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The Work of the Church

I spent a bit of time this morning listening to an interesting little interview with Eugene Peterson over at NPR’s “Books” page. The interview accompanies a short excerpt from Peterson’s new book, The Pastor: A Memoira book that is in the mail, and that I am very much looking forward to. Unfortunately, Eugene Peterson wasn’t on campus much during the three years I spent at Regent College so I did not have the privilege of taking a course with him, but his books have been a lifeline to me over the course of my first three years in pastoral ministry (I’m thinking specifically of Under the Unpredictable Plant, Working the Angles, and Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work). Peterson’s consistent refusal to allow the pastoral vocation to be accommodated to the logic and demands of the marketplace (I believe “religious shopkeepers” is the term he uses) is an inspiration and a challenge.

At any rate, since I’m thinking about Eugene Peterson today, here’s a sobering quote about the nature of the church from Practice Resurrection (I think we can safely substitute “North American” for “American” throuhgout):

Americans talk and write endlessly about what the church needs to become, what the church must do to be effective. The perceived failures of the church are analyzed and reforming strategies prescribed. The church is understood almost exclusively in terms of function—what we can see. If we can’t see it, it doesn’t exist. Everything is viewed through the lens of pragmatism. Church is an instrument that we have been given to bring about whatever Christ commanded us to do. Church is a staging ground for getting people motivated to continue Christ’s work.

This way of thinking—church as a human activity to be measured by human expectations—is pursued unthinkingly. The huge reality of God already at work in all the operations of the Trinity is benched on the sideline while we call timeout, huddle together with our heads bowed, and figure out a strategy by which we can compensate for God’s regrettable retreat into invisibility. This is dead wrong, and it is responsible for no end of shallowness and experimentation in trying to achieve success and relevance and effectiveness that people can see. Statistics provide the basic vocabulary for keeping score. Programs provide the game plan. This way of going about things has done and continues to do immeasurable damage to the American church.

19 Comments Post a comment
  1. Tyler Brown #

    What would the right vision of the church look like?

    March 8, 2011
    • Well, I linked to (part of) Peterson’s own answer a while back… Of course, this probably still seems a little abstract :).

      How about this, also from Practice Resurrection:

      Church at its simplest and most obvious is a protected place, an available time for God to have conversation with us and for us to have conversation with God in company with God’s people. At the same time it is far more than this. God speaks and acts whenever and wherever he wills, but it is at least this: a congenial place and time to cultivate the presence of God.

      This is what I find myself praying, most often, on Sunday mornings. That we would create a space for God to speak and for us to listen. Sometimes we succeed, sometimes we probably do not. The church is not always very good with silence :).

      Of course, this is still just a start. Ken identifies some important biblical metaphors for the church below. I think that the church is, above all else, people—followers of Jesus across time and space (as opposed to a collection of programs and activities). Peterson is reacting against some of the hyper-pragmatic approaches to church in America where supply and demand seem to determine what is done and how it is done to a greater extent than the mandate of Scripture.

      March 8, 2011
    • Paul Johnston #

      A very good question, Tyler. A 24/7 reality not just something we do on Sunday. Something we live.

      March 9, 2011
      • Tyler Brown #

        Thanks for the response, I am a little late on reading them.
        As everyone seems to be highlighting is that it is not an easy question to answer (maybe that’s a good thing). As with all ideologies it seems to be trying to mix one’s subjective and pragmatic reality with an objective ends. While the ends may be (more or less) agreed upon it is the best means the causes much dispute.

        Paul, I like your answer. I often long for some sort of ‘church’ that is held together by a seriously practiced way of life. My mind often drifts to something like ancient Sparta or the communal villages of the Pythagoreans.

        March 11, 2011
  2. Ken #

    Re: “Church is an instrument that we have been given to bring about whatever Christ commanded us to do. Church is a staging ground for getting people motivated to continue Christ’s work.”

    I hear in this the protest of a Reformed theologian (he was PCUSA, as I have read.)

    And in this too.

    “The huge reality of God already at work in all the operations of the Trinity is benched on the sideline”

    It is a reference to the sovereignty of God – a Reformed/Presbyterian emphasis.

