Rethinking “Rethink Church”

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.


8 thoughts on “Rethinking “Rethink Church”

  1. Hi Morgan, I really appreciate your love for who the church is called to be by God – rather than by society. I work with Rethink Church staff at UMCom, and I love the work. I guess it’s just that I’ve seen so many people turned off by those who preach a lot of words without any love behind them….the best of the Rethink Church movement is that people are focused on connecting with communities and loving people by action – then sharing the “why” behind their actions. That second part involves discipleship training – it doesn’t come easy for most people to share their faith these days. Christ is at the center of our work. As a deacon in the UMC, I wouldn’t commit my life’s work to it otherwise. Maybe we can continue the discussion at some point. You could meet the staff here and see the fuller aspects of what we do. I wish you the best. Rev. Neelley Hicks

    • Thanks for sharing, Neelley. I hope that I wasn’t uncharitable in my critique of that one video. I myself feel called to a life’s work of undoing the damage that the ugly anti-gospels of American Christianity have done. I feel like the Wesleyan movement has a rich theology to share. I just don’t want us to completely bury our theology because other theologies have burned people. I worry sometimes that we’re projecting this image of a community service organization without the story of Jesus that makes us who we are.

      Perhaps I’m just called to a different piece of the puzzle than you guys. I think it’s vitally important for some of us to have deacon eyes and others to have elder eyes in how we view the world. I’m going to tend to be a stickler about the theological foundation since that’s my calling.

      In any case, I very much want you guys to be successful. I absolutely do think we need to rethink church and make it a movement again rather than an institution. I’m not sure exactly how to do that. I want to believe that telling the story the right way can do that, but perhaps that’s because I’m a preacher.

      By the way, we’ve got a ton of United Methodist bloggers out in cyberspace who I’m sure would be happy to share content with you guys. Are you familiar with Jay Voorhees’s methoblog site? How can we create more connectivity between the grassroots and UMCom?

  2. Morgan, having grown up Southern Baptist, the old three-Bs went together, pretty much all at once, but I’ve lately seen an example of Bass’s belong-behave-believe pattern at my current Boston-area church. (United Methodist.)

    An international student has been faithfully attending since Advent last year — moreso than some members — because she felt welcomed. She grew up in a non-religious family and came to us knowing next to nothing about Christian theology. She says she wants to love God, worship and learn more about Jesus, so my pastor and I gave her a copy of Eugene Peterson’s The Message and said we’ll talk anytime she’s ready.

    A few Sundays ago, to my surprise, she participated in Communion, ahead of a profession of faith and baptism. (Which she’s still not ready for.) Some believers might be bothered by that, but I was joyful. She may turn out to be the first convert to the faith at my church since my wife and I joined 12 years ago. If it happens, it will be because she first belonged.

  3. Love your last sentence. He loves us, he wants us, but he doesn’t need us!

    (Bishop Willimon has commented in some of his public speeches of his particular distaste for our advertising programs. He finds them rather useless in that they are Christ-less as you mention.)

    • Yeah like I said, I’m all about reaching out to seekers and trying to figure out how to translate the gospel for them but you’ve got to have a gospel to translate!

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