This past Saturday, I preached on the meaning of church. We’re going through the book of Ephesians in a sermon series, and Ephesians 1:23 defines the church as the “fullness of Him who fills all in all.” Since my theme was “rethinking church,” I decided to check out what resources were available from the United Methodist “Rethink Church” campaign. I found a three-year-old promotional video that I have embedded below. The video gets one thing very right when it says church is a verb, not a noun. I found that to be literally true in the original Greek of my sermon text for the weekend. However, the video also gets something very wrong. It makes “us” the subject of the sentence in which “church” is a verb, instead of Jesus, whose name doesn’t appear anywhere in the entire video.
I can sympathize with the ethos that seems to be behind this video. In a time when Christians are perceived as angry, self-righteous Bible-thumping Pharisees, it would seem that unchurched people would be more attracted to a a Christianity that is about helping people and doing community service. Apparently, the reason that the video didn’t mention Jesus is because the publicity consultants hired by the Methodist church said that it would be a turn-off to seekers.
If I try my hardest to be charitable and not horrified by this mentality, I could make a case for it being in line with the outreach philosophy espoused by Diana Butler Bass in her Christianity After Religion. Bass talks about three B’s that describe a believer’s conversion to Christianity. In the past, when Christianity was the universal norm in society, people believed in Jesus first, then behaved like a Christian, then belonged in a church. Bass argues that in our post-Christendom world, we should reverse the sequence. Invite people to belong in a church, let them learn from the community how to behave like Christians, trusting that this will lead to their discovered belief in Christ.
I see some merit to Bass’s approach. It’s similar to a “conversion-less” form of evangelism advocated by Brad Kallenberg’s Live To Tell. Kallenberg, who had spent his early Christian years involved in a campus ministry that emphasized aggressive sidewalk evangelism, found that the evangelistic approach of arguing people into “decisions for Christ” on the sidewalk stopped being fruitful as our culture entered the era of postmodernity in the nineties. In Kallenberg’s book, he suggests inviting people to church without making a big deal about whether they’re “seekers” or “believers” and engaging them in Christian discourse as though they’re Christians until they come to a place where they can authentically claim Christian language for themselves.
Of course, I think both Kallenberg and Bass are operating with a basic premise that the “Rethink Church” video doesn’t seem to share. You have to include the story of Christ for being in a Christian community to result in any kind of personal conversion into Christian discipleship. Church has to be more than just “making a difference” and “finding a place where you fit.” When you make church inoffensive by cutting out the story of Jesus that makes church what is, you have also made church uncompelling as a result.
The word that gets translated as church in Ephesians 1:23 is ekklesia, which means literally the “out-calling” (ek + klesia). This word is used in Greek for “assembly” or “gathering,” but to me the etymology suggests that it is not so much a noun for the group of people who end up gathered, but rather a verb for the process by which these people have been called out. In other words, I would propose that church really means the call of God that brings people together, rather than the institution that people create in response to God’s call.
If we understand church as the institution rather than the call, then we preoccupy ourselves with preserving the institution rather than being faithful to the call. Thus, all of our promotional campaigns come from a place of anxiety about our denomination’s declining numbers and seek to address whatever hangups might be keeping unchurched people from walking in our doors. If we understood church as the call by which Jesus “ecclesiates” all creation with His fullness, then we’re going to preoccupy ourselves with being faithful to His call, trusting that God is the one who “churches” people, not us.
I used two images in my sermon Saturday to describe the relationship between God’s ekklesia and us. One was a tornado. The ekklesia is like the invisible wind inside of the tornado that keeps it going. As long as God’s call permeates all of our programs, ministries, and institutional infrastructure, they will continue to whirl around like the dust, debris, and water inside a tornado. If we lose the wind in our tornado, then all of our church programs lose their life like a pile of dust, debris, and water on the ground.
The other image I used was a dance party. The ekklesia is like the song that makes everybody dance in the club. When you take a picture of people dancing, you can’t see the music, but they wouldn’t be doing what they’re doing without it. If the song of God’s call isn’t distinct, then our church will be like a dead club where everybody is sitting against the wall.
There are different improvisations we can make on the ekklesia that makes us into the body of Christ. We can emphasize God’s mercy, power, justice, solidarity, glory, or another attribute depending on which scriptural lens we are using and what the occasion calls for. But there are two basic components without which the ekklesia is not: the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I recognize that these two elements of our faith cause a lot of seekers to struggle (Why did Jesus have to die? How can anyone ever come back from the dead?).
It is a profoundly challenging art to explain the cruciform, resurrected aesthetic of Christianity in terms that people will listen to. But we cannot abandon the heart of our ekklesia without creating something other than church. Indeed, we need to rethink church, not in order to make it more inoffensively “relevant” to secular tastes, but in order to make ourselves more relevant to God’s call. One thing we shouldn’t worry about is saving God’s church, because God will keep on ecclesiating His creation with or without us.