Wednesday, August 31, 2011

What can the Church be... What must she be?

I happened upon a series of lectures by the eminent Orthodox Bishop (now retired) Kallistos Ware.  A former Anglican, Ware is a very interesting fellow who speaks with a marvelously deliberate manner in an eloquent accented voice.  In the first section of his first lecture the Bishop raises this question as central: What does the Church do that no one else can do?

There are many memorable phrases in his lecture but this one has stuck with me.  What does the Church do that no one else can do?  It is stark in its simplicity yet the question is not simplistic.  It at one in the same time begs us to search Scripture to know what it is that only the Church can do and to challenge the popular idea that the Church does what other institutions do but with a difference.

In effect it seems that today we try very hard to make sure that the Church is relevant by doing what our society and culture do – only better.  We have attempted to replicate the theater in worship, the lecture hall of the university in the classroom, the music of the radio as our soundtrack, and the architecture of the mall for our temple.  Instead of providing something distinctive, we provide something similar but with a difference.  We introduce God into the ordinary concerns of mortal life – employment, marriage, family, success, happiness, health, etc.  In the end, God is less central to than an additive in the recipe for receiving what it is we desire.  Those churches that do this successfully grow.

The mega-churchs with sufficient resources to pay professionals and provide the highest quality of spectator music, religious drama, personal motivation, mall-style facilities and abundant parking.  It shows and they do it well.  In contrast, the small parish struggles with volunteer praise bands, unrehearsed skits, less professional teachers, less all encompassing facilities, and such.  They work to find their niche in order to make up for the fact that they cannot be all things to all people.  In some cases this works and in most it comes up a less than pleasing imitation, a juvenile manifestation which hopes to grow up and be just like the big guys some day.

In contrast to this, Bishop Ware asks “what does the Church do that no one else can do?”  This is not a back to the basics call but a piercing reminder that the Church is established by Christ to deliver to the world what only Christ can offer.  In this respect, the Church has an exclusive franchise, without competition from any other source.

I fear that we have forgotten this, or at least we have lost confidence in this exclusive franchise.  We tend to feel better by providing the resources others can provide and we draw our confidence -- even our self-esteem – more by being relevant to the people than faithful to the Lord.  We entertain the people to whom we are called forth to deliver the Kingdom of God (in the means of grace).  We babysit their children with youth programs more about pizza and paintball than about Christ.  We assist the marrieds in feeling better about their choice of spouses and we educate them in how to achieve their goals in marriage without ever speaking of what God created marriage to be or what marriage reveals about Christ and His Church.  We spread balm upon their guilt by mission trips that show them what their dollars are paying for or by assuring them that you can buy fully into the consumerism of the marketplace without losing your soul.

For Lutherans this question points us back to the marks of the Church (the means of grace).  These are not bare minimums to point out the Church from the rest of the landscape of society but the peculiar gifts that belong only to the Church and through which God does for us what only Christ can do.  Word and Sacrament is not a slogan but a definition, a boundary line, and that which makes the Church of Christ His, authentically His.  Missing those marks, the Church is not the Church at all.  She is merely human creation and her good, no matter how good, cannot answer the snicker of death or wash clean the guilt stained soul or restore the hopelessly lost or make righteous the evil born into and added to daily... No, we Lutherans resonate to this question:  What does the Church do that only the Church can do?

The good Bishop has made me think.  What does the Church do that no one else can do?  He points me to the Word and the Sacraments, to the grace of God that bestows forgiveness, life, and salvation, to the mercy of God revealed on a cross, to the nobility of a life of mercy and service, and to knowledge of God (and not simply about God).  His words remind me of the predominance of programs in fellowship halls and classrooms and gymnasiums that replicate what can be found elsewhere in our society and of the lack of energy and resources we have left specifically for the work of the Kingdom.  I cannot but look at my own parish and wonder if we do not justify what we think we should be doing instead of looking to Christ for what we must do.  I hope that his words have challenged you as well.

Our congregations and our church body would be mightily different if we focused less on what we could do or should do and more on what we must do because of the Gospel.  May our Lord prick and prod us when we become too comfortable being merely a religious version of a secular form and may His Spirit guide us to become what He has called us to be and what only His Church can be in the world and for the world.  Anything less and we are merely spinning our wheels.

    O Spirit, who didst once restore
    Thy Church that [she] might be again
    The bringer of good news to men,
    Breathe on Thy cloven Church once more,
    That in these gray and latter days
    There may be those whose life is praise,
    Each life a high doxology
    To Father, Son, and unto Thee.


Anonymous said...

He must be the Shepherd of the
flock who ministers with Word and
Sacrament. Only the pastor has the
authority of Christ to baptize and
commune the people of God. Only the
pastor can proclaim the message of
law and gospel from the pulpit to
God's people. Only the pastor can
conduct a Christian wedding and a
Christian funeral. Only the pastor
can conduct the rite of confirmation.

Anonymous said...

As a called and ordained Servant of
the Word, the pastor is Christ's
representative in his parish and
community. Only the pastor has the
responsibility to answer before God
for the souls entrusted to his care.
I realized this article was about
"What Must The Church be?" However,
pastoral leadership is required to
allow a parish to reach its potential
with the help of the Holy Spirit.