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The recent history of many mainline denominations’ traditional understandings of church, which may include a particular building on the corner or the historic programs and worship that goes on inside it, need to be rethought, as they no longer appear as meaningful as in the past. The church, from the time of its inception, has been comprised of both people and a vision of ministry or mission that they collectively possess. One argument against viewing church as a physical location with people meeting at certain times is the assumption that the church exists only in these certain places and/or times and only then can the church be considered sacred. This assumption should be challenged and a new one introduced: church exists in sacred space/time that is unbounded by physical measurement. If God is active and present in the world, all places and all times have the potential to be sacred. Sacred activity does in fact occur in a church building at various times, but God and God’s agency in the world cannot be limited to such an extent. Even the thought of God’s presence being limited to the space within four walls and one or two hours on a Sunday morning should be eliminated.
The class’ theology and process for contextual and meaningful church growth with integrity, or meaning-making, is not based on any particular doctrine, however, a sense of accountability to something higher or larger than self is central.
A helpful metaphor for understanding this broadened concept of church is found in the book Common Fire: Leading Lives of Commitment in a Complex World. The authors describe a “new commons” of contemporary society resembling the gathering places, or commons, found in many early American cities and towns. In the past, these places were used to discuss problems, form conclusions and gain a sense of community. The “new commons” as the church recognizes the interdependence of humanity and one’s role within it. When the church is described as existing in sacred space/time unbounded by physical measurement, it becomes the new commons of relationship and interdependence. To be at home in the new commons requires connecting with others in trustworthy ways and with “some confidence that we can make a difference.”
Being a part of this community requires that church-goers answer for themselves “who am I – who are we?” and “to what do we belong?” Acknowledging the social glue that binds us together in community demonstrates how human connections can surpass political and religious boundaries. Community maintains itself where there is physical and emotional safety for all members and respect of each person individually and collectively. Yet in modern American society, a substitution for the new commons is likely to be places where there is limited interaction with others: restaurants, shopping malls, movie theaters, video arcades, etc. Such places allow people to gather without engaging. The church as alternative new commons would change that paradigm.
From a global level, understandings of “church” cannot be limited to a single or even a handful of denominations; one must see all the workings of God as the Church Universal, regardless of the context in which it takes place. This definition of “church” includes a broader understanding of the church as the community of all people engaged in the work of spiritual growth and renewal regardless – or even because – of their doctrinal differences.
One cannot understand the church without addressing its mission. The church was created for a purpose: to participate in God’s mission of salvation for the world. The New Testament speaks of this mission in the ministry of Jesus to the outcast and poor, and in the sending out of the 12 (Matt 10) and the 70 (Luke 10). 1 Peter 2:9 describes the reason for God’s call to the church: “that you may proclaim the mighty acts of [the One] who called you.” The church’s mission is to proclaim the gospel of God’s love for the world and provide humble service to the poor and needy. Mission also calls for justice to free the oppressed and restore human dignity to all. Worship is part of the church’s mission, as one of the specific tasks identified with living a Christian life (Col 3:15-17).
“This is a life of cure from sin; it is not a life of sinlessness, as if the cure were finished and health had been recovered. The church is an inn and an infirmary for the sick and for convalescents. Heaven… is the palace where the whole and righteous live,” wrote Luther. Ministry is often disparaged when compared with mission, which is unfortunate. Without ministry, few would be fit for mission. The church is more than a battalion of prepared believers dispatched to “convert” the world; it is also a healing chapel for the ailing who care for each other while the Great Physician is healing them. Too much emphasis on mission leads towards thinking of church entirely in terms of doing. The church does not justify itself by what it does; rather, it is justified by the grace of God. Even from the perspective of mission, the church’s own health is of immense importance. If the church’s own life is in turmoil and shows no evidence of the Reign of God, who would tolerate the church’s preaching on the same subject?
Koinonia – a fellowship or community – is equally important when discussing the life of the church. Believers are a people and, therefore, a community. The metaphor of the body of Christ does not mean only that the church is Christ’s instrument, but also that its members are inter-related and interdependent like the limbs and organs of a body. The church is a community of those who share in the gift of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 12).
The research performed by this class, combined with the theologies of church throughout history, reflect two basic components of the church’s understanding of its mission that help to illuminate the environment within which church growth materials and programs are being considered:
- 1. The Greatest Commandment – “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matt 22:37-40).
