I’ve been teaching a class on church renewal this semester, and as part of the course I asked my students to watch and critique a video that kicked off the “Rethink Church” campaign. This video is a few years old now, and I remember blogging about it when it came out. Call me crazy, but I found it irksome that we would make such a video with no mention of God and God’s saving work in Jesus Christ. But hey, that’s just me. What do I know? Apparently church is supposed to be a “menu of adventure,” or perhaps a verb, rather than a community of the Holy Spirit established in the ministry of Jesus Christ to bring salvation to a broken and sinful world.
I know… I’m a theological dinosaur.
Self portrait, ca. 75 million B.C.
To be clear I really do think we should rethink church. In North America we’ve been in decline for decades now. Churches are closing. Our social witness is waning. Yes, we need to rethink church. Along these lines I would offer the following suggestions with regard to how we might do that:
1. Reclaim the power of the Holy Spirit that characterized early Methodism, both in Europe and America. We will not be changed by a church. We will be changed by the power and work of the Holy Spirit, transformed by the renewing of our minds (Rom 12:2). This means that we will have to become more committed to the discipline of prayer, practices such as the laying on of hands, and the sacramental life of the Church. (On this last point, see chapter 3 in Jason Vickers’ Minding the Good Ground: A Theology for Church Renewal).
2. Hold one another accountable in love. One of the more powerful practices of our Methodist heritage was the “holy conferencing” whereby people would “watch over one another in love” for growth in holiness. This is what the term “social holiness” means. Although it is often used as a synonym for “social justice,” these are two different things. See Kevin’s Watson’s article on Seedbed for a more detailed account of Wesleyan meetings.
3. Teach the faith of the Church. The faith handed down to us through the ages, given over to us by saints and martyrs, teaches us about the identity of the one true God who came to us in Jesus Christ for our salvation. We don’t teach the faith of the Church in order to decide who is in or out, or who will or will not be welcome. We teach this faith because knowing who God is and what God has done for us can lead us more fully into the new life that God has prepared for us.
We cannot expect people to do God’s work in the world (e.g., work for social justice) if we do not offer them the means of grace necessary to experience new life. I know it’s not popular to say these days, but people sin. Sin is the reason the world needs transformation. Greed, racism, environmental exploitation, human trafficking and domestic violence–all of these massive social problems we feel the need to address are manifestations of one meta-problem: sin. The way that we overcome sin is to accept God’s work for us in Christ and receive the sanctifying power of the Spirit. If we really want to work for the “transformation of the world,” we must first become the kind of people who consistently have the moral will to do so.
Do we need to rethink church? Absolutely. But rethinking church may mean recovering some practices that have been lost, time-honored practices that keep us in touch with the One who offers us new and eternal life in Jesus Christ. If this line of thinking makes me a theological dinosaur, I’m okay with that. Not everything old should become extinct, nor should everything new be held in esteem.