Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Redefining the Church?

There are a chorus of voices within evangelicalism that call for the redefining, rethinking, or reimagining of the church. I first became aware of this in the late 1980's as a student in Bible college. For a young guy who thought he knew everything it sounded right. "Everything must change!" I was absolutely convinced by the pragmatic arguments of the church marketers. The call was to change the methods but not the message. What we have come to learn however is that there is a closer connection between the medium and message than we previously believed.

More recently the call for change is coming from the emergent church "conversation". Where they differ from the church marketers is that they make no pretense about not changing the message. Brian MacLaren has written in Leadership Journal that he and his fellows in the emergent church are dedicated to changing both the methods and the message of the church. I appreciate the honesty. While the emergent church is spot on in some of its critiques of the contemporary church I find their prescriptions to be dangerous. The fact is, we are not called to redefine or reimagine the church as if God has not already told us in His Word who the church is and what the church is to do.

In his brilliant book The Courage to Be Protestant David Wells writes:

"[We] do not need to be rethinking the visible church. Today, prodigious amounts of energy are being poured into this effort. Everything about the church must be rethought! we must rethink how it becomes successful! We must rethink it all because this is what businesses have to do! Their products are all the time dying as new niches and needs arise. So it is in the church! Rethink or die!

In my view, so much of this rethinking confuses rethinking the nature of the church with rethinking its performance. For the multitude of pragmatists who are leading churches in America today, these are one and the same thing. The church is nothing but its performance. There is nothing to be said about the church that cannot be reduced to how it is doing, and that is a matter for constant inventories, poll taking, daily calculations, and strategizing.

I beg to differ. These are two entirely different matters. We intrude into what is not our business when, in our earnest pursuit of success in the church, which we think we can manufacture, we confuse its performance with its nature. Let me explain.

The church is not our creation. it is not our business. We are not called upon to manage it. It is not there for us to advance our careers in it. It is not there for our own success. It is not a business. The church, in fact, was never our idea in the first place. No, it is not the church we need to rethink.

Rather, it is our thoughts about the church that need to be rethought. It is the church's faithfulness that needs to be reexamined. It is its faithfulness to who it is in Christ, its faithfulness in living out its life in the world, that should be occupying us. The church, after all, is not under our management but under God's sovereign care, and what he sees as health is very often rather different from what we imagine its health to be.

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