    And here he nails the atheism within even the most devout PCUSA clergy and probably in other clergy as well:

    “while we call timeout, huddle together with our heads bowed, and figure out a strategy by which we can compensate for God’s regrettable retreat into invisibility.”

    Many pastors in the PCUSA share this disappointment, even while they keep the game going.

    In the PCUSA when the internet was young, I started an internet prayer ministry. Peterson’s words remind me of criticisms the internet ministry received: “If we can’t see it, it doesn’t exist.”

    This is why it is hard to answer Tyler’s question: What does something we can’t see look like?

    She is the bride of Christ. She is the mother of the new creation. She is invisible, and yet we know her.

    March 8, 2011
  3. Ken #

    The thing which Peterson protests is present even in his own words.

    The protest: “Church is an instrument that we have been given to bring about whatever Christ commanded us to do. Church is a staging ground for getting people motivated to continue Christ’s work.”

    In his own words the church is “a congenial place and time to cultivate the presence of Christ’s work.” (an instrument for cultivating, a staging ground for cultivating.) Pragmatism.

    But he does appear to say that while he does think of the church as this, he also believes it is more than this. These words reflect his Reformed tradition: “At the same time it is far more than this. God speaks and acts whenever and wherever he wills.” It would have been even more Reformed to say, “It is not this at all. We cultivate nothing. We stage nothing. God speaks and acts whenever and wherever he wills.”

    March 9, 2011
    • Yes, it’s certainly difficult (impossible?) to completely avoid instrumental language when it comes to the church (or any other human behaviour/activity, for that matter) isn’t it? Perhaps at some level it just boils down to the ends to which our instrumental behaviours are directed…

      As an Anabaptist, I’m probably not well qualified to say what would be more or less authentically “Reformed.” I think that, like Peterson and many others, I am stuck affirming that God has somehow, in his sovereignty, chosen to meaningfully involve the church in the accomplishing of his ends. I am no fan of determinism, whether of the biological or divine variety.

      March 9, 2011
      • Ken #

        Each tradition has an integrated web of beliefs. In the Reformed tradition sovereignty of God, election, and church are interrelated. The church is comprised of the elect, and the election is God’s. I can tell from what you write and what James writes that it is different in the Anabaptist tradition, even if some of the words are the same. And this is why each of us would answer Tyler’s question differently.

        I know that you don’t realize it, but it is unfair to associate the word determinism with Reformed theology, even if that is how it looks from the Anabaptist tradition.

        Ecumenism is hard. The prejudices are woven into the theologies. It is hard to remove the prejudices without damaging the rest of the theological tissue. It is illuminating to compare the theologies, but it is not always pleasant.

        Where Peterson used the metaphor “cultivate,” I remember Calvin using the metaphor “nurture” or “nourish.” (The church is a mother that nourishes us, like a mother does a child.) Perhaps Peterson was thinking, in a Reformed way, that it is God doing the cultivating. (The church is a farmer or gardener that cultivates us.)

        March 9, 2011
      • I know that you don’t realize it, but it is unfair to associate the word determinism with Reformed theology, even if that is how it looks from the Anabaptist tradition.

        I probably “realize” more than you might think or give me credit for. I have spent far more time in Reformed academic circles than Anabaptist ones (my specifically Anabaptist formal education consists of one year at a Bible college when I was 19). At Regent College, where I did my graduate studies, there were a few lonely Mennonites amidst scores of Reformed folks (not to mention that the instruction we received often leaned in the Reformed direction). Of course, we all have prejudices woven into our theologies, but I would like to think that I have made some deliberate efforts—in my formal education and since—to learn and benefit from the perspectives of others.

        (My use of the word “determinism” was somewhat tongue-in-cheek.)

        Where Peterson used the metaphor “cultivate,” I remember Calvin using the metaphor “nurture” or “nourish.” (The church is a mother that nourishes us, like a mother does a child.) Perhaps Peterson was thinking, in a Reformed way, that it is God doing the cultivating. (The church is a farmer or gardener that cultivates us.)

        I think this is an insightful metaphor to describe the roles of God and the church.

        March 9, 2011
      • James #

        Hi Ken
        Why do you say “it is unfair to associate the word determinism with Reformed theology”? I don’t think it is only Anabaptists who find that linkage self-evident.