•2. The Great Commission – “I have been given all authority in heaven and earth. Therefore go and make disciples in all the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and then teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you; and be sure of this – that I am with you always, even to the end of the world” (Matt 28: 18-20).
The theological trap encountered by modern church growth movements is an over-emphasis on the Great Commission to the exclusion of the Great Commandment. The related danger of most mainline denominations is to react against such evangelical movements by focusing only on the Great Commandment. However, the church must maintain a balance between both if it wants to accomplish its mission of being the instrument of God’s salvation within the world. When balanced between worship, mission and proclamation, the church can at last become what it could be.
The church must focus outward towards the world, as well as inward towards the congregation growing closer to God. Any organization that focuses exclusively on its own survival by ignoring its ministry to the world is already dead. Thus, embracing corporate models from the business world and applying them to the church is unhealthy at best and deadly at worst. Business models are motivated by profit and self-interest, power and control, and the flowing down of benefits only to those who are significant stakeholders in the particular enterprises. The nature or spirit of the church is strikingly different from earthly thrones, powers, rulers or authorities (Col. 1:16-18).
Paul’s letter to the Romans, specifically 12:2 to 15:6, has been described as Paul’s depiction of the ethical behavior of the one family of God. In particular, the authors of this document have used Romans 12:2-18 as a model of a church’s relations both within and outside the community.
2Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God–what is good and acceptable and perfect.
3For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.
4For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.
6We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; 7ministry (serving), in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver (contributing to the needs of others), in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.
9Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.
11Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. 14Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.
While elsewhere in scripture Christians are called to be in the world, verse 2 reminds Christians to be apart from, perhaps even critical of, the world’s practices and values (clearly the paradox mentioned earlier is scriptural). Concentrate on what is good, acceptable and perfect – not to the world, but to God. Before we (individuals, churches, denominations or the entire body of Christ) can be preoccupied with these God-pleasing qualities, we must be transformed by the renewing of our minds and souls.
What does transformation or renewal of mind and soul look like? Paul uses the word metamorphousthe – ‘be or being transformed.’ It hearkens back to what John Cobb called for – the willingness to face the issues of the day, wrestle with the theological implications, accept responsibility when appropriate, repent of the behavior or belief system, and come to terms with the changes in individual and corporate behavior repentance requires. An environment conducive to meaningful dialogue needs to be developed, with church leadership forging the way by example. Particular programs are not as important as are opportunities for churchgoers to discuss and find meaning in the difficult issues facing their own lives, their community, and the world.
Since God writes the calls to service on Christian’s hearts, should the church not be ardent about helping each other discern those calls? Likewise, if churches develop communal personalities and gifts, should it not be the function of the judicatories to assist in the discernment and development of each church’s particular ministry direction? Doing so necessitates the altering of judicatory roles from hierarchical managers and decision makers to pastoral, teaching presences in the lives of the local congregations. Admittedly, this is a substantial change of direction for the denominational organizations, but one which has the potential to enliven the relationships between churches and their hierarchy structures.
The church is a body of people who come together with a common desire to develop and explore faith, with a main focus on a divine being who guides the purpose of the church. Faith is sincere – it abhors affectations and dissimulation – and cleaves to what is good. Again who is the one that defines ‘good,’ the world in which we live or the living, dynamic God through which we can find hope in a world that is more and more appearing to be without hope? But what is this hope? It is the belief that there is more to life than what is experienced here and now. It is an expectation of a better future, a better eternity. The hope is found in the belief of salvation – being saved from the conditions under which humanity finds itself.
By incorporating this behavior, the church lives that hope for salvation as a beacon to others in the world around it. Church members are saying, “We believe so much in the tenets of our faith that we are willing to be visibly different than the world itself. We are willing to look foolish when compared to earthly standards. We are willing to be ‘not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of our minds, so that we may discern what is the will of God–what is good and acceptable and perfect [to God]'” (Rom 12:2).
