Further Thoughts on Being the Church

Further Thoughts on Being the Church December 1, 2008

Thanks, Jourden, for your comment on my last post:

But where do you find a church that’s both authentic and aggressively evangelistic? Churches that emphasize outreach are often consumer driven and liturgically impoverished. Ones that strive for authenticity tend to be lax at evangelism. Where do you go to church if you’re seeking both genuineness and passion for lost souls? If you’re both theologically conservative and broad minded? If you’re both pro-life and pro-poor? If you value high moral standards and compassion for those who don’t? I’m not giving up on the church, but I have yet to find a congregation where I can fully embrace both the theology and ethos.

I just love this kind of musing about who we’re trying to be as the church. I can certainly understand the discomfort Jourden voices here. And while this will probably not come as a shock to anyone who knows me, I do have some further thoughts . . .

First, it was this very question that propelled me, an anguished college senior at Baylor University, to the office of a church history professor who had been instrumental in my faith formation, calling and academic training. I thought she might understand my dilemma, because I knew she had also grown up in a very conservative, evangelical tradition, like I had.

“Who’s right?” I remember asking her.

I just wanted to know which perspective was the right one-my parents’ conservative evangelical, James Dobson-y perspective (which, by the way, I lived out quite swimmingly, if I do say so myself), or this new and unfamiliar way of looking at my faith, the one in which I felt called to ministry (even though I was a woman) and faith expression had become increasingly an exercise in more than just 30 minute devotional times every morning . . . it began to happen in experiences like caring for the poor?

I knew myself to be the kind of type-A overachiever who, upon knowing which course of action to take, would take it with every ounce of enthusiasm I could muster. I just needed to know which one was right, because it seemed the more these two perspectives lived side by side in my life, the more divergent they seemed.

“Both,” she said.

(I’ll leave out my thoughts upon hearing this, but suffice it to say they were not thoughts James Dobson would approve of.)

“Isn’t it great,” she asked, “that the family of God is so multi-faceted and diverse, that we understand and interpret the Gospel message in many different variations? We follow a God, you see, who cannot be contained in one nice, neat set of definitions. And when we come together as the family of God, with all our different expressions of what it means to follow Christ, just look at the beautiful tapestry we create-a true reflection of God’s all-encompassing love for the world.”

Well, thanks a lot, Dr. Beck.

Actually, though, this conversation changed my life. With those words, Dr. Beck invited me to move to a deeper level of faith, to step into the tension of true relationship with Jesus Christ, to affirm and celebrate the fact that following Christ, both individually and corporately, is an organic exercise-a relationship. Sometimes it will take one expression; sometimes another. As God is mystery, it’s all human arrogance anyway to think we can peg him (or her or zhe or whatever), right?together-gif

Because of this conversation, throughout my experience with the institutional church I have been able to put aside this constant yearning to “get it right” and seek out communities that reflect where God seems to be calling me right then. None of the faith communities I have ever been part of were perfect; every one had qualities to celebrate and growing edges to push a little bit. The qualities I’ve found most essential at the end of the day are: deep commitment to Gospel living; willingness to listen to each other; a few, carefully articulated priorities; a very generous sense of humor.

Second, while I hear you, Jourden, and often share your frustration, I think faith communities sometimes trip themselves up by trying to be all things to all people. The nature of human community is that we tend to congregate toward people who are like us . . . it feels more comfortable that way. While this can be problematic when it comes to cultivating diverse community, it can also be a quality that creates vital and deeply committed groups of people who know what they believe and will go to great lengths to live it.

I wonder sometimes: should we really be striving so hard to cover all the bases, make everybody happy, fill in all the blanks? Isn’t that the very desire that gave birth to consumer-driven mega churches?

What if each of us and, by association each of our communities, is called by God to specific expressions of Gospel living? After all, wasn’t it the Apostle Paul who was talking about the high standard of God’s love and ended his beautiful essay in 1 Corinthians 13 by saying that right now we see only in part, but when the fullness of God comes to be . . . it’s then that we’ll see the whole picture?