        March 9, 2011
      • Ken #

        James,

        When I wrote ” it is unfair to associate the word determinism with Reformed theology, even if that is how it looks from the Anabaptist tradition,” I did not mean to single out or criticize Anabaptists, even if they do think Reformed beliefs amount to determinism.

        I say it is unfair in the sense that it is part of the the old battle between traditions.

        The Reformed tradition in looking at itself finds itself affirming that we are saved by grace. That finding is orthodox and matter of fact, but also polemical. Going back to Luther, that claim is polemical because that was orthodox belief in the Roman Catholic Church and is today. My understanding is that this is affirmed among Anabaptists as well. The doctrine of election, that God will be merciful to whom he will be merciful, is also orthodox across traditions, even if it is articulated differently to some extent among them and even if the traditions accuse each other of distortions – e.g., determinism, works righteousness, universalism, etc.

        March 10, 2011
      • James #

        What I meant, Ken, was that Reformed theology is determinist even if some Reformed theologians are uncomfortable and seek to mitigate it. Clearly Reformed theology can look like a big tent [including Arminius] but John Calvin as the father is understood by most people as having explicitly trumped free will by God’s sovereignty . That is neither the Catholic nor the Anabaptist nor the Orthodox position [aside from assorted heretics 🙂 ] It seems to be the religious version of materialistic determinism. To me it seems that this defines Reformed theology.

        March 10, 2011
      • Ken #

        I had the impression from your posting that this was your view. You have confirmed it. Sorry to hear you look at it that way.

        March 10, 2011
      • James #

        I’m not quite sure where disappointment fits into this, Ken. The question is- is that view correct or not? There are different understandings of Reformed theology and I am more than open to learn about yours. I’m right or wrong, or partially right and partially wrong. I’ve changed my mind more than once after learning different facts I had misunderstood or been ignorant of.

        March 10, 2011
      • Ken #

        James, I don’t want to answer your questions, as good as they are.

        Hiking with a good friend last Sunday, we were discussing a particular endangered specie that lives in the land we were hiking and what the public (including us) needs to do to protect it. He wants to do less than I do, and he considers what I would do unnecessary, fanatical and based on a false understanding. In the conversation I felt bad about the difference in our opinions, not wanting to seem like a fanatic in my friend’s eyes, and not wanting to tell him I thought he was wrong. I tried to find a way, not to convince him, or change him, but to convey the feelings that were beneath my willingness to risk even unnecessary effort to save or avoid killing the remaining individuals of that specie. I was, perhaps, partially successful in that attempt, but did not change his mind. Having similar sympathies for our friendship, I sensed that he too was trying to be careful. He did not want me to feel like he thought I was a fanatic, even if that is what he thought. To go further than that was too cause too much strain on our relationship, or at least on the pleasantness of the hike we shared.

        I think that you and I are in a similar situation here. I think we have said enough. I would like for us to just move on down the trail and talk about the next thing that comes along, like my friend and I did on Sunday.

        March 11, 2011
      • James #

        I think I understand, Ken. Let’s continue or walk.
        Blessings

        March 11, 2011
      • James #

        Should be “to walk”, not “or walk” 🙂 Oh the difference a tiny letter makes.

        March 11, 2011
  4. James #

    Very good question, as usual, Tyler. The simplest answer to what is the church is- “It is the people of God gathered.”
    I suspect that understanding the correct vision of the church one must read Jesus’ parables of the Kingdom.
    That answer has 2 sources, first we have just finished a series on the Parables of the Kingdom and
    Second being Anabaptists, we identify ourselves as Kingdom people.
    Being Kingdom people can of course sound a little cryptic but there is probably no avoiding this. The church, like the Kingdom of God doesn’t fit into our neat categories no matter what they are. On the one hand the church is very simple- on the other hand it defies categorization. On the one hand it is the most idealistic entity, a treasure of infinite worth- on the other hand it is a field filled with weeds that will only be separated in the end. Most perplexing there are times when we are forbidden to pull those weeds out. That’s probably the toughest challenge. The practical question is- when to pull weeds and when to drive out the money changers? It’s not one or the other, it seems to me.

    March 9, 2011
    • Tyler Brown #

      Thanks for the response James. I’ll look up the references when I get the chance.

      March 11, 2011

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