…you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. (Ephesians 2:19-21)
Twenty nine years ago Charleen and I moved from Philadelphia, where I had recently finished seminary while serving as assistant pastor in a small inner city church, to a small town in rural Vermont. The church there was almost two hundred years old, and had for many decades been showing the attrition that is common to so many older New England churches. I was in my mid-thirties, and they called me because they assumed that a younger pastor and family would attract the younger generation which was noticeably missing in the pews. New ideas, new programs and younger faces would inevitably solve their problem.
Unbeknownst to them the problems they had been experiencing were much more systemic. On one hand there was a deep-seated theological void. If Jesus and the gospel are missing, then what’s the point? Ritual in itself will not have an appeal to those who have more important things to do on Sunday such as fishing or reading the newspaper. But it also betrayed a fundