My wife and I returned yesterday from a two week vacation. I’ve found as I’ve aged that it pretty much takes two weeks for me to really feel rested, one just won’t do the trick.
While we were gone we worshiped twice at a church in South Carolina. We’ve been there before and we have always heard the Gospel proclaimed in that place. It’s good, especially for pastors, to spend time under someone else’s teaching. For those of us who preach regularly it gives us an opportunity to hear maybe another perspective on a text or another take on a topic. For those who spend Sunday morning in the pews it’s also gives them a view of something a little different from their regular Sunday morning fare. (Let’s face it, pastors, we all have our hobby horses and our styles and, since none of us are Jesus, none of us are perfect preachers).
I confess I don’t understand those who think that a family vacation also means a vacation away from Sunday worship. Every time we enter a sacred place, we enter into an immediate interaction with the God of the universe. And every place where the Gospel is proclaimed in its purity is indeed a sacred place–whether in a store front or pole barn or a 200 year old church like the one I serve. As Christians we should long for that weekly fellowship before the living God with our brothers and sisters in Christ. And yet so many of us use excuses for why we aren’t in church on Sundays–vacation being one of those excuses.
Sometimes picking a church to attend on vacation can be a little dicey. We generally don’t know the congregations or the pastors in the places we visit. We’re not always sure what is being taught there. So I have some suggestions. First, pay attention to the denomination. That won’t be a sure fire answer to the question about what we can expect, but it will help. Of course there are orthodox congregations and pastors in even the most unorthodox denominations as there are unorthodox congregations and pastors in the most orthodox denominations. Still, the denomination is a generally good guide. Second, don’t pick a church solely on the time of service, whether early or late. Going to the local “community church” because it’s time fits your schedule best is a roll of the dice at best. Third, be open and friendly to the people who are members there. I know the people are supposed to be friendly to visitors, and I hope they are everywhere, but visitors shouldn’t just be passive receivers of greetings–after all, these are people of our family in Christ. Finally, make a joyful noise unto the Lord and learn something about Jesus.
Happy vacation worship.
As I mentioned in my last post, I’m thinking about the nature and current state of the Church in the 21st century. Just to let you know up front, I am a committed congregationalist. I believe, as we say in the AFLC, that the local congregation is the right form of the Kingdom of God on earth.
That said, we must now answer what the nature of a true congregation might be. First and foremost, a true congregation is one which gets the Gospel right. There is no true Church where the Gospel of Jesus Christ crucified and risen for us is not frequently and properly proclaimed. One of the worse things that can be done by a preacher is to assume the Gospel is known and remembered among the people in the pews. Because the Gospel is so contrary to what our sin soaked minds can create, we must be reminded over and again just how we are justified before God. Our natures want to earn heaven so that we can be like God–the very sin our first parents committed. But that is impossible and so it is only through grace giving faith that salvation is possible.
If a congregation is to be Church, it must also be a living congregation. That is, the local congregation will not be Church if it is simply a gathering of friends or a club, or doers of good deeds or a group of people who gather in one place but neither share concern for one another and the trials of our lives. If a congregation is to be Church it should be a place where people of all sorts gather together for Word and Sacrament, share with one another our walk in this world with all of its joys and trials, and work together to build up the Kingdom of God on earth. Anything else would be a false “church”.
In my opinion huge congregations can be many things, but they fail at being the Church because they lack the closeness and shared life together that is required to be a free and living congregation. The former Pope Benedict, when he was a young priest, wrote a book in which he argued that no parish should have more than 300 members. If there are more than that, there is not a true community because of the inability to know one another in any meaningful sense of the term. It’s also just about the place where a solo pastor would no longer be able to do his service well.
There is another problem that comes with a large congregation–it is easy for people to hide there and not engage in the life of the Church. A living congregation, a true Church, has a place for the service of every member. There is no room for spiritual hitchhikers, every member in service ought always to be a goal of the true Church. Now some of our members might be physically or mentally unable to serve in most respects. But prayer is a service; telephone calls to shut ins is a service; buying flowers for the chancel is a service; and the list could go on. The point is that a living congregation is one in which all members know that they are a contributing part of the Kingdom of God–they are the Church.
Our congregation is at the beginning of a renewal program in which we are seeking to prepare ourselves for ministry in the years ahead. That and my reading material of late have caused me to spend a good amount of time thinking about the nature of the Church in our world. With this blog I’m going to begin a series of musings on what the Church is meant to be and where we are failing at that task–because I’ve come to believe that we are indeed failing.
The Reformers of the 16th century had to redefine what was meant by Church when they left the Roman communion. For centuries the Church meant the physical institution governed by the ecclesiastical hierarchy in Rome and its delegates around Europe. [There were, of course, other Christian churches, Eastern Orthodoxy, Coptic Christianity in Egypt and Ethiopia, etc. But the Reformers knew little of them and much of what they thought they knew was wrong. So for today I’ll talk only about Rome and the Reformation]
Accused of splitting the one holy catholic Church, the Reformers redefined the nature of the Church as consisting of the people of God known only to God, wherever they might have been. Wherever God’s people were, whether in Roman Catholicism, Lutheran polity or Reformed polity, they were part of the Church. Frankly there is more than a little sense to that because not everyone on the roles of a Church body is a saved saint of God.
That said, though, what of the visible Church, for there must be a visible Church according to the clear teachings of Scripture. The apostles had no thought of an unaffiliated Christianity, no thought that people would stay in their homes, believing in Christ but not associating in any organized way with other believers. Indeed, the author of Hebrews admonishes believers telling them they are not to cease to meet together.
Certainly at the very center of the Church Militant is the local congregation where believers gather to hear the Gospel proclaimed and to participate in the Sacraments God has established for His Church. At no other place do these events regularly happen, so we know that the Church is present where these things occur. But what about relationships outside the congregation? What is the role of the Church there? What are the relationships among Christians that make them the Church together?
In our nation today there are who knows how many “community churches” and para-church organizations and preachers who function under no one’s authority but their own and their personal perception of the will of God. I have come to believe that the Church, the Body of Christ on earth, is being harmed in many ways by this sort of “independence”. That’s what I’m going to be musing about in this space in the weeks ahead.