Wednesday, April 06, 2005

the church is an illigitimate center

this article published as the feature in the New York Times magazine was a fascinating examination of a church. without going into too much detail about the article, (please read it if you are at all inclined) a very large church in Arizona is closely examined within the context of the "exurbs" - new housing developments that might be described as dislocated suburbs on steroids.

i wanted to bring it up here simply to restate something a bloke named Hoekendijk started writing about back in the fifties. Hoekendijk argued that if the kingdom of god is to be our principle aim, we are sorely mistaken to focus all of our hopes/energy/passion exclusively on the church. he summarized his argument by saying that, "Church-centric missionary thinking is bound to go astray, because it revolves around an illegitimate center" (The church inside out, 1964, p.38). (there's more) he goes on to suggest that understanding God’s mission of love and justic in the world will require a broader vision - a vision that has been called the missio dei. (i am well aware the there are some major problems with Hoekendijk's ideas.....but for now i am grateful for the shift in ecclesial thinking his work inspired, including his having a huge influence on a bloke called Leslie Newbegin).

just as we are miserable creatures when when we put ourselves at the center of the universe, so too is the church mired in it's own troubles when we make it the centerpiece of what we suppose God is doing. in australia we have billabongs - literally meaning "dead creek". they are ponds where the water sits still because a creek or stream has dried up and stopped flowing through. The water becomes rancid and stinky.

now, back to the NYT magazine article. here we have a church that is a massive success in gathering people, serving the 'members', and offering relationships/advice/information. and yet...and yet, it is increasingly the "center" and i wonder if this success will turn sour as it becomes a Christian ghetto. i have a friend who suggests that Christians in the United States are generally "of the world, but not in it." the punch line of the article (in my reading) was a quote from a very satisfied member who was talking about his new (Christian) friends and his old (non-Christian) friends - "we've had to commit ourselves to friends who could help us grow spiritually." (cf. Luke 7:34)

i hope we as the people of God can commit ourselves to the world in the ways of Jesus. this will mean occupying the margins - "the edge of chaos" - where our whole lives can be trans-formed in missionary service. this is a de-centered religion, a faith(fulness) for the spaces in between. the church is not big enough to contain the dreams of God.


james said...

Geoff, great point. Yet, perhaps you could define "church" in this context. Is it simply the structure, or the narrowing definition of the word, or the Body of Christ. It seems the later "Body" definition would be an appropriate center and include both the Kingdom and the Missio Dei.
These critics seem to me centered on the institutions we've established rather then the Church Universal.
Could you help me out.

Thunder Jones said...
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Thunder Jones said...

I agree with James. I think the problem is that when we think of church we limit it to the pretty building. Now, I disagree with Hoekendijk (as much as I can disagree with him having never read him) because I think that the church has to be the center in forming people capable of bearing witness to Christ. I'm a practice kind of guy and I think that the liturgy and sacraments are essential to forming Christians into the body of Christ.

That said, I just got done reading an interview with Mark Noll in which he said that the non-denominational church is the epitome of capitalistic go-it-alone-ism because it is contained completely within itself. I think he's right and I think this church in AZ is the scandal of the evangelical mind that Noll and others (especially Ron Sider and Jim Wallis).

One of the force that I think properly fights against this thinking is liturgy. When properly understood the Episcopal post-Eucharistic prayer that is said weekly is pretty revolutionary rather than domesticated:

"Eternal God, heavenly Father, You have graciously accepted us as living members of Your Son our Savior Jesus Christ, and You have fed us with spiritual food in the Sacrament of His Body and Blood. Send us now into the world in peace, and grant us strength and courage to love and serve You, with gladness and singleness of heart; through Christ our Lord. Amen."

We go to church to be spiritually fed so that we can go out in peace to love and serve God. The question is what loving and serving God look like. If that looks like peacemaking and working with the downtrodden, then we've got something that look very different than the suburban religion that much of Christianity has degenerated into...

Thunder Jones said...

BTW, how great is Theology of the Cross. That's a great fly-over of Yoder. I used it a lot in my thesis at Duke. It really goes into the non-foundationalism of Yoder that's crucial, but also easy to miss in his work if you aren't looking for it.

c said...

Geoff, I wonder how we could be shaped by those outside our communities. Instead of having the outsiders come to us and us shape them, how could an attitude of us shaping them help us? I can see the dangers of going too far with this idea but I wonder if it has some (however little) wisdom in it.

I agree with Thunder that we need orthodoxy and orthopraxy (practices that shape the community). Seeing as how many churches have bought into the church growth myth, church "success" is all about numbers, programs, facility size, and money. But what about seeing how many people are deployed from the building than coming into it?

Yes I think we need to be together and live life in proximity and monastically, but how are our communities bettered by our existance in them? Good stuff Geoff.

geoff said...

i'm in a wee rush this morning so i don't have time to properly respond to comments. ...but check out sivin's recent post "constants in context". i wish i had read this before posting my reflection -

while trying to avoid reductionism (remember 'camping mocks the homeless') i think perhaps we are moving toward the same hope from different places (disciplines?)...i'm hopelessly addicted to a missiological approach while i expect you guys, thunder and james, are more indebted to a theological framing of ecclesiology. am i way off?
please check out sivin's comments as he talks about multidisciplinary approaches.

well, a mob of us are taking off for a weekend retreat so i'll get back to this next week.

geoff said...

hey clark,
wonderful i said above, i'm in a bit of a rush so please excuse the brevity of this.
david bosch gave his classic book the ambiguos title "transforming mission" intentionally. he says in the introduction mission will always transform 'both parties'. that is, we will be transformed by mission as much (more in some cases, me thinks) than we will transform 'them'. if you haven't already seen it, i'd encourage you to read the first part of bosch's book as it deals directly with your questions.

Thunder Jones said...

I think your assessment is pretty dead on, but I don't think that the ecclesiological and the missiological can exist without each other. The mission has to be grounded in the practices of the church and the practices of the church exist for the sake of missio dei.

I *think* that the difference is the centrality of Eucharist between us? We haven't had enough liturgical conversations for me to be sure about that, but that's my suspicion. I see the need for high church Eucharist as the center of Christian worship whereas, again, I think that you would place more importance on the action of evangelism (properly understood) as the center of Christian worship. That isn’t to say that I don’t think evangelism is crucial or that you don’t have a strong affinity for the Eucharistic theology, but that their priorities for each of us differ.

I do think that we’d both agree that it is hard to have a authentic Christian community without both of these elements.