What is the church?

As I prepare to move to a new church and leave behind two that I have served for the last few years, I find myself contemplating what it means to be the church.

Here is a starting thought. What I am looking for here is not an abstract definition of the church, but a practical one — one that might challenge and shape what we actually do as the church and in the name of the church. As I say, here is starting thought:

The church is a people called together by God to live in such a way as to not cause a scandal when the way they live is compared to what they say when they pray the Lord’s Prayer.

My first thought was to end that with the phrase “when they claim that Jesus Christ is Lord.” That might be stronger, but it takes a lot more explication, which is not necessarily a bad thing but can give us lots of ways to wriggle off the hook.

My definition, of course, leads to questions about the meaning of the Lord’s Prayer and what it would mean to live our lives in ways that do not make the prayer a scandal. I suppose I find myself really enjoying the thought of doing that work with a congregation.

He had me at ‘gelatinous core’

Drew McIntyre is aghast to run across an account of a church practicing a “somewhat non-theistic” form of worship.

Read about it here. Bonus points if you sing the closing hymn out loud.

The Wesleys were better at this

This is not news. John and Charles Wesley were better at this Methodist thing than I am. Here are a few specific things that I appreciate about their ministry.

Purpose drove everything

Early in his ministry — even before his own conversion experience at Aldersgate — John Wesley became convinced that to be a Christian was not a half-way affair. You either were going on to complete holiness of heart and life or your were falling away. And so, his purpose became to find the means to nurture that spiritual growth, first in himself and then in all who would hear his message. Everything Wesley did was animated by this purpose.

How he and his brother organized their movement, how they preached, and even what points of theology they emphasized were all organized around a single, clear-eyed vision of their purpose as ministers of the gospel.

We see this most clearly in the creation of the class meetings and bands. These were not novelties in England. Such small groups had met before and did meet outside of the Methodist movement, but Wesley made them a signature of the movement because he found they were uniquely fitted to the task of fostering holiness. If they had not been so fitted, he would have discarded them. And so it was with every other aspect of the movement. If it did not serve the purpose, it was not necessary. If it did serve the purpose, he would hold on to it come what may.

Multi-media mattered

The Wesleys were multi-media before multi-media was cool. They used every method they could to get their message out. Charles Wesley wrote thousands of hymns to teach and gird up the theological foundation of the movement. People liked to sing, so he gave them songs. John Wesley took on the practice of field preaching — which he did not relish — because it was the only way to get the gospel to the people. If they will not come to us, the minutes of the Methodist Conference remind us , we must go to them. In addition, Wesley produced a huge array of written materials to support the movement. The Wesleys used every mode of communication they could get their hands on to support the work they were about.

Dodging rocks was part of the job

One of my favorite John Wesley stories comes from an account in one of his journals. He writes about getting ready to preach in an open field one day when he was expecting a mob to show up and try to disrupt things. As he peered around the field, he noticed a large quantity of rocks and dirt clods that would be ideal for throwing, so he move over to a different field where his assailants would have a less amply supply of ammunition. He expected opposition.

For all the success of the Methodist movement, it did not during the life of John and Charles ever grow to be more than a tiny fraction of the population of England or Ireland and barely gained any foothold at all in Scotland. Not everyone would hear it and not everyone would receive it. The Wesleys and other leaders of the movement did not obsess over the ones who rejected their message. They set about, instead, doing everything they could to make connection with those who would receive it. They believed it was a message for all people, but they did not despair that many would oppose it.

These are just some of the ways John and Charles challenge and inspire me when I think of the state of our denomination. What about you?