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Meditation: Answering the Big Questions

Sometimes the big questions intersect with our everyday life. My opinions regarding large “theological” questions trickle all the way down to my ability to follow Jesus day-by-day. For example, my view of the scripture will determine how much authority it has in my life. My understanding of God’s purpose for marriage will find it’s way into my choices about sex. Or, for example, my view of the church will influence my everyday life as a follower of Jesus.

Here’s the challenge: not everyone thinks the answers to big questions matter in their ability to follow Jesus. We think they are simply matters of opinion, or even preference. What if big questions help--or hinder--our lives as students of Jesus?

One current question in North America has to do with the importance of the church. Church life in America has become a symbol of irrelevance, hypocrisy, or even considered harmful in the life of a disciple. Why not simply head out to Starbucks or a pub with my believing friends and call that “church?” Who needs the hassle of small-minded people or the drama of church as a someone’s private kingdom? I see the point of these questions. The church in the U.S. is desperately ill. So why not turn off the life support system?

My only problem is God. He seems to think the church is important. Here’s a meditation: try reading Paul’s letter to the Ephesians without considering the place of the church in God’s order of things. The church is mentioned nine times in three separate contexts during this short letter. The Spirit-inspired text says some outrageous things about the church:

  • The church is the “fulness of God” (1: 22-23). Really?
  • God wants to speak to the cosmos, using the church as the example of his “manifold wisdom” (3: 10-11). No way!
  • God actually thinks marriage is an everyday picture of Jesus and the Church (5: 22-33)

Before we all spend our tithe on lattes and pints with our best friends and call it “church” perhaps we could consider the big question of what God has in mind for the church and for us as followers of Jesus. It’s a big question that matters everyday.

Reader Comments (8)

Pastor: I was sent away from the organized fellowship -- in your organization! (i.e. not your organized fellowship; but the Vineyard). My thought crime was pressing for answers to my questions about mandatory tithing*. I don't want your apology, or even your answers; or to derail this thread discussion. I want to you grasp that the marketplace of ideas, like the marketplace of goods and services, thrives on accurate scales of value. The 'organized fellowship' and the "Church" are two different entities. Confusing those two things is like, say, Josh Harris confusing sex on the second date with socializing in purity with a single sister; and then allowing or encouraging thinking, praying, single men who have not sinned against God to be sent away. And I think I am not derailing your discussion, Sir. *You are the one who explicitly and implicitly brought up "tithe" in conjunction with "church". You are good and correct to bring "marriage" into the discussion, since getting along with another old-nature stricken human is an _ideal_model for church life, speaking as a formerly married man. If I can presume to say that marriage -- the culmination of successful "dating" -- is a contract to _not have contracts_, I can further presume to say this; which I think you need to hear: You go back and forth between being an "organization" man and a "church" man. Because I am, in my heart and words, presuming to reprove you (!), I will pray daily for you, by name for this month (I organize my prayer list by month). Is my daily prayer list a scriptural requirement? No, of course not. It's an "organization" thing. It helps me stay more honest. It's not a "church" thing. It so happens that there are two other pastors on my list right now: One of them is the guy with the outfit that sent me away; it's the only way to process my anger. I've done this a few years, I think, and I still need to do it. It's like doing what you have to do to walk in forgiveness towards a wayward spouse. The other pastor is starting an organized fellowship; and he loves me and cares about my walk with God. It's not like a contract, or anything.

March 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCharles

Hi Charles: First: I'm sorry for your past experience. The church has no shortage of shortcomings, but that fact should never minimize the recognition of each person's pain. Second: I welcome prayers on my behalf, for whatever reason! And most important, third: I am so glad to hear of a new pastoral relationship taking seed and growing. As always, Charles, peace to you!

March 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRay Hollenbach

As in the "poem" that caused so much controversy in January, the definition one has of "church" in one's heart and mind makes all the difference in how one responds to posts like these. For some, the church is the place they go every week to sing songs and hear a sermon with other believers. For others, the church is a body of believers with whom they identify and to whom they have made commitments to walk out the Christian life. For still others, the church is the organization that grew out of the work of the apostles and became the Roman Catholic denomination. I submit that while all of these definitions hold value, none is the true definition of the church. I believe that the church is the transcendent, eternal manifestation of Jesus Christ's work on earth. It is made up of current believers of all stripes as well as the millions of saints who have gone before us. And it cannot be reduced to any movement, building, or fellowship group. That said, no one can deny that both Jesus and Paul speak to the importance of organized gatherings of individuals whom they call the church and in whom they invest the power to care for and guide the people of God. In Matthew 18:15- 17 Jesus even gives the authority to refuse fellowship to one who refuses reconciliation and repentance, and He gives this authority to the church. Personally, I cannot imagine living out my Christian walk without the support and encouragement of other believers, both those with whom I share and fund an organized body and those to whom God has knit my heart even though we do not have an organization in common, per se. I am infinitely sad for those who have been so wounded by the illness of this world that can be found in the organizations and in their own hearts that they deny themselves the joy and security of being part of an organized body that feeds their needs and offers them places to serve. I believe nevertheless that even these lonely souls remain part of the real Church as long as they place their faith and hope in Christ alone.

