I have not blogged on the topic of Christian community for a long time. That doesn’t mean I’ve left the topic behind. In the last couple of years just about everything in my life has been in major transition. It has not been possible to keep every project rolling forward.
I have a long-term book project on Christian community. Specifically I’m looking at movements of the past that have approached Christian community in creative ways. They shaped their life on the Gospel and that catalyzed an outsized impact on the world around them.
But recently I’ve continued to ponder a more essential question: the core identity of the Church. What does it mean to be the authentic Church?
In our time, at least in my Protestant world, people look for innovative ways to “do church.”
I think before we innovate too hard we should make sure we know we “are Church.”
Failing to think hard about what is and isn’t authentically the Church sometimes has ludicrous consequences.
Such as when, decades ago, Evangelical pop singer Keith Green argued that the Catholic Church (the largest single portion of Christianity) was a “cult.”
(He eventually thought better of it. As a result you can still find Evangelicals blogging about how he sold out, endangering his salvation.)
Similarly this year Evangelical radio’s “Bible Answer Man” Hank Hanegraaff joined the Orthodox Church. That inspired a fire-storm of Evangelicals claiming that the Orthodox Church (the second-largest, and the most ancient and continuous form of Christianity) was a “cult.”
(I’ll let you Google the nasty blog posts for yourself.)
This kind of thing is rather silly.
Rather than jumping into the fray, either to pass judgment on Christian groups or to re-invent the Church all over again out of my own imagination, I think it is worth spending some time on what makes the Church the Church.
Why the Church?
I suppose in our era one has to start by asking why one should actually care about the Church. In our culture, and especially in our generation, participation in the life of a congregation is seen as completely optional. We have given in to individualism as an ideal, and made the church, in the term of the sociologists, a “voluntary society.”
We favor Christianity as a “personal relationship with Jesus.” And if it is solely personal, there is no need for the Church.
But in Scripture, that personal relationship happens within a corporate relationship — the Church.
The Church is not a late-breaking post-apostolic addition to the Christian agenda, a power-grab of the Christianized Roman Empire.
You find Jesus stating that he intends to build his Church when Peter declares his faith (Matt. 16:18). The Church comes up a lot in Matthew’s Gospel, in Luke’s book of Acts, throughout the epistles of Paul, James, Peter and John, and throughout the book of Revelation.
The Church is a given. I’m not going to exegete it. But nobody should deny it.
What makes for “Authentic Church”?
So what makes our particular gathering of Christians authentically “Church?” A useful question as my denomination, slowly but steadily declining in membership through attrition and schism, is in the midst of a long push to create “1001 New Worshipping Communities.”
Do we simply re-invent the Church in ways we find more relevant or interesting? Should we? Can we?
A while back I worked through four classic markers of vital Christian community from the second chapter of Acts: that first enormous flourishing of the followers of the Way of the risen Christ was marked by its constant attention to the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayer.
Fast forward three centuries, to the era when Christian leaders from across the Roman Empire were gathering in Councils to solve vexing and divisive questions and you find another list of four.
In the Nicene Creed, Christians East and West strongly and regularly affirm that the Church in which they believe is
one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.
So I’m going to take those descriptors one by one in coming weeks. I hope you’ll join me in the journey.
I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments. If someone asked you “What makes your church authentically the Church?” what would be the first thing to come to mind?