It’s no secret that church attendance is falling. Arguments rage about what we should do to regain the size and status we once had. But in the midst of all these debates and challenges, hope has not failed us, as Greg Liston explains.
I’ve just finished reading yet another article on what the church is doing wrong. There seems to be an awfully large number of articles on this subject! One author even ironically comments that the only thing actually growing in the western church is literature on its decline.1 And all these articles are startlingly, even depressingly, similar. Beginning with an outline of some of the many problems facing us—declining numbers, ageing congregations, divided attention, diminishing mission interest—they go on to provide pragmatic and sensible solutions. We need to be more organised, more attractive, more relevant, more innovative, more polished. We need to “do” better. The problem is us, these articles say, and we have to lift our game.
What’s wrong with what’s wrong with the church?
The articles I’ve been reading are not wrong. Well, not entirely. The stark and rather unpleasant reality is that while the church in Asia, Africa, and South America is growing rapidly, its more established western counterpart is experiencing an ever-accelerating loss of size, status, and significance. So those depressing articles certainly start with a valid point. A number of alternative voices are pressing back on their pragmatic conclusions, however. These commentators argue that before we even begin to think about what the church does, there is a much
more fundamental question that needs to be answered—the question of identity. Because the biggest problem with the contemporary western church is that she has forgotten who she is. And this is where the church’s deepest challenge actually lies—not in working out what we can do better, but in remembering who we are.
Could it be that the western church’s loss of size, status, and significance is actually a huge opportunity? Perhaps through our growing weakness we can rediscover what we seem to have forgotten—that the church is not primarily an influencer in society, not even a moral improvement society for the struggling, but rather a profoundly and irreducibly supernatural institution. Perhaps we can begin (or begin again) to view the church not principally as
a human organisation, but one that is fundamentally and foundationally constituted by God’s Spirit. In other words, the church can and should be much more about who we are (by God’s grace), and not so excessively focused on what we do (through our own effort).
Church is a gift
These two different ways of thinking about the church mimic my experience. Over the past fifteen years I have pastored in two churches (separated by three years of Ph.D. study). Both were remarkably similar communities—wonderful, vibrant, mission-focused, full of good people who love God and love each other. But the best word to describe my first pastoral stint would be “stress,” while the primary characteristic of the second is “joy.” It is not the communities that are different. It is me. Because while I was studying, an incredible truth sunk into my spirit—a truth that
I probably should have realised many years ago—that the church is not primarily a responsibility, but a gift.
Here’s the way I see it now. There is this God, this Trinity, these three persons; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And together they form this extraordinary community. The relationships between the persons are like the closest friendship you’ve ever had, at its very best moment, on steroids. The Bible says that the three Trinitarian persons indwell each other, that they do everything together. They’re so tight, so close, so in tune with each other that instead of being three different minds, there is only one. Can you imagine what it would be like to be part of a community like that? Imagine the love. Imagine the comradery. Imagine the acceptance. Wouldn’t you love to be part of something like that? Well, you are. You are! Or to put it more accurately, we all are. For that is precisely what church is. The church is a human community that through the Spirit participates in the Trinity. Church is the gift of joining the inner life of God!
Here’s another way of saying the same thing. The church is in Christ. The church and Christ have been united together by the Spirit. That’s what the Spirit does. He makes us one with Christ. But Christ is in God. Christ is united with the Father by the Spirit. So if we are in the church, and the church is in Christ, and Christ is in God, then we are in God. What that means is that all church activity is about joining in with something that is already happening. Worship? Through the Spirit, we join in with the ever and ongoing adoration and love that the Son pours out to the Father. Mission? Through the Spirit, we join in with the Son’s ever and ongoing proclamation and demonstration of the Father’s love for the world. And joining in is just so much more manageable than if it all depends on us. In fact, it almost sounds like fun.
And that’s not the end of it. There’s more. The beauty of what God has arranged is that as we enjoy our life in God, as we join who he is and what he is doing, our church communities here on earth begin to reflect his eternal community. As we participate by the Spirit in this intimate Trinitarian union between the Father and the Son, our churches shine with the love and life of God. Isn’t that exactly what Jesus prayed? “My prayer is that they may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one. I in them and you in me, so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:21-23).
Participation not position
I believe in the church. Even with all of our flaws and our failings, and despite all of our current challenges, I genuinely think the church is something that is worth believing in. And I’m not the only one. The early church fathers more than 1500 years ago explicitly included the phrase, “I believe in… [the] church,” in the Nicene Creed. This clause, in probably the most profound and significant statement of faith ever written, is all the more remarkable when you realise that the only other things the creed encourages us to believe in are the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit! But neither the early church fathers nor I believe in the church because of our proud history, our inspiring leaders, our world-shaping impact, or our transforming potential. We believe in the church because it is God’s church. God’s presence in us makes the church something that can be trusted.
The great Mennonite theologian Stanley Hauerwas says the primary task of the church in the world is simply to be the church.2 I think he’s exactly right, and I wonder whether we in the (increasingly and incredibly pragmatic) Kiwi church could do with being reminded of that. Perhaps our current challenges can help us to remember that our significance has never come from having an influential position in society, but rather from our humble participation in God’s inner life. Because if being church means that we get to join in with the life of the Trinity, then surely it is something worth learning to believe in and enjoy.
Story: Greg Liston
Greg lectures in systematic theology at Laidlaw College and pastors at Mt. Albert Baptist Church. He has one beautiful wife, two incredible children, two hefty Ph.D.s and cooks awesome roast potatoes.
- Do you believe in the church? What would need to change (in you or your church) for you to believe in it?
- Does thinking about church involvement make you feel excited or weary? Do you think the church is primarily a gift or a responsibility?
- What could you do to make your church involvement something that you deliberately and proactively enjoy?
- If you think of worship and mission as joining in an already ongoing divine activity (rather than something that depends on us to initiate and deliver), is your attitude towards, and involvement in worship and mission altered?
- What do you think Hauerwas means when he says the primary task of the church is simply to be the church? Do you agree? What could this look like? What would you be doing more…or less…or not at all?
- Michael Jinkins. 1999. The Church Faces Death: Ecclesiology in a Post-Modern Context. (p. 12). New York. Oxford University Press.
- Stanley Hauerwas. 1983. The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics. (p. 99). Notre Dame. SCM Press.
Read Greg’s article about the part church gatherings play in our spiritual transformation, Kingdom come.