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If I were to make the following statement, most people would be shocked and some would think me heretical: Church as it has been done for the past 1500 years has failed profoundly and needs to be abandoned. (Millions, of course, have already done just that. They’ve abandoned the church and have no intention of returning to it ever.) Let me explain why I think the statement is true – but don’t think we should give up on the idea of church. I believe we need to abandon what I will call Old Church for the sake of experiencing New Church.
Here is the original conversation that began all our ongoing conversation about church:
When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”That church didn’t own property or build buildings for two or three hundred years after Jesus established it. It had no headquarters. No dues. The people it called “officers” – probably usually for a city or region rather than for just one house church – were essentially being designated as mature examples to the small groups of believers who needed counsel and teaching. There was a spirit of community and bonding among its members. Outsiders are known to have commented, “Look how those ‘Christ-followers’ love one another and look out for each other!” You could hear a touch of envy in the voices of most of them as they said it.
All the believers met together constantly and shared everything they had. They sold their possessions and shared the proceeds with those in need. They worshiped together at the Temple each day, met in homes for the Lord’s Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity – all the while praising God and enjoying the goodwill of all the people. And each day the Lord added to their group those who were being saved (Acts 2:44-47 NLT).The church became such a phenomenon that both religious and political leaders of the first and second centuries began persecuting it. Opposition and social isolation did nothing but make the Christians closer to one another. Finally, in the early fourth century, Emperor Constantine adopted an if-I-can’t-beat-them-I’ll-join-them attitude toward the church. And that was the beginning of the church’s fateful 1500-year decline. He made the loosely associated house churches into land-owning, building-filling church members. But land and buildings needed managers, so a professional class of paid clergy arose. It was no time until bigger-is-better came to be the rule for these institutional churches, and the leaders of the larger churches had more prestige and clout than the ones with only a handful.
The loving family of God had been prostituted into a competitive business. The organism morphed into an organization. And the corporate expression of Jesus’ presence in the word turned into a religious corporation.
The institutional church increasingly allied itself with power instead of with the weak, vulnerable, and oppressed. Spiritual work was done by carnal means – from “converting” people through war to “worshiping” via ritual nobody understood to “ministering” through impersonal giveaways to people with whom nobody wanted to spend time. The simple church of love, accountability, and nurture became a complex set of doctrines, rituals, and hierarchies. God got misplaced in the process!
Old Church has failed. Old Church is dead as an effective means for representing God to emerging generations. Old Church needs to become New Church in order to communicate Jesus to a new world. And please notice that I am not claiming we need “A New Church” – a new denomination, a new reformation-restoration, a new organization-institution to replace the existing ones – but “New Church.” A new way of doing church. No, a new way of being church. Seeing ourselves in our various denominations, non-denominations, and free-standing (i.e., autonomous) enterprises that we have come to call church as part of Jesus’ original notion of flawed people with imperfect understandings of his will trying to do something that honors him in the world. If such a radical idea were ever to take hold in the larger Body of Christ or Christendom in its various fragmented specimens, something holy and revolutionary might yet take place in the world. Some of Christ’s followers might actually experience unity in our diversity. At least, perhaps we would stop some of our political posturing and judging one another and serving as stumbling blocks to faith.
In my lower moments, I sometimes think Nietzsche was right in saying Christians have murdered God and that churches are his burial crypts! We keep turning the gold of faith into the lead of religion. We crucify Jesus afresh in every generation. How did whatever it was that Jesus promised to build, died to make possible, and rose to reign over from the Father’s right hand ever come to so ignoble an end? I know that the Old Church of my experience will not bring the people of our new world to God – but will continue to drive them away from him.
Then I get a glimpse of God at work in this or that godly person I am privileged know. And I know I am wrong to be so discouraged. That it is the struggle of every generation to be more aware that this is what Father God knew we would experience, that his Living Spirit will continue to insure that the gates of Hades will not prevail against the church, and that the Reigning Son will come again to claim his own. That what I am calling “New Church” is but the unfolding dream of God, and its ideal will never be actualized fully until he appears. So we pray, dream, and refuse to be satisfied with “business as usual” for the body of Christ.
There is more for us to experience in Christ than we have known so far. And I’m beginning to suspect that what we can only describe as New Church is really the old, original church that Christ promised to build and pledged to bless in the long ago. Maybe we have just been distracted for these 1500 years or so and can begin to think more clearly and follow him more intentionally. Maybe we can still learn that its effective presence in the world is tied to answering the question “Who do you say Jesus is?” rather than expensive properties, social prominence, and doctrinal tests. Perhaps a relational faith in him can yet foster a relational engagement among his confessors.
Over the next few weeks, then, we’ll look at the traits of New Church in more details as a redemptive, commissioned, and inter-dependent community of faith.