And, this is not to say that we are called to complacency. I just mean to say that my sister is a really talented musician, while I have a barebones literacy of music to show for my ten years of piano lessons. On the other hand, I’m much more comfortable speaking in public than she is. Like each of us individually, churches must have “personalities”-expressions of faithful living that come more naturally, and some that we each have to work on a little harder.

Third, your comment is exactly why I sometimes scare people to death with my “new member” speech at Calvary.

I’m not joking when I talk to new member classes and say that we need everyone present and accounted for in this adventure of being the church. Visiting? Come on in, make yourself comfortable and stick around for as long as you’d like. Want to be a member? Here’s what membership means: you’re here physically-we need to see your face and worship with you; you’re investing your time in making our community run smoothly; you’re giving your money to support this ministry; you’re actively listening for God’s leadership in your own life; you’re fully participating in our corporate discernment of God’s will for our church.

I mean, seriously, a church is a living organism in ongoing relationship with God. Each of us who feels called by God to be part of this community has a holy responsibility to listen carefully to God’s call and to trust each other enough to do the hard work of corporate discernment.

This means, of course, that none of us believes the exact same thing and no two of us have had the exact same experience with God. And, because of this, it takes a whole pile of courage to make ourselves vulnerable and put our opinions out on the table to see if they have any resonance with what other people in our community are hearing from God. But this is the steep investment we make in Gospel community, hoping, no . . . expecting that the experience of living the Gospel together will change us, even as our convictions lead others to grow into fuller relationship with Jesus Christ.

Can you tell your comment made me think?

And I think your frustration goes to the very heart of why some people give up on the church altogether. But I think we must remember that the church is a flawed institution just trying to reflect on some level the expansive grace of Jesus Christ. Our task, and it’s a hard one for sure, is to find a way to live in this in-between time, until we can all see the whole picture.

Maybe it’s too much of a wild adventure for some to stomach, but I hope we won’t give up just yet . . . at least we can say with conviction that life in the body of Christ never boring!

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  • Adam Phelan

    Frequent reader, first time commenter…

    Laughing at what an intertwined world we live in. I discovered your blog through Eric Bebber, my roommate for a good chunk of my time at McAfee School of Theology.

    Thought you’d want to know you’re not the only one Dr. Beck had that effect on. I took her Intro to the OT @ 8:00 a.m. in the spring of ’98 and found it to be the only early class I ever eagerly awakened for. She introduced me and many others to those tensions of the faith.

    Couldn’t agree more with your hope that churches give up the desire to be all things to all people and embrace their strengths and personalities. The hard part for me is to remind myself to pray for James Dobson and Albert Mohler as frequently and I pray for Rob Bell, Shane Claiborne and Jim Wallis.

  • Adam Phelan

    Frequent reader, first time commenter…

    Laughing at what an intertwined world we live in. I discovered your blog through Eric Bebber, my roommate for a good chunk of my time at McAfee School of Theology.

    Thought you’d want to know you’re not the only one Dr. Beck had that effect on. I took her Intro to the OT @ 8:00 a.m. in the spring of ’98 and found it to be the only early class I ever eagerly awakened for. She introduced me and many others to those tensions of the faith.

    Couldn’t agree more with your hope that churches give up the desire to be all things to all people and embrace their strengths and personalities. The hard part for me is to remind myself to pray for James Dobson and Albert Mohler as frequently and I pray for Rob Bell, Shane Claiborne and Jim Wallis.

  • austinmarriage

    How many of us did Rosalie Beck shape and help to transform?! I can only imagine the testimonials at her welcome-to-heaven dinner!

  • austinmarriage

    How many of us did Rosalie Beck shape and help to transform?! I can only imagine the testimonials at her welcome-to-heaven dinner!

  • Jourden M.

    You had me at “thanks.” I’m surprised and humbled that you would take time to respond to my reply in such a thorough and thoughtful way. Would you be my pastor?

  • Jourden M.

    You had me at “thanks.” I’m surprised and humbled that you would take time to respond to my reply in such a thorough and thoughtful way. Would you be my pastor?