I am at Conception Abbey on retreat for a few days. This morning I pulled one of my old favorites and read for awhile. It’s not a stretch to say that the book Resident Aliens by Stanley Hauerwas has had a tremendous influence upon my life. I’m not sure I’ve spent more time in one single book, and I return to it time and again. I see RA as a kind of field guide for ecclesiology. It’s not a straight forward theological work, but it conveys a rich theological vision for the church. Hauerwas speaks to my soul. I’ll have a pint of whatever he’s drinking.
I’ve also been re-reading Metaxas’s biography of Bonhoeffer, finishing it over the weekend, and have been flirting with Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, but haven’t committed to it yet. So the confessing church is on my mind. I ran across Hauerwas’s take on what it means to be a confessing church. If I were to describe my own church – especially given some of the recent developments with the word “missional” – I think I’d use confessing church as a descriptor.
Hauerwas gives three options:
Activist Church: concerned with building a better society through social structures, the activist church works for social change. Highly involved in Jesus’s vision of the kingdom, activist churches are typically progressive, hoping to be on the right side of history. Its members take up causes on behalf of those who are living on the margins of our culture. The downside is that their politics becomes a sort of religiously glorified liberalism
Conversionist Church: this church says that you can tinker with society all you want but until everyone gets saved nothing will get better. Secular optimism gives false hope. People are too broken. The world is too broken. It’s all going to burn anyway so you better turn to Jesus (and buy an SUV). Downside is that their politics becomes social Darwinism. Religion is about the inward soul, not the outward life, and so the church loses any impetus for social ethics (and possibly even public worship, unless it is a means of conversion). The political claims of Jesus are shunned for a religiously glorified conservatism.
Confessing Church: Here’s the paragraph in which Hauerwas describes it: “The confessing church is not a synthesis of the other two approaches, a helpful middle ground. Rather, it is a radical alternative. Rejecting both the individualism of the conversionists and the secularism of the activists and their common equation of what works with what is faithful, the confessing church finds its main political task to lie, not in the personal transformation of individual hearts or the modification of society, but rather in the congregation’s determination to worship Christ in all things.” P.45
It think it is possible that the missional community approach is an over-reaction to the excesses of the megachurch. For sure, megachurch programming is crazy & needed to be critiqued. If you are rolling a Sherman tank onstage driven by a pastor in fatigues, perhaps that expenditure of time and money needs to be curtailed. But you can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.
I think that the deemphasizing and even disdaining of public worship is a mistake. The most important thing the church does is to gather for worship. To learn how to worship with people who are not that much like me, who think differently about the world than I do – people from conversionist and activist backgrounds and bents – that is the transformational impact of worship.
Worship is serious work. It’s hard work. It should be difficult and fraught with tension. Worship does not exist to make us fall in love with Jesus, and it’s not even “all about you, Jesus.” Worship is about us, too. It’s about what happens when human persons – a community – comes into the presence of a Holy God who is Wholly Other, side by side with people who are the “other” as well.
In worship we practice the way we are supposed to be the whole rest of the week. In worship our imaginations are shaped by the vision of the kingdom upon which we collectively gaze. You can’t have 7 day obedience with out the 1 day of public worship. You can’t have public worship without the whole church gathering.
I also think that the missional community model of church can be seen as an attempt to synthesize the individualistic conversionist model, with the socially conscious activist model. What is at work at the heart of the missional community movement is not an ecclesiology, but a model. Both the activist and conversionist models are trained in on pragmatics, results, success, and conflates effectiveness and faithfulness. Same goes for the missional community model. It is fully dependent upon growth for its long term survival.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad Missional Communities are out there working at what it means to be the church. But I’m dubious about the model on the whole. I just think that any attempt to synthesize the activist and conversionist models will be doomed to a life of pragmatism. When the rubber hits the road, faithfulness will always take a back seat to results. The single best safe-guard against this is public worship. It’s central, and it needs to happen once a week. After millions of dollars are spent trying to rethink church and implement new strategies, could it be that we’ll finally realize we just need to do what we’ve always done: gather for worship?
The confessing church will not care about being effective, it will only desire to be faithful.