Before I dive in to the second part of these installments exploring what Participation can and maybe should look like I want to give an important caveat to everything I write below – especially in light of all this tragedy that has come out of Sovereign Grace Ministries and the JPUSA: You are made in the image of God and that means you are entitled to be treated with the upmost respect and dignity that Christ extended to the “least of these”. If we take Christ’s words seriously in the Great Commission (MT 28.18-20) then it means that the only authority that has any weight in the Kingdom of God begins and ends in Him who is ever with us (Immanuel). If there is anyone who claims “spiritual authority” over you and uses that as a mechanism for control, to justify bully-like behavior or any other form of abuse that is not of Christ it is a type of power you are not bound to. Christ promises that his yoke would be lighter than that (MT 11.28-29) and the only authority you are bound to is His (Romans 8.31-39). If you find yourself in a church community where you are suffering from some sort of abuse you have the complete freedom to walk away and whatever comes next is not on you. Even more so, if the abuse you or a loved one has suffered is illegal (most of the ones sexual in nature are) you have every right to walk away and to inform legal authorities that are entrusted with the task of administering justice. If anyone tells you any different they are not operating out of Christ’s spirit and you have the power to resist and overcome those pressures. Okay, I’m done preaching. In my last post, while reflecting on the Paschal Triduum, I used Pope Francis’ Maundy Thursday practices to draw out what I think participation looks like and I asked a question that I want to keep in mind as I dive into the weighty conversation of participating in Christ:
…our task is to participate in the drama which began in the gospel narratives and continues to unfold. Rather than picking up a costume or assuming a character, what would it look like to participate in the drama as ourselves?
Any answer to this question is multi-faceted but I think the starting point for the Christian is our participation with Christ. Typically the question of Participation in Christ is drawn along the line’s of an individual’s salvation and ability to relate to God. It’s not an exaggeration to say that this subject is as vast as it is deep; entire libraries have been written by people who wrestle with these questions. From my point of view there are two primary focal points that people debate around. One is the Calvin/Arminius debate over predestination and free will. Does God, like the good shepherd, find me like the sheep who got away and save me from danger? Or is it more like God has offered me the living water like the woman at the well and I have to make the free choice to drink from His cup? The other I see is characterized by the fault lines between John Piper and N.T. Wright’s view of Justification. Are we made righteous through Christ’s atoning work or do we become righteous as a response to Christ’s call to reconciliation? These are important questions that the Church will continue to converse about – probably forever. I bring them up because I am dissatisfied with these dichotomized discussions that seem to only succeed in generating followers of theologians and I want to use this space to bring up something that I believe to be a real casualty in modern/post-modern discourse. That is, one of the most basic and telling characteristics of our participation in Christ is our participation in the Church. Paul uses organic language like “body” to help us understand not only how we relate with Christ but also with each other. Participation in Christ is, at its core, a community affair. We can only understand our personal encounters with God within a context of our shared story (Scripture), our shared experience ( Tradition) and our shared liturgy (Symbols and Rituals). This flies in the face of everything emergent, post-evangelical, post-modern, post-whatever else we react against but I think something vital to The Way is lost when the rhythm of gathering every week for worship and then dispersing for service is regarded as unimportant. Participation in local expressions of the Body is necessary for the making the journey. Now, there are those who will justify the fact that they don’t really go to church because that’s not how they connect with God – like Donald Miller did a while back here and here. Fine; my intention is not to argue people into going to church every Sunday. Where I do push back, though, is over the basic misunderstanding of the purpose of going to church. Miller’s posture (and I know he’s not alone in this) is fundamentally consumerist. He experiences God best in Nature and so that is where he is going to go. There isn’t anything wrong with needing the sort of interior life Miller described but the emphasis of personal consumption sacrifices the purpose of the Local Church. It doesn’t exist as a hundred individuals to get that connection time but as a People gathered together to worship the One who is reconciling all things to God. William Cavanaugh put it this way when talking about a consumption and participation:
In the Christian view, we do not stand apart from the rest of creation as individuals, appropriating, consuming, and discarding. We are rather consumed, as it were, by something larger than us. When we consume the body of Christ at the Lord’s table, we are in fact consumed by the larger body, the church. Augustine hears Christ’s voice say, “Grow and you will feed on me. And you will not change me into you like the food your flesh eats, but you will be changed into me.” At the communion table, the act of consumption is turned inside out, such that in eating we become food for others. True consumption, in the Christian understanding, is thus a kind of self-emptying, a decentering of the self into a larger web of participation.
This is why Donald Miller (and those like him) miss the point. “Going to church” is a product of a consumerist Christianity where the individual is sovereign and his or her experience is what is most important. Participation in a Local Body takes the two dimensional drawings of “Going to Church” and builds a cathedral from them. When we participate we become the sustaining elements for each others’ faith journey not too unlike the quadriplegic’s experience with Jesus where the faith of those on the roof saved and restored him (Mark 2). We carry each other. We suffer with and for each other. We bring each other to the foot of the cross when we don’t have the will to make it all the way there. We are meant to keep the faith (i.e. remain faithful) together with Christ. What could Participation in the Local Church look like? I’m going to throw out some ideas to get a list started but how about we add to it as we go along?
- For those who are burned out on ministry or burned by your previous community – there is nothing wrong with being the appendix of the Body for a season. Perhaps the best thing you can do is show up, get to know people and the heart beat of the body before taking any formal leadership roles. Your commitment to be present may speak volumes to other who might experiencing a bit of isolation.
- Stay Local – even if your local church isn’t the same denomination that you come from.
- Pray for your church daily
- Arrive early or stay late once or twice a month to intentionally meet someone new
- If your church doesn’t have diversity – BE the diversity by speaking your mind and being vulnerable with where you are at
- Make friends and have them over for dinner
- Commit to suspend your suspicion for at least the hour you have dedicated to corporate worship
- Find ways to encourage your pastor and lay staff
What else would you add as we endeavor to participate not just consume?