life in the garden of God’s kingdom that is breaking in upon us. As with any new language, we have learned this grammar and vocabulary step by step, taking time to focus on each mark in particular. (Learning the Greek words for these marks is a means of reminding us that they emerged out of the experience of the early church and that they connect us with Christians across time, space and denominational affiliation.) But the purpose of a language is to become proficient so that the community is capable of improvisational speech. This creative speaking and living is what is seen and heard when a congregation learns to live the gospel language that is its core curriculum. The marks—like words in speech and like crops in a garden—form an eco-system that cultivates the well-being of the whole. These five fundamental expressions of Christian life work in concert with one another, encouraging the growth of God’s glory in the congregation’s life together.

The Five “Marks”
Kerygma is at the heart of the church’s life. Kerygma means “proclaiming,” “announcing,” “preaching.” A congregation lacking kerygma is a community without the extraordinary news—“The Message”—that is the church’s reason for being. The kerygma is not simply a neighbourly commitment to generic values of hope, faith and love or to peace and justice. The gospel is not the best of humankind’s attempts to reach out to God. It is, instead, the incredible announcement that, in Jesus Christ, God has broken into history to save and redeem the creation. The good news is a cruciform story of God’s capacity to bear the world’s suffering and to overcome the powers of death. A kerygmatic congregation is learning that the glory of the God it meets in Jesus Christ is, paradoxically, revealed in weakness. To paraphrase Paul, believers long for proof (signs) that God is real while unbelievers expect a reasonable contemporary spirituality (wisdom) but the church announces Christ murdered (crucified), a scandal to believers and idiocy to unbelievers (1 Cor. 1:22-23). The church that God grows springs from the seeds of the cross and resurrection. Where this message takes root and comes to flower one finds a people undeterred by hardship, unsurprised by tragic loss, and unprepared to give up on the least and the last because it is coming to trust in the power of God to make new.

Didache (pronounced “did-a-kay”) means “teaching,” “formation,” “training.” It is a mark of Christian community because the church is a school. In it we are taught the Way of Jesus Christ in the same manner that apprentices are taught a trade—through lifelong practice in repentance and confession, in forgiveness and reconciliation, in servanthood and sacrifice, in pastoral care and in social witness. Didache is less about learning a body of knowledge and more about becoming a new people. A congregation that bears the mark of didache is not a “come as you are, stay as you are” church. Resistance to the notion of conversion is dwindling in such places, for these are communities in which people increasingly long to be converted from the anxiety-producing ways of the world to the peaceable way of God’s kingdom come. In their desire to learn a new way of life—to “learn Christ” (Eph. 4:20)—such congregations evoke memories of the name claimed by the early Christian community—“The Way” (Acts 9:2). Here Christian education is not simply a matter of teaching children to become believing adults. Here the whole congregation is made up of disciples—students—who are learning how to live a new life as adopted children in the household of God. Here it is clear that once we have heard the kerygma—the good news—nothing can stay the same.

Liturgia literally means “work of the people.” In the ancient Roman world aqueducts were liturgical structures, that is, public works. Christian worship is a public work that is intended to benefit the world that the church inhabits. Christian worship is not a consumer activity meant to meet the needs of those who gather to worship. Those who worship gather to offer themselves to God on behalf of the world and to be sent into the world as Jesus’ servants on behalf of God. The early Christian community renamed Sunday as the Lord’s Day (often calling it the Eighth Day of Creation—an entirely new day of the week) as a constant reminder that Christian worship is the praise and response of a people whose life together is rooted in the startling, transforming resurrection news of Easter Sunday. On Sunday the church brings with it the harsh truth about the world’s Good Friday ache and grief, as well as its Holy Saturday longing and emptiness. Then, in Word and Sacrament, it meets the Easter God who, in Jesus Christ, brings to birth a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17). Here the gospel is revealed to be both intensely personal and radically social. Nothing and no one is beyond God’s power to raise from the dead. God’s glory is revealed when the liturgy is an enactment of this gospel drama and when the gathered congregation are its actors.

Koinonia translates into words like “community,” “fellowship” and “participation.” It is the root word for “coin” which refers to coinage as everyday currency in common usage. Christian communal life—Christian koinonia—is everyday community in Jesus Christ. It is the place where we practise loving the neighbour and loving the enemy. In the community of fellow Christians we hurt and are hurt, learn to forgive and be forgiven. Sin and brokenness are no strangers to the Christian life. This is no zone of perfection. Rather it is a flawed human community being saved by the amazing grace of God—not by our capacity to get life right. In Christian community we are invited to un-learn our proud independence and to re- learn the humility of mutual dependence. When Christian koinonia is in bountiful supply the church’s common currency includes the bearing of one another’s burdens. The mark of koinonia is a reminder that the Christian life is necessarily social. For if God—the Three in One—is, by definition a community, then the glory of God is always intending, creating and building koinonia. In a culture of increasing social isolation, the church lives a counter-cultural alternative in which God calls into being a people being taught to love God and to love neighbour, a community called church.

is the root word for our terms “deacon,” “deaconess” and “diaconal.” In the world of the New Testament it refers to the role of a slave or a servant. (In Latin the word slave is “minister” and slavery is “ministry.”) Diakonia exhibits the ways in which the church, as a slave of Christ, is obedient to Jesus who, after washing his disciples’ feet, says: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also ought to love one another” (John 13:34). When the church wonders where the boundaries of such extravagant love might be drawn, it is reminded of the parables of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25- 37) and of the Sheep and the Goats (Matt. 25:31-46). These explosive parables announce that God’s love ignores the boundaries of care and concern that we have set and maintained. They alert the church to the news that Jesus is unexpectedly present incognito in the hungry other, the imprisoned outcast, the forgotten invalid and the lonely stranger. Surprising hospitality to the other, the outcast, the forgotten and the stranger is a hallmark of God’s glory. Its emergence in community is a crucial sign that God is calling the church into being once more.

Cause for Hope
The mainline church in North America continues to experience a long, slow, seemingly inevitable decline in numbers, energy and capacity. Buildings close, one by one. Congregations shrink, merge and look for some last gasp of survival. A variety of experiments in alternative Christian community offers the luring promise of a way ahead. Anxiety, sadness, desperation and fatigue are the marks of many a congregation and church leader. It is a long season of depletion, perhaps of judgment, certainly of endings.

Why, then, do I find myself increasingly confident that God is up to something new and that the church we know is, even now, in the labour pains of birth? Perhaps it is because the church has been through far worse trouble than this. Perhaps it is because the global church is mostly in a time of growth, not of decay. However, I suspect that my increasing confidence is mainly a result of what I have been privileged to witness over these past eighteen years in a small congregation being born again on the other side of loss. In our case, when the church as a building was lost, the church as a people was found. We discovered that it is, after all, the Message, and not the location, that binds us together. It is not evident that the University Hill Congregation will survive the great transition that the church is weathering in our generation. But we may have been given a glimpse of the church that is being born through this transition.

The church that is being born is not wealthy, not powerful, not impressive in human terms. The church that God is calling into being reflects the glory of a God met in humility, a God who welcomes the last and the least, a God who is crucified and risen. To be a pastor or a member of the church in such a time is to learn to look forward with hope, unafraid of the rising waters. At this hinge-time between the old and the new we are called to watch for signs of growth—the ancient marks of God’s future church—when they sprout like new shoots from the stump (Isa. 6:13) or like seeds on good soil (Mark 4:8). Then we will give God the glory and go to work in the garden.

                                                - Edwin Searcy
                                                   (published in Touchstone, February 2013)

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