college travels

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Some thoughts on Church and Culture – Thesis 3

My final thought (for now!) on this topic... Thesis 3: By equating ‘church’ with the hour and fifteen minutes we spend together on a Sunday instead of a community we load up the weekly gathering with more than it can or should bear.

This perhaps is not an idea specifically about church and culture but I think it’s one of the reasons we’re in such a pickle over the ‘church and culture’ issue.

I think we (meaning, Sydney Evangelicals (capitals intentional) who have been brought up on Knox-Robinson ecclesiology) have overemphasised the ‘church as gathering’ equation to the extent that church has become limited to what happens when we’re in the building together on Sunday morning (or evening, or Saturday or whenever we gather).

Church is not a building (though every physical gathering needs a location); it’s not an institution (though any gathering of people will have institutional structures, see Volf (1998), After Our Likeness, p.234-45); and neither is it an event (though as a gathering community the church will be marked by the significant regular gathering ‘event’).

Brief Theological Aside: Of course, this wasn’t the intention of Knox or Robinson (imho); their most significant contribution being the point that the heavenly gathering (Heb 12:23) being primary means that we are always ‘in church’. Still though, the insistence that earthly ‘church’ doesn’t exist when we are not gathered (“It is not too much to say that the church on earth does not exist, or is not visible, except in the actual assembly of believers” Robinson (1965). The Church of God), though linguistically precise, is I believe theologically limited. Yes, ekklēsia means ‘gathering’, and the word is mostly used in the NT to refer to actual gatherings (whether Christian or not); but there are at least two times I can see where Luke uses the word to refer more broadly to Christian people who are not actually physically gathered – Acts 8:3; 9:31.

Therefore I prefer to talk of the church as a ‘gathering community’: that is, we are a community living under the headship of Christ (so, we are ‘church’ even if we’re not gathered); but we are a community that is marked and defined by gathering, both spiritual and physical gathering, temporal and eschatological gathering. To be Christian is to be a member of the church, gathered now around Christ by the Spirit, to be gathered on the last day physically in Christ’s presence, and to gather physically now whenever possible and practical as the fundamental expression and experience of our identity. To decide to stop gathering with other believers will by definition bring into question our identity as Christians. If I’m a member of a football team (in my dreams I’m inside centre for the Wallabies) but decide to no longer meet with the other team members and instead aim to play rugby as an individual, I might have lofty intentions, and there may be understandable reasons for my decision, but you’ve got to ask whether it really is rugby I’ve ended up playing.

The upshot of all this is that church isn’t just our formal gathering; it is not less than that, but must be more as well.

Even if you don’t agree with my theological aside and want to maintain the church is church only when Christians gather idea, then at least we can agree that the church gathering doesn’t need to be (and I suggest) ought not be limited to one hour and 15 minute (or thereabouts) gathering once a week.

Pity the poor ‘Sunday Service’ – it must be a time of public reading of Scripture, gospel proclamation, theological education, spiritual nurture, practical instruction, corporate worship and prayer, and intimate fellowship; with offertory, announcements and morning tea thrown in there’s a lot going on in one gathering (and there’s another series of blogs on the implications of this sort of expectation on preaching and preachers...). The point for now is, that if you add the requirement to be ‘culturally relevant to all who attend, especially to the majority culture of our community that we’ve decided to target’ we’ve ended up with an impossible task.

Putting together theses 1, 2 and 3 therefore, cultural relevance belongs to church through individual Christians or small groups of Christians who are engaged in real relationships of evangelistic-love with their friends and neighbours; while the regular gathering of God’s people, aiming at transforming all our individual cultures by living intentionally as God’s people under Christ by the Spirit, will have a culture different to any other, and open to every other.

So, invite your vegan neighbours to a dinner of barley and eggplant salad on Friday night, your NRL loving workmates to a spit roast on Saturday night and have a cup of tea and a scone with Mabel from across the street on Thursday afternoon; get everyone from your church who surfs into the same home group and encourage them to be an evangelistic community to connect with local surfers; do the same for the scrap-bookers, the long-distance runners and the wanna-be-masterchefs. And then come Sunday, come together in the one gathering that transcends all human connections, this new community in Christ. Introduce your surfer friend to your sister the scrapbooker and your brother the vegan. Then sit together under the word of God and share together in the Lord’s table, and display the manifold wisdom of God to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places (Eph 3:10), and perhaps lead your friend to worship God, exclaiming, ‘God is really among you’ (1 Cor 14:25)!

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  • Hi Graham,

    Thanks for your 3 blogs about Church - I'm in the middle of a final (integrative)project about Church and mobile technology. I think I'm leaning towards considering church as both gathering and fellowship, and it being more identity than a meeting. I also feel like it should be diverse, rather than culturally homogenous, but I'm not sure how to support this view from scripture. Do you have any suggestions? Also, do you know where I might find ideas like you've said here in a published form?
    thanks - rachel

    By Blogger Dene, at 1:02 am  

  • hi Rachel - sorry it's taken so long to reply to this (actually I'm not sure when you posted this comment, so perhaps I'm not late at all!)

    Where to go in scripture for the idea that the church should be diverse rather than culturally homogenous? I'd say Eph 2:11-22, Gal 3:26-28, Rev 7:9-17.

    And where to go to find these ideas in published form? I'm not really sure on that. I haven't published them any further than here. There's lots of ideas on church and culture out there and lots of printed resources.

    Just recently I've heard Mark Sayers speaking on culture and he was breathtakingly good! I understand he has a new book coming out soon - so I'd look out for that.

    By Blogger Graham Stanton, at 1:31 pm  

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