Defining pathways toward salvation is outside the scope of this project. However, the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) approach provides an example of how it possible for one to relate to the Divine in the manner that best suits his or her own experience while being a part of a religious community defined not by adherence to dogma, but by commitment to meaning-making. This view of community is expressed through the “UUA Principals and Purposes” below:
- 1. The inherent worth and dignity of every person
- 2. Justice, equity and compassion in human relations
- 3. Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations
- 4. A free and responsible search for truth and meaning
- 5. The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large
- 6. The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all
- 7. Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part
Such a commitment exemplifies the understanding of church as unbounded by space or time, as a “new commons” for interaction both with itself and with the world at large, and as a community called to work with God to bring transformation. With this commitment in mind, a richer meaning for church growth can begin.
The notion of church growth based on a theology of “making” disciples is flawed. Instead, many American churches are simply “trading’ disciples at best, and at worst, filling the pews with a consumer-driven assortment of programs, many lacking faith as a component on any level. To increase the number of educated, committed Christians in society, the church must reinvent itself, its approaches, and its relationships – both within and between denominations. The role and theology of the church in the world, especially from the viewpoint of evangelism, requires open discussion at all levels of the church. Only by revisiting and defining its mission and ministry to the world as one of transformation can the church avoid forgetting and miscommunicating its vision. This dilemma is not new. Charles Wesley, in writing to his brother John, penned the following:
When first sent forth to minister the word,
Say, did we preach ourselves, or Christ the Lord?
Was it our aim disciples to collect,
To raise a party, or found a sect?
No; but to spread the power of Jesus’ name,
Repair the walls of our Jerusalem
Revive the piety of ancient days,
And fill the earth with our Redeemer’s praise.
Living the Great Commission apart from the Great Commandment is misguided. No matter whether the reader accepts scripture as literal or metaphoric – as God’s inspired, infallible word, as simply a collection of wisdom, or somewhere in between – scripture is narrative and as such, it should be read in context and sequence. The Great Commandment from Matthew 22 informs the manner in which the Great Commission from Matthew 28 should be exercised, as well as the reason for the latter’s significance. Therefore, disciple-making (a divine activity rather than a human one) occurs through a response to God’s grace while using all of the faculties (heart, soul, mind and strength) to show heightened love for God and expressing love for one’s neighbor.
The Great Commission is not presented to be the sole theological impetus for a church or a movement. Some denominations and most church-growth programs leave little room for any growth to occur in response to loving, or bringing all glory to God, nor for expressing love for neighbor in response to God’s grace. Increasing numbers is not – and cannot be – the aim of the church’s activity in the world; rather it is an anticipated result of living out the Great Commandment.
The class brings two perspectives that are strongest in its theology of church growth. First, the belief that God cares passionately about the community of faith – which is embraced by most churches – should convict the community to live out its call to care passionately for the rest of the world. For the Christian church, the nurture and care of humanity should not be based on the likelihood of conversion into “membership,” (the most common church growth movement goal, e.g. increase x% in membership by a certain date) but should occur simply in a faithful response to Christ’s love and call to agency in the whole world (which cannot be measured in percentages of any kind).
Second, the church is first and foremost a community rather than an institution. The church is organic rather than organizational; the relational element is essential. This view acknowledges that churches, as all other living things, are born, live and die. Such births should be joyfully celebrated, but deaths should also be handled with grace and dignity. This image of the church as an organic being has been suggested by many, including Paul who called it “the body of Christ;” John, the writer of Revelation, as “the angel of the church;” and modern authors Walter Wink and Howard E. Friend Jr., who spoke of the “church as person.”
Declining membership numbers, therefore, should not be viewed as failure any more than increasing numbers should be understood as success. A decrease in a church’s ability to help people make meaning of their existence, however, may be significant as a symptom of a larger problem: the tendency for churches, as a result of adopting temporal behaviors, to mirror the world’s attitudes and habits, rather than daring to be strikingly different and reflect God’s love and grace.
John Cobb’s view of Protestantism includes its participation in helping churchgoers find meaning – in the here and now, and in the hope of a better mortal and eternal future. He laments the decline in congregation-based, lay theological education and discussion, as well as the divisive nature of political diatribe, he has witnessed in mainline churches over the last half century when writing:
But in the past fifty years, Christianity has been blamed, with some justification, for the Holocaust, for participating in colonial oppression, for arrogance in dealing with other communities of faith, for ecological destruction, for cruelty to animals, for oppression of women, for repression of the body and its sexuality, for suppressing the voices of minority groups and thus participating in their oppression, for the persecution of gays and Lesbians, and many other crimes. Often Christian scholars have led in these criticisms. The oldline churches have been placed on the defensive morally as well as intellectually.
