The Naked Anabaptist 5: What Kind of Church?
After yet another extended hiatus, on to the fifth of Stuart Murray’s seven core convictions of Anabaptists (from The Naked Anabaptist):
Churches are called to be committed communities of discipleship and mission, places of friendship, mutual accountability and multi-voiced worship. As we eat together, sharing bread and wine, we sustain hope as we seek God’s kingdom together. We are committed to nurturing and developing such churches, in which young and old are valued, leadership is consultative, roles are related to gifts rather than gender and baptism is for believers.
Perhaps one of the first things that comes to mind after reading a statement like that is, that sounds fine and good, but it doesn’t really look much like any church I’ve ever been a part of! The Anabaptist vision of community articulated by Murray sounds fantastic and life-giving, but for so many it bears very little resemblance to their experience of church. In fact, rightly or wrongly, the church is often associated with the opposites of these things:
- Instead of discipleship and mission we see a mainly cognitive understanding of salvation and evangelism and an attitude of complacency and apathy with respect to mission.
- Instead of mutual friendship and accountability we see superficial relationships based on outward appearances and an unwillingness/inability to challenge one another’s behaviour.
- Instead of multi-voiced worship we hire paid religious “professionals” to produce services and events for everyone else.
- The Lord’s table, rather than sustaining hope and spurring us on to seek God’s kingdom in our world, can become little more than a formality or, perhaps, a quasi-therapeutic exercise in helping us get our own individual lives back on track again.
- The young and the old among us are often isolated their own groups and occupy a peripheral role in the church, implying that it is the folks between roughly 18-65 (i.e., approximately the working population—the “useful” and “productive” members of society) that matter the most.
- We pay lip service to gender equality (or not) but do little to implement it in practice.
- Leadership structures are based on hierarchical corporate models rather than the servant model of leadership found in Scripture.
Harsh? Probably a little. The grim picture I’ve painted above does not describe every church, but it describes more than it should, if only partially. I’ve had many conversations in many different places and contexts where some variation of one of the above is described as a reason for either someone’s ongoing dissatisfaction with church or for leaving it entirely. For too many, their experience of church bears little resemblance to the kind of community described by Murray above.
Of course, it will be argued that the Anabaptist vision of Christian community as articulated by Murray is an exercise in idealistic fantasy. Nobody’s perfect after all. We are all fallen human beings—sinners, every one. And what about grace? “Whoever is without sin, cast the first stone” and all that. Christian communities are full of broken, hurting, and confused people, after all. We shouldn’t expect perfection.
Fair enough. But I think we could expect them to be better. Indeed, many—both inside and outside the church—do expect better from an entity that claims to pattern itself after the life and example of Jesus of Nazareth. Throughout this section—and indeed, throughout the entire book—Murray detects a genuine hunger for change. He sees a longing for an experience of Christian community that is an alternative to “Christendom” models of church and church leadership characterized by hierarchy, professionalism, authoritarianism, judgmentalism, and a strong distinction between clergy and laity. And as Murray points out in the book, many are considering what historical Anabaptist distinctives (at their best) might have to contribute to re-imagining, re-shaping, restoring, and renewing Christian community in what is increasingly becoming a post-Christian context.
Increasingly, many are experimenting with new models of “doing” church where some of the emphases Murray identifies are very intentionally pursued. One community intentionally pairs the old and the young in a mentorship program, another sets up listening forums to ensure as many voices as possible are heard prior to making significant decisions, another publicly displays the text of Matthew 18:15-17 in its meeting room to remind each other that as members of the community they have a right to mind each others’ business. Do these communities get it right all the time? No. But Murray thinks they are pushing in the right direction.
So do I. I think the issue of how we “do church” is yet another area where all of us—including Anabaptists—could stand to become a little more Anabaptist.
Except for the first item, your list perfectly describes the PCUSA in which I served. Instead of an emphasis on salvation and evangelism, the emphasis is on being good people and that manifests itself mainly in two two ways: as an emphasis on something like therapy in some churches and on social justice understood as advocating the politics of the far left in others.
Christianity today is largely hollow. God has left the temple.
I think a lot depends on where we look and what we expect to find.
I was looking at your blog entry – not at you, of course, but at the churches you described , as well as the denomination and church I served in. I was poetically agreeing with you.
I took no offense. I was speaking to myself, as much as to anyone else—for the times when I see what you see and am discouraged.
I really like the Murray book and might add one caveat to its thesis. While Anabaptism’s rejection of Christendom is very sweeping and can be rephrased by Ken’s “God has left the building”- to some degree it is also only vaguely relevant. The foundational question for “real” 🙂 Anabaptists is- “What am I doing within my church and my community that reflects my obedience to my Jesus, my Master?”
With regard to the visible scheme of things, the poet in me likes the myth of Sisyphus [Camus’ version]. After pushing the rock to the top of the mountain- it will inevitably roll back to the bottom and I must begin the old task again. A critical difference between me and Camus’ existentialism is the conviction that life has a teleological purpose.