"Not for yourself, O church, do you exist,
any more than Christ existed for himself."
"As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you."
Jesus, to his church
Identity and vocation. Who (or what) is the church? And what are we called to do? Those are the questions we raised in Part I of this series of reflections.
But before attempting a faithful answer, let's erase a couple of bad answers from the board.
BAD ANSWER #1... The church is a club for religiously-minded people who like to get together and do religiousy things. Some people join a chess club because they like chess. Others join golf clubs or bridge clubs or sewing clubs or motorcycle clubs or reading clubs, etc.
One common denominator in these sorts of clubs is that the club exists to serve you, the one joining it. You get to enjoy a reservoir of people very much like you! You all have a common interest, and you all pay your dues, and now you are all entitled to reap the benefits of being in the club.
In the "religious club" church, the common interest is mere religion. And your focus is on the status your membership in the club affords you, personally. You are one of the religious ones, and you should feel quite good about that. The very club itself exists to congratulate you on your accomplishment.
It has been attributed to many, but I think this quote belongs first to William Temple (1881-1944): “The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members."
That's perhaps an overstatement, but overstatements can make a strong point. We don't need more religious-club churches, turning in on themselves and retreating into self-righteous self-absorption.
Let's erase that answer from the board.
BAD ANSWER #2... The church is merely an organization for serving social causes of various sorts. The church does not need to be so centered on theology or worship or the gospel... or even Jesus, for that matter. These things mostly just divide us or restrain us or make us annoyingly offensive to the world.
Church should be more about us getting out there and helping people. Different kinds of people may express their spirituality differently; let's just celebrate that and get on with the big-picture mission of... being on a mission... after all, that's what it means to be Christian... it means that you're on a mission to help people. And you should feel quite good about that.
Let's erase that answer from the board as well. Because while the church is most definitely on a mission, the mere fact that you are on some mission does not mean that you're worshipping God. Nor does it necessarily mean that you're loving God (or people) in the way that God commands.
True worship and true mission inform one another and flow into one another richly... but they are not interchangeable.
We do not have the right to reinterpret worship as mission. Christian mission is both a result of worship and the joyful hope of more worship. But let's stop confusing and conflating these categories.
There is another way.