Whether or not everyone believes all the items in Cobb’s list are crimes, the church has recognized and repented of many of these actions, including revisiting doctrinal issues that played a role. True repentance and resulting forgiveness can only occur, however, when the issues are openly discussed – with the membership facing the criticisms, studying the responses, and internalizing ways of remaining faithful with full integrity. Rather than entering into these conversations within local churches, denominations have sought to resolve them on a hierarchical level, thereby separating the constituents from the resulting solutions. Many church members are left feeling estranged from the tenets of their denominations due to a lack of information and participation. “Just as the need for theological reflection in the churches has grown, adult education has declined in both quantity and quality,” Cobb continues in a critique of the institution he dearly loves.
Noted Christian ethicist Frank G. Kirkpatrick, says churches have a central role in being the communities to nurture individuals in order to affect change in the social, economic and political systems. He says of the church, “There is no place more conducive for teaching and experiencing the power of love than community. On the basis of that experience, there is no place more apt for preparing people to move out into a world in which justice (the approximation of love under the conditions of societal life) is to characterize human relations.”
Theology, therefore, can be viewed as carrying a double load of involvement in the “church-growth” environments. The narrowing of theological perspective to “making” disciples in some new churches or denominations is being promoted as the essential component of programs aimed at saving the older institutions of mainline churches. These newer religious bodies also avoid the possibility of congregation disconnection by simply stating rigid belief systems that the church attendee either accepts as definitive, or rejects and continues the search for a meaningful church home. Older denominations have in essence equally separated the members from the belief system of the church – handing them a packaged theology they may not find comfortable or digestible – by removing them from the conversation.
Mainline churches must decide whether their historical involvement in theological thought and reformation is a key component of their role in the world. If it is still critical, then these religious bodies need to stand apart from the new church growth movements in both their stated objectives and the processes. Acting in love of God and neighbor should then call local churches to include their constituents in the ongoing theological debates resulting from ever-developing social issues, and to promote as indicative of the church’s role in the world something more akin to the Great Commandment as opposed to a concentration on The Great Commission. Mimicking conservative church movements simply for the advantage of growing church numbers (particularly if remaining opposed to many of their conservative theological tenets) may lead mainline denominations into a more devastating identity crisis than is currently being experienced.
Churches need a level of integrity where compassion is more important than doctrine, grace is emphasized, love is practiced, and there is unity of purpose rather than belief. Churches must practice humility and maintain openness to God moving among them. Small groups may be the locus of such activity. Jesus promised that wherever two or three are gathered in God’s name, God is present among them (Matt 18:20). Another quote, popularly attributed to Margaret Mead, says, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.”
Church size then, is not a significant determining factor in the effectiveness of a worshipping body to help people find meaning in their lives. Large or small, churches can have effective ministries and mission involvement if something other than numeric growth is used as the barometer of “success.” The church’s relevance in the world will be measured by the meaning it helps its members and surrounding community find for their existence.
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 Laurent A. Parks Daloz, Cheryl H. Keen, James P. Keen, and Sharon Daloz Parks, Common Fire: Leading Lives of Commitment in a Complex World (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996), 2.
 Ibid, 26.
 Martin Luther, Lectures on Romans ed. and trans. by Wilhelm Pauck, (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1961), 130.
 Cobb, ibid.
 Franz Hildebrandt, Christianity According to the Wesleys (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1996), 49.
 The church as “body of Christ” metaphor is explained in Romans 12:4-5 and 1 Corinthians 12:12-31; it is also mentioned in Ephesians 4:12 & 5:29, Colossians 1:24 & 3:15. The “Angel of the church” metaphor is introduced in Revelation 1:20-3:14, and is further developed by Walter Wink in his trilogy, The Powers, (Fortress Press, Naming the Powers, 1984; Unmasking the Powers, 1986; and Engaging the Powers, 1992.) The idea of “church-as-a-person” is elaborated by Howard E. Friend Jr. in Recovering the Sacred Center, (Judson Press, 1998.)
 Cobb, ibid.
 Kirkpatrick Frank G., The Ethics of Community (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, Inc., 2001), 170-171.