I concluded last week’s post with the following:
when we consider the question I just raised … (at what point do the safety measures necessary to meet outweigh the benefits of meeting in the first place?), it puts us in the place of also asking: which thing(s), when taken away from the church, cause it to cease being a church? The positive side to this question is this: what, fundamentally, causes the church to be the Church? This is a deeply existential and theological question that bears no quick and easy response. For that reason, I will refrain from trying to answer it today. For now, I want to simply leave you with that question to ruminate.
I will acknowledge from the outset that what follows is not intended to be an exhaustive answer to that question. Much ink has been spilled, and many thousands of bytes of computer hard drive space consumed by pastors, pundits, and theologians musing over that question. In many respects, our answer to that question is largely determined by our cultural and historical context. For Dietrich Bonhoeffer: what does it mean to be the church in Nazi Germany in the 1930s and 40s? For Martin Luther King Jr.: what does it mean to be the church in an America that is segregated by the colour of one’s skin? For William Wilberforce and John Henry Newman: what does it mean to be the church in an age of empires and forced slavery of African peoples? Even to pose the question today is considerably complex when we see the myriad of challenges facing the church in our Canadian context: COVID-19, social justice and racial inequality, gender issues, women’s issues, the decline of mainline church membership, music in worship. the list is seemingly endless. At the same time, I do believe there are a certain core set of things that help to identify the church regardless of cultural and historical context.
I will take as my starting point the words of the Belgic Confession in its attempt to define the ‘true church’ when it states:
The true church can be recognized
if it has the following marks:
The church engages in the pure preaching
of the gospel;
it makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments
as Christ instituted them;
it practices church discipline
for correcting faults.
In short, it governs itself
according to the pure Word of God,
rejecting all things contrary to it
and holding Jesus Christ as the only Head.
(BC, Art. 29 – Source: https://www.crcna.org/welcome/beliefs/confessions/belgic-confession)
There are three things the confession identifies as the marks of the true church: “the pure preaching of the gospel … the pure administration of the sacraments … church discipline”. But I ask, what constitutes the pure preaching of the gospel, the pure administration of the sacraments? These adjectives are sufficiently vague enough as to almost render what follows meaningless. What we do have to understand, too, is that even this definition was given in a particular context: the Protestant Reformation. Many churches, pastors, and political leaders, were objecting to the reach of the Roman Catholic Church in the 15th and 16th centuries; basing at least some of their protests on an appeal to a return to the Bible as the sole authority in the life of the church … not church traditions. Whatever they did not find precedent for in the Bible, they believed had no place in the life of the church. Some such items included the longer list of “sacraments” endorsed by the Roman Catholic Church of the time, and some of its teachings around death, purgatory, and especially the sale of “indulgences” (whereby people could purchase the passage of deceased loved ones through purgatory and into heaven). Obviously, a great deal more was at stake, but these were two of the primary objections of Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Guido de Bres (author of the Belgic Confession) to name but a few. In that situation, we did reclaim some of what had been lost since the early church, but we cannot deny the influence of culture and history in even these definitions.
I share this as a caution that we not be too quick in our current situation to do the same: to (re)define what it means to be the church against the backdrop of a particular cultural and historical situation. At the same time, our cultural and historical situation is unique to its own time and place, and we must seek to understand how the message of Jesus Christ and his Kingdom comes to bear on the particularity of our circumstances. However, as I continue to reflect on what it means to be the church in our context, I cannot help but begin to see certain things that are unique to its identity for all times and places. It is these things that should always be at the fore of our identity and practices, regardless of context. How we choose to live them out may differ, but that we should be living them out is, in my mind, non-negotiable.
In reflecting on this, I have found it helpful to distinguish between programs and practices. I use the term program in a very broad sense to mean any activity we do in order to fulfill a certain purpose or calling. Practices on the other hand, are those specific callings. So, for example, a practice of the church is to educate our children in the ways of God; a program we may use to carry out that practice is Sunday School. Another practice we might identify is extending mercy to the impoverished, and the corresponding program for Calvary would be the Carpenteros and Friends. The programs are culturally defined, fluid, and negotiable – but the practices are not.
I will not take the space here to outline what all those practices are or might be, but our experience with COVID-19 has fundamentally called into question how the programs of ‘church’ are fundamentally meeting (or not meeting) the goals of those practices. Is gathering together in our sanctuary on a Sunday morning to sing songs, hear the sermon, and teach Sunday school to be placed on the level or program, or practice?
One uncomfortable reality we need to face is that ‘church’ as we know it will never be the same again … BUT, church as we know it, was not, and is not the best nor the only way to do church – nor is it to be equated with being the church. If and when we do open the building, who is going to show up? If they do show up, what can they expect to find? Who will be ‘left out’ if we try too hard to keep things exactly as we knew them, instead of looking for new ways to engage a ‘brave new world’ unlike any world we have ever seen before? If there’s no singing, will all our music lovers opt to stay home? If there’s no Sunday school or nursery, will there be any young families in the building? If the aged and immuno-compromised are encouraged to stay home, who actually does benefit from the church re-opening? If all we can reasonably offer in the building is a sermon and a chance to be together (from a distance) for the foreseeable future, how is that in any way different (or better) than doing things online? Is doing things online even the best way to do it? Through this experience, people are learning that they don’t need to go to church to be spiritually fed. They can choose from tens of thousands of churches to watch or pastors to listen to on any given Sunday. (The pressure to compete is overwhelming).
I realize that in this I am raising more questions than answers, but these are questions I wrestle with as I think about what it means to be a pastor in the Christian Reformed Church in THIS context. How can someone who has been trained and equipped to serve a (way of doing) church that no longer exists adapt to an ever-changing, ever-shifting reality? Thankfully, I am young enough and tech-savvy enough to answer some of those questions. But long-term, I am in no different a situation than my thousands of pastoral colleagues.
What the Reformers did have right, I believe (among other things) is the emphasis upon the Word of God as revealed in Scripture. To build anything, we need a foundation; and no more tested foundation can be found than the words of Scripture. It is in Scripture that we identify those timeless practices of the Church. Perhaps it is time we look again at those practices through a fresh set of eyes.
2020 is a wonderful time for reflection, and an opportunity to ask some really tough questions – if we dare – about what it means to be the Church, a Christian, a pastor, an elder or deacon. If we are willing to probe deep enough, we may be surprised by the answers. The next step will be becoming brave enough to act upon what we discover. If we can peel back the layers of the onion and get at the true heart of what it means to be the Church, I think God may indeed surprise, enlighten, and enliven us for the years to come.