The Economy of Church {why the church.2}

Not what a man is in himself as a Christian, his spirituality and piety, constitute the basis of our community. What determines our brother-hood is what man is by reason of Christ. Our community with one another consists solely in what Christ has done to both of us. {Dietrich Bonhoeffer}

We are part of God’s great renovation project for human beings. We work, but we work resting. {Richard Foster}

Being a dad is a significant job. We have a crucial task to raise our children to be moral, virtuous adults. The world needs better people, more civic-minded citizens who will live and work to serve society. The most effective tool to change culture and counteract rampant violence and greed is to raise a generation who, when their time comes, will clean up this mess. My first role as Wyatt and Seth’s dad is to instill good values in them so that they can in turn utilize their skills and influence to change their world for the better. If I properly leverage my fathering efforts, providing my sons with the correct mixture of affection, discipline, vision and training, I believe our world will improve.

******

What a bunch of rubbish. Are you repulsed by me reducing the wonders and joys of fatherhood to a formula to implement some cause, even a cause as noble as improving the world? Are you agitated that I would suggest maneuvering fatherly love for a calculated agenda rather than simply cherishing and nourishing ones God has given me to love and share my life with?

Many of us, perhaps unwittingly, think of church in these same sterile, exploitative terms.

Many of us talk about the church primarily in terms of what the church is to do. We know God has a vision for his world, to love and renew and restore it – and we understand the church sits at the nexus of how God intends to get on with this vision. Our response, however, often follows typical American entrepreneurial fashion. We see a job to be done, and so we roll up our sleeves and mastermind a strategy – and then push and prod to work it. In this schema, the church is primarily God’s publicity arm. God tells us his action priorities, gives us a range of resources to utilize for the enterprise, and then we amass the energy and effort to make it happen. Essentially (perhaps this will sound familiar), God leverages his efforts, providing his sons and daughters the proper mixture of vision and affection and instruction – and then God watches for us to make the operation take shape.

Thankfully however, God’s intentions for his people in his world do not begin with what we are to do but rather with who we are. Unfortunately, we are much better at arranging our activity than we are at knowing our identity. We are competent (in varying degrees) at exegeting culture and formulating (or critiquing) structures and adjusting both our theology and our praxis. We can start a movement or an anti-movement. We can organize a church’s leadership flowchart and motivate people to works of justice and mission and mercy (and to opening their wallets). All good things, but they aren’t the starting point. Or the ending point, for that matter.

Eugene Peterson recently shared his concern that many of us have “no ontology of church. It is all pragmatic – what we do for God.” We prioritize our responsibilities and maneuver our tasks, but we have no comprehension of what our presence (just the fact that we exist in God’s world) actually means. We don’t know who we are to be, and we keep jumping to what we are supposed to do in order to make up the gap. This kind of activity will always be hollow. And, for many of us, it has worn us out.

In this way of things, the church is always looking for the next fix, the next idea, the next angle or inspiration or cultural sea change. Whether we are progressives with our social agenda or conservatives with our evangelistic blitzkrieg, what we share is our conviction that everything rises and falls on God’s expectation that we make something happen. We are just trying to figure out what to do, dammit!

Of course, we can not talk about the church without talking about the church’s work in the world; but we must talk about God’s work within the church first. We are to live in community, but the Spirit has made us his beloved community first. We are to bring shalom to our neighborhoods, but Jesus has made us a people who receive and experience shalom first. We are to announce God’s love to the world, but God has first made us a people drowning in his love. (This touches on my hesitation with some “missional church” language, where we define mission primarily in functional terms while we relegate other portions of the church’s essence to serve as only a means to a “missional” task.)

This distorted vision of God’s dream for the church falls flat, leaving us empty and disillusioned. I’ve lost count of the number of my friends who have walked away from Christian community because they felt as though they had been exploited and misled. Much of our church talk of creating meaningful relationships ends up feeling as though it is really only a ruse to keep people in the seats and writing checks (buns and funds). A lot of the strategies and ministry pushes lead to more activity but rarely to more life.

