By David G. Moore. My college friends and I used Churchianity in the most derisive way possible. We loved saying how going to church didn’t make you a Christian anymore than walking into a car garage made you a car.
Growing up, Scot McKnight did not mock church like I did, but he now has some hard-hitting, dare I say radical things, to offer in his book, A Fellowship of Differents .
Since Scot McKnight is the proprietor of Jesus Creed he hardly needs any formal introduction here.
The following interview was conducted by David George Moore. Dave blogs at www.twocities.org.
Moore: I am wondering if your two books, Kingdom Conspiracy and A Fellowship of Differents, were self-consciously organized in a way akin to Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. As you well know, the first three chapters of Ephesians lay important groundwork theologically while the last three chapters show how it is to be worked out.
SMcK: At some level theologically, Yes, but not at all intentionally. In fact, I wrote A Fellowship of Differents (=FoD) a year and a half before I wrote Kingdom Conspiracy. When I began teaching Paul at Northern Seminary I wanted to incorporate spiritual formation into the curriculum, and to do that I wanted something that was lay accessible, new perspective, and focused exclusively on how Paul envisions the Christian life – as an ecclesial life not just a personal Christian life. I had to write that book so for the first year that’s what I did – and the students read it and offered feedback. Zondervan had some lag time because of shifting jobs and a major location move and some editorial changes… and I stopped work on FoD and began to write my kingdom book, finished it, and then returned to FoD.
Moore: You clarify important biblical terms like grace and holiness. I believe A.N. Whitehead said most debates are fruitless because the opposing sides use the same words, think they are pouring in the same basic idea, when they really are employing different meanings for key words. How common a problem is this for us American Christians when it comes to words like grace and holiness?
SMcK: I don’t have stats for such things, but my experience is that lay people both don’t think (or care!) about terms all that much and so, Yes, there is great confusion about the terms. Grace, for instance, has been defined over and over in terms like “God’s riches at Christ’s expense” or “God’s mercy to those who don’t deserve it,” but one has to ask if people have actually looked at the term “grace” in the NT to reduce the term to such ideas. (In fact, the term grace is expansive and now John Barclay’s exceptional study, Paul and the Gift, has taken the discussion to brand new levels – blowing apart some of our reductions.)
Moore: You make the claim that “we all learn the Christian life from how our local church shapes us.” Unpack that for us while interacting with the place of so-called parachurch ministries like Northern Seminary. Aren’t some parachurch ministries better suited to provide things, even spiritual nourishment of a sort, the church can’t?
SMcK: I’m using in this claim the great work of Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality. They distinguish primary socialization from secondary socialization; the former referring to what we learn as “real” from our parents and primary teachers (grade school, church leaders) as children; the second refers to what we learn on top of that and used to modify our primary socialization. On the basis, I contend we learn the Christian life from our local church – the one we grow up in. Parachurch ministries may reform us, as in secondary socialization, but they can only reform what is there. Many of us, even in our 50s and 60s and beyond, still have strong instincts based on our primary, ecclesial socialization.
Moore: I’ve seen some well-intended attempts at greater diversity within churches. Most fall flat. They seem to get lost in the thicket of catering to every worship style, and forget how diversity does not just come from simply organizing for it, but in submitting to the Spirit of God. There must be a living reality. What are your thoughts on greater diversity being attempted by both organizational efforts and yet remembering the church is a living organism?
SMcK: Let us agree that diversity is the name of the church, and this is absolutely established by Galatians 3:28 and Colossians 3:11, not to ignore Paul’s entire mission and the story of the church in the Book of Acts – and Revelation’s vision of the new heavens and new earth is a heaven filled with people from the whole world.
That’s our basis.
Somehow, someway, every day and every night, we must strive to be inclusive of all God’s people and not satisfy with the friendships of common race, economic status, education, and community.
Yes, many do fall flat and Korie Edwards’ study of the multi ethnic church, The Elusive Dream, is a good reminder of how difficult the challenge is. It is difficult, I contend, in part because of our history of segegration in all directions and partly because our ecclesiology is not designed to live in such a “salad bowl” of differents.
It begins when you and I meet with those who are most unlike us and learn what it means to embrace such persons as brothers and sisters. We will learn the vision in the doing, not in the thinking.
Moore: Whenever I visit a church to teach Sunday school, I mention right away that there are no “sacred cows.” People truly are free to ask me about anything. I share my testimony of being a “serial doubter” and underscore that the struggles others carry don’t threaten me. It is common to have people come up to me, some with tears in their eyes, explaining that they have never been in such a safe place. How can we go about making church a place where everyone feels comfortable sharing the questions that haunt them?
SMcK: By (1) sharing our own questions and doubts and (2) by modeling embrace of those who have doubts and questions, and (3) by walking with others as they journey into such questions and doubts. The approach of giving answers often offends more than heals.
Moore: The Person and ministries of the Holy Spirit seems almost impossible to get right. Some churches overemphasize Him while other churches make you wonder if they believe in the trinity. Speak to both groups.
SMcK: Ah, that’s the trick: the more we talk about the Spirit the less we are doing what is right and the less we talk about the Spirit the more distant the Spirit becomes. The focus of the Bible is The Father in the Son through the Spirit. We must make the circle complete as often as we can – teaching about all three, praying in all three, and anchoring all of our theology in the Trinity. Many in our churches need far more Spirit, and if we do – we need to concentrate on the Spirit for a good spell.
Moore: Bear with me on the longer ramp up, but it is needed with this question. Pretty much everyone says the size of the church does not matter. You can have big, healthy churches and small, unhealthy ones. The baseball bat analogy is sometimes used. The argument asserts that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with bats, but they can be used to bludgeon someone to death. So bigness is not inherently bad, but what you do with bigness may be destructive.
To put my own cards on the table, I am no longer so sure. I know of churches where they claim to be too big to serve communion. Many big churches (arbitrarily, I will put bigness at 1000 plus people) have home groups so everyone feels they are part of a “church within the church.” I’ve seen many problems with these, not the least of which is what I call “forced friendships.” People feel the pressure to share intimate details with people they are just starting to know. Do you have any major concerns over the unique challenges big churches face, especially in applying what you have challenged us with in A Fellowship of Differents?
SMcK: good question. Gene Appel once told me there’s nothing a small church that a megachurch can’t do, and I think he’s right. But, it must be worked at in completely different ways in megachurches. Let us take Andrew McGowan’s taxonomy of the core early Christian practices (or disciplines): meals, Word, music, initiation, prayer, and time (calendar). All churches can put up a pulpit and stand someone behind it and say “Now give it to us!” So Word can be covered. Music can be covered easily, as can elements of prayer and time. But there are some things that can’t be done when 1000+ are gathered: pastors can’t offer pastoral prayers, people can’t pray for one another, meals can’t be eaten in any kind of intimate setting … so megachurches that don’t intentionally breakdown the whole thing into small groups of 30 or 15 and fewer, simply can’t practice the kind of body life the NT teaches.
What this might mean the most is that we dare not equate a Sunday service of any sort with fellowship in Christ. It might be but it might not be, and the larger the gathering the more likely we will have people come and listen and sing and go home. That is consumeristic church and not church as fellowship.