So what is that many of us are members of, participants in? Just what is this thing called “church”? I like it when pastors theologize, so when Andy Stanley gets to doing theology I want to see how he thinks. I know how he preaches; I know how he writes; but in his new book Deep & Wide he ponders what a church is.
First, he contends a church is a movement and not an institution; its organic and not an organization. Too many think the church is an institution for overactive consciences (51). Many of us (count me one of them) run from such institutions. He defines a church as a “gloriously messy movement with a laser-focused message and a global mission” (51). He gives us a sketch of church history that would sound like Yoder’s polemic against Constantine if I didn’t know this is an old Baptist story. He’s got good points; it’s more complex, but he’s right that Constantine’s engines made the church far more institutional, hierarchical and authoritarian than it had been. Stanley’s thesis is that the word “church” (ekklesia) in the NT means “gathered ones” and “congregation” and not a building, not an institution — it’s a movement, not a location. His story means the Reformers, beginning with Tyndale, recovered the movement element.
What do you think of his grace and truth approach to ministry?
If I chose one good example of this I’d choose Acts 15, as does Andy. How does grace and truth manifest itself in the Jerusalem Council’s decision? Was that simple exegesis or was that a step beyond the Bible? Andy quotes Acts 15:19 and says “churches shouldn’t do anything that makes it unnecessarily difficult for people who are turning to God” (91).
Second, Stanley offers what I think is one of the finest essays into the tension and messiness of genuinely Spirit-led pastoral theology. His theme is that gospel work is about “truth and grace” and not one or the other, not one first and the other second, but always both at the same time.
When the word “and” is added, tension arises. He opens with a classic story about his father’s church and the gay parade and that they decided to let everyone out early and they were to exit the back of the church so they’d miss the parade… but they let out on time and everyone watched and they saw the Methodists handing out cold water to those in the parade and “It was embarrassing” (71).
Who is the church for? Sinners. Can we welcome the sinners or do they have to get cleaned up first? It’s not “Just as I am” but “Just as I ought to be (and if not I’ll fake it).” That’s not from Andy. “…this is in fact a tension to manage and not a problem to solve or really even a question to answer” (72). Some of this was in italics. “Churches designed for saved people are full of hypocrites” (74). Conservative churches are big on truth and too often lose grace; liberal churches are big on grace and too often lose truth.
Jesus embodied grace and truth and what he did was neither fair nor consistent. He gives folks a full dose of truth as in “You’re a sinner and you’re forgiven.”
Living grace and truth is real messy.
North Point’s approach: we “wade in hip-deep and sort things out one relationship, one conversation, at a time” (78). Here are some examples…
they put people in leadership too early… adults learn on a need-to-know basis…. no formal leadership training … we encourage non-believers to sign up for short-term mission trips… they don’t lead…. it doesn’t seem fair … “We let women baptize. I’m not confident with that. I let ‘em do it anyway” (80). Andy thinks remarriage is sin and teaches that; they allow remarried couples to lead at every level in the congregation. They don’t do charity work; they support local charities. Big time. “Our doctrinal statement is conservative. Our approach to ministry is not” (81). Got problems? That’s the tension. He reads all the critical mail; he responds personally to the most critical.
Here’s why we need grace and truth: “Either you were a mess, are a mess, or are one dumb decision away from becoming a mess” (82). Grace takes you as you are and welcomes you home. That’s grace and truth.