If we act as though the merits of church are ultimately defined by results and getting things done, we shouldn’t be surprised when people pack it up. No one likes being used for results. And truthfully, on these criteria we don’t always stack up that well against the competition. The church has its moments, but other movements have had their successes too (the ONE campaign has had better luck addressing third-world debt than any collection of churches I know). Depending on your concern, better bang for your buck might move you elsewhere…if results or bang for your buck is the name of the game. But perhaps we have irreplaceable, intrinsic value far richer and deeper than the bottom-line, more essential even than the results we churn out. Perhaps we should follow Peterson’s advice and “eliminate success from our vocabulary.”

Defining the church first and foremost as God’s way of getting things done makes God the ultimate utilitarian. God cast as an industrialist, myopically focused on efficiency and production. No wonder we feel used. If we are merely commodities in God’s economy, what is our inherent beauty? Thankfully, we are not merely economic units to fuel divine output. Chastened capitalism may be the best arrangement humans have cobbled together, but God does better.

God certainly has grand purposes for his world, and our vocation is certainly right smack in the middle of how God intends to set the world right. However, I’m pleading for us to work from first things before we move to second things. God has not placed a people in his world simply to carry out his agenda. God has placed a people in his world to embody and revel in – and serve as an encounter with – the Trinity’s divine love.

What if the church’s mere existence in the world is itself a central piece of God’s work. What if God’s people are a Trinitarian sacrament, a community whose presence offers tastes of laughter and righteousness and restoration, glimpses in the now of the new creation that is to come. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

[further why the church? posts:part onethreefourfive]

11 responses to The Economy of Church {why the church.2}

  1. Mmm, I love a cliffhanger!

  2. You're crazy, Collier…crazy. Eliminate success? You're nuts. God's people a sacrament? Hardy, har, har. I might keep reading these posts though…

  3. You know, maybe all this focus on agendas and results we see in the church today is because it's actually the easy way out. It's way less scary to treat church as a corporation with an objective and a bottom line than it is to treat it as this strange sprawling organism that somehow becomes Christ in the world.

  4. I think you're right, Hope. We are very uncomfortable with something we can't manage and control. And we are trained to (1) identify problem (2) analyze problem (3) tackle problem (4) evaluate effectiveness (5) rinse, repeat.

    When things (like family, marriage, friendship, community) can't be fully handled with our normal order, we get antsy.

    John, stop laughing at me. I'm sensitive.

  5. Thanks for writing this, Winn. I needed to read this today.

  6. Amen.

  7. The Schoon Scoop June 1, 2010 at 7:58 am

    I've got my bible study reading Ortberg's "The ME I Want To Be" while I am also trying to write a sermon on overcoming the lonely condition we find ourselves in. This discussion couldnt come at a better time for me. I seem to be running in circles trying to figure out what real relationship is in the body of Christ. I think you've got something here – we've forgotten that God wants to work on us and in us, not just have us work on and in the world. What a great reminder not to put the cart before the horse.

  8. Good stuff Winn! If we truly embraced Jesus' desire for loving one another (John 13:34-35) we would be a living witness of God's love (John 15:9).

  9. The Commonwealth June 2, 2010 at 12:13 pm

    Winn: the economy (i.e. utility, efficiency, production) of your post pleased me very much. Oh yeah, and also the words, the textures, the rhetorical playfulness, the lingering effect.

    God as a utilitarian-minded industrialist tycoon. Now that's an image MADE BY HUMANITY, if you will. And all idols must leave the house.

    By the way, I think I've discovered the next big thing. But I can't share it here. Facebook me.

    Peace.
    Nathan

  10. I was able to share this article with someone who needed it. Thanks for your words Winn; your words that continue to stick with me.

  11. That is kind, Ryan.Thank you. I hope you are well.

words have a way of making friends. drop a few here.