March 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRebecca

Hi Rebecca! Thanks for your thoughtful comment. If I understand you, and if I understand Augustine, you two are fellow travelers (and an impressive pair you make!).

Believe me: I am not exaggerating my own position when I say that the New Testament passages regarding the church (and some selected O.T. passages as well) are among the most difficult for me to believe. Augustine's famous quote, "the church is a whore, but she is my mother" is both shocking and apt. There are three areas where I stand amazed at the wisdom of God. (1) The he would entrust children to such a fallible human as me. (2) That he takes two fallible humans, a man and a woman, and makes them one in marriage. And (3) That he would entrust his own reputation to the fallible assembly of people known collectively as the church. In these areas I'm like the guy who cried, "I believe--help me in my unbelief!"

Blessings to you and yours.

March 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRay Hollenbach

Going along with what Rebecca said, I read a book in seminary called "Models of the Church" by Avery Dulles. He outlines 6 models the church follows. None can completely cover every aspect perfectly, but the one I most align with would be the mystical communion. The focus is on the invisible church and not the visible gathering. Thus, meeting with fellow believers in any location for me is church. We don't need a building or a sermon or tithing or song in order to be the church, we already are. Even when we each go home at the end of the night we're still the church. It's something we always are and always are a part of. I value the institution of the church in a physical location for such things as community and set times of worship, but they are not a necessary aspect for me. Thus, I have no problem with the idea of church at Starbucks. As long as we are together, love God, and love others, we're doing what needs to be done. Now like you said if we spend our tithe on coffee, we're not doing things right. But if we pool our money to help someone in need, I don't think where we meet matters at all.

March 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKellen Freeman

Hi Kellen: Thank you for dropping by. There's a lot of value in seeing the church as a mystical communion. Hebrews talks about the "great cloud of witnesses," and Revelation is filled with such pictures of the church. I think we should drink deeply of that fountain.

Yet, the reason your textbook presented six views of the church is that the mystical communion view, by itself, is not enough. Mystical communion properly teaches us that the church does not draw its identity from meeting times, places, or methods. Where it leaves us short is in the truth to be discovered by living in committed communion with one another--and by "one another" I mean the people we like <plus/i> the people we don't like. Mystical communion will never teach me how to show grace year after year to the hypocrite who is a part of my local community--or the shocking realization that others have been showing grace to me: an intolerable know-it-all! Mystical communion will not teach me about obedience and honor. At it's worst it will teach me to love a believer from another century while ignoring a believer in the seat next to me.

We need all the pictures of the church: not because we want a menu of choices, but because we need the full banquet.

Peace to you!

March 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRay Hollenbach

The point is we ARE the church - not somewhere you go. We are the building blocks that Jesus is using, however, not all is in the church. Jesus loves the cosmos - He wants it all and loves it all.Since God only had plan A - rule the earth and subdue it - we have to ask ourselves what is the best way to do this? How can we disciple all the nations if we're only gathering in some little group? Just because the church (as we know it) has problems doesn't mean we abandon the model. The very fact that churches struggle underlines the fact we still have flesh. Charles mentioned he wanted answers about mandatory tithing - so sorry any group has to be hung up on a RULE. I tithe because I consider it a privilege and a blessing. Of course, it's not meant to be mandatory.

We have a 150 member church. We give away 30 tons of food a week, offer training on GED, forklift, and computers, soon to open a free dental clinic, operate a huge clothing giveaway and more. We have many who meet the Lord regularly. Healings happen all the time. We support many foreign missionaries. We teach and practice true discipleship. OH - by the way - I love it!!

March 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Leonardson

Hello, John: thanks for your input. Here's the line that resonates most with me: "Just because the church (as we know it) has problems doesn't mean we abandon the model." And thanks for sharing what a church of 150 people can do when they are focused on the mission.

March 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRay Hollenbach

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