Have we misunderstood the Church?

Let me begin with a question:  What is the goal of the Christian life?  What does committing one’s self to Jesus point us toward?  The possible answers are numerous.  Some could say ‘Worship’; the Christian life is to be a life of perpetual praise to God.  Others might say ‘Heaven’; the Christian life here on earth prepares us for an eternity in God’s heavenly kingdom.  “I’ll fly away. Hallelujah by and by. I’ll Fly away” we sing.  Another response might be an appeal to believing the doctrinal truths of the faith, or the call to follow Jesus example in life.

I take no issue with any of these responses.  Each answer has both an element of truth, and an element in which it does not convey the whole story.  For example, yes we focus on Christ’s assurance of life beyond the grave.  But is all that faith is about?  Is life here essentially inconsequential?  So, we still have that question posed, what is the goal of faith?  In his letter to the Galatians, Paul writes that he is ‘again in the chains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you”.  For Paul, the aim of faith is not some grand vision of heavenly life in the by and by, nor is it a mere call to Jesus-based morality.  For Paul, the aim Christian faith is transformation in Christ-likeness.  To be a Christian is to open ourselves to the transforming work of the Spirit, as we are made to be more and more like Jesus every single day.  As our internal selves become more and more connected to Jesus, our outward selves reflect more and more of his presence.

Here’s a second question:  What is the goal of the Church?  Now, it’s pretty easy to see where I may be going with this. But by way of a mental exercise, what would you have responded with, if you hadn’t read the previous paragraph?  Would you have said that the goal of the Church is growth?  We could argue that, like a living organism, the church is called to continually grow – in depth of faith, in ever increasing numbers, in financial blessing.  Or, we could say that the goal of the church is evangelism.  We reach out; we find those who do not believe, and journey with them until they eventually become followers of Jesus themselves.  Perhaps we would point to prayer as the church’s fundamental aim – the goal of the church is to be a ‘house of prayer’.

Again, I take no issues with any of these responses.  Growth, evangelism, prayer – and many other things we could say – are all part and parcel with what the church’s call.  Interestingly, however, whenever we reflect on the nature of the church, the call to Christlikeness never seems to come up.  That is to say, we attribute spiritual formation to the individual, but not the community.  Yet we just heard the passage which is instructive regarding the formative aim of faith.  Paul is in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in them.  As we know, Paul’s letter to the Galatians wasn’t written to an individual, but a community. It is to the community of the ‘called out ones’ that Paul holds up the call to Christ-likeness.  Jesus’ high priestly prayer has the same focus.  Jesus prays that ‘they be one, as we (the God-head) are one.’ His prayer was for a body of people, not and individual believer named Steve.  Christ-likeness is not primarily and individual trait, but a corporate reality.

This, then, leads us to another question: what does the Christ-like community look like?  Here is where I think that we misstep. Inadvertently, at this point, we turn the matter on its head by again appealing to the individual.  We do this by making the Christ-like community dependent upon the Christ-like individual.  The Christian community is merely the collection of Christ-filled individuals!  As long as the individual members of a community are bible-believing, Jesus-loving, on-fire Christian people, then the community will be as well.  So goes the thought. The individual is the antecedent and the Christ-like community a mere by-product.

Yet community does not act this way.  Secular studies in community development have born this out.  Peter Block, in his book Community: The Culture of Belonging, writes; “We have already learned that the transformation of large numbers of individuals does not result in the transformation of communities.”  Simply put, getting a group of like-minded, evenly tempered, individuals in the same room for the same purpose does not make a community.  Community calls for another dynamic – something that exists beyond the individual, uniting all individuals into one, unified, body.

Thinking that a church’s Christ-like formation is somehow dependent upon individual formation is quite damaging.  When we think this way, we make the goal of the church nothing more than to aid an individual’s faith, which might be understood in some narrow fashion.  Such a church may have many numbers, but it is not a community, for all the members remain individuals exercising an individualized faith.  This undoubtedly leads to the trend that we see today of ‘church-shopping.’  The constant replacement of church communities under the guise of ‘it doesn’t feed me’ is merely another way of asserting that the community is out-stripped by the individual.  When this occurs, there becomes little place for formation.  Community Christ-likeness drifts away when an individual is ultimately concerned with ‘being-fed’.  Furthermore, to assert that the Christ like community is constituted by Christ-like individuals actually betrays the nature of the community.  What we are saying in this is that the church, to use a common quip, is a hospital for saints and not a hotel for sinners.  Or to put it another way, instead of ‘one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread’ the church exists as a collection of well-fed individuals boasting in their own feasting

Of course, this is not to say that the individual life is not important. Our faith, as a Christian community and as individual persons, is mediated through the habitus of living.  Christian faith is to be embodied, and this necessarily involves the acts of living in, and living out, Christ-likeness.  But this does not mean that community formation occurs on the heels of individual formation; in fact it is quite the opposite.  An individual’s formation in Christ-likeness occurs as a function of his or her participation in a community continually undergoing Christ-like transformation.  You cannot be a Christ-like individual and remain apart from the Christ-like church.

Now the question is, what does the Christ-like community look like?  What are its habits and practices? And what is it that sets the church apart from other service-oriented community organizations?  How exactly do we understand community Christ-likeness?  I have some thoughts on this, but that will be for a post at another time.


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