“If children are called to be part of the covenant people, how may they enter it except by baptism, which is, according to universal Church confession, the way of entry into the Church? But if they are not, we are in danger of a seriously impoverished view of the Church, that it is only for those who are of the ‘age of reason': adult or near adult believers who have qualified themselves for membership by virtue of a particular experience or decision.” (Colin E. Gunton, “Baptism and the Christian Community”)
Archive for July 2012
What on earth is the church of Jesus Christ doing? What’s our mission here in the world? What’s the end game of all our Christian ministries under the sun?
I’ve observed two dominant approaches to answering this question. One says our mission is to rescue people (perhaps more precisely, to be instruments through which God rescues people) from everlasting destruction. We want to see people saved. We want to see them enter God’s kingdom. That’s not the end of the story, by any means. But it’s the main storyline: people being saved from hell and put on their way to heaven. It’s the Pilgrim’s Progress story: everything is about getting on the right road, and then not getting distracted from the pearly gate at the end.
The other approach says our mission is restorative. Rescue is important, but it’s just a beginning. If it’s big news that God is emptying the kingdom of darkness, it’s perhaps even bigger news that He’s filling His kingdom of light – and there’s an awful lot going on in here! It’s good news that we’re no longer God’s enemies, but in a sense that pales in comparison with the news that we get to live as His children, that we get to become a holy people, a nation of disciples.
Now both of these emphases are important, but what I want to suggest is that the first can (and often does) function almost to the exclusion of the second, resulting in all manner of distortions; while the second cannot but include the first, while bringing it to its divinely intended fruition. Let me explain.
I’ve been a part of church ministries that were all about people getting saved. Are you in Christ? Are you in the door of the kingdom? That’s the thundering question that gets all the attention. What’s interesting is that I’ve seen two very different sorts of church ministries grow out of this underlying emphasis. On one hand are the churches that immediately strike you as being very different from the world. The tone of the pulpit ministry is heraldic, authoritative, even oracular. Sinners outside of Christ (whether visitors or longtime members) are warned, threatened, and commanded to repent. Along with this comes a veritable horror of ever “looking back” once one has left the city of destruction; one’s entire previous life must be forsaken, lest one be like Lot’s wife, and so all things cultural are viewed with suspicion at best. Separation from the world is explicitly or implicitly identified with separation from culture. What is certainly absent is any positive program for culture. Who hath time for culture when there are souls to be saved?
The second type of church growing out of a rescue emphasis is much more easygoing. That may seem strange at first, but it makes sense when you think about it. Here also the great goal is to get people saved, only this type of church does everything in its power to “contextualize” the gospel so people will come and hear the message of salvation. Surrounding culture here is not an enemy – it is not the city of destruction – it is the friend of the gospel, since if one can use popular stuff from the culture to get people into church, the chances of their getting saved are vastly improved. Hence, the immediate “feel” when you walk into this type of church is that you haven’t walked far from the culture. This also affects the way the church talks to its members. If the first type of church spends a lot of time warning members that they may not be “really saved” after all (one can’t be too careful of thinking one is in when one is really out), or warning them against looking back (Lot’s wife again), the second type spends a lot of time assuring its members that they are really saved (it talks constantly about justification, for example, and resists anything that could make hearers feel unsafe, ashamed, or insecure), and it pretty much leaves the personal lives of its people alone. Indeed, how could it do otherwise, since its various methods of drawing people in to hear the gospel message assume that the life forms of the surrounding culture are kingdom-neutral, if not a positive good?
What one finds in both types of rescue church is a kind of cluelessness among its members about how to connect everyday life to the gospel. In the first type of church, there’s a lot of fear, and a lot of people tend to keep their personal lives as separate from the churchy life of the church as possible. In the second type, there’s often a lot of passion to help the church get people saved; but beyond that, apart from the most basic elements of morality, and of course personal “devos,” there’s virtually no imprint of the gospel in everyday life. Church life is one spoke in the wheel of life; it certainly doesn’t dominate the whole. And how could it? It really has almost nothing to say to the whole. The real program, after all, is getting (others) saved.
But let us imagine a different kind of church altogether. Here the basic understanding is that in the gospel God gives us our life back. The gospel is about the grace of God restoring nature in Christ, so that we can once again, under His fatherly kingship and in fellowship with His people and our neighbors more generally, live well. The good Shepherd has come that we might have life more abundantly. To be reconciled to God through Him is just the beginning of this.
This church believes that “the gospel of the kingdom” is just that: good news about the restored kingdom of God on earth, and restoration of human life in that kingdom. The work of this church is, therefore, nothing less than making disciples. It isn’t interested in people simply believing certain truths and getting through the pearly gate (being suitably moral and undistracted along the way); it is interested in whole ways of life being renewed and transformed by the Word of the Lord, who is King over every square inch of life and whose covenant is comprehensive in its outworkings. Moreover, this church has little use for “Jesus and me” Christianity, because if there is anything the Bible makes clear about restored human life, it is that this life is enunciated in the first person plural: we are the children of God, we are the people of God, we are a peculiar people and a holy nation. The kingdom is not just about me; it’s about us.
The tone of the ministry of this church, then, will be calmly instructive. It will turn a critical eye on the ways of human life outside of Christ, it will be able to show those still lost in their sins the emptiness and foolishness of life without God, and to its own people it will speak with the aim of cultivating discernment between what in surrounding cultures expresses the goodness of creation and what in culture expresses a profound falling short of the glory of God. It will warn without fear mongering; it will have an appreciation of the difficulty of certain questions, and the reality of “gray areas.” It will certainly speak forth the law of God and warn those who break it; but its aim, both in the conversion of the lost and in the sanctifying of its own people, will be maturity, the flourishing that can come only through costly discipleship.
An enormous amount of time will be spent in this church neither issuing screeds against culture, nor commandeering all sorts of cultural forms for the purpose of packaging the gospel, but rather developing a positive biblical program (grounded in creational norms) for human flourishing. It will be deeply interested both in the formation of culture by humans and in the formative power exerted by culture upon humans. It will thus be cautious in its engagement of existing cultures (it will certainly not hop on the bandwagon of every cultural fad), even while it is enthusiastic about doing all things well to the glory of God.
A great practical difference, I think, between the rescue church model and the restoration church model will be that you can’t be long in the latter without discovering the gospel has everything to do with your everyday life. You may not like it (!), but you won’t be able to persist in the notion that church is one spoke in the wheel of life. No, life in the kingdom is all of life. The King rules it all. And while this certainly won’t answer every hard question, it will make you feel the call of saving grace all the time, everywhere you are, whatever you’re doing. And that’s great salvation.
The solution to abuse of God’s gifts is not rejection of God’s gifts but thankfulness for God’s gifts.
“The Bible and God are relevant in this culture and in every other culture. He and His gospel are relevant. Always. We are the roadblocks to relevancy, not the Bible. We live in a way that makes God seem irrelevant, but He is not to blame.” Ed Stetzer, “Developing Missional Churches for the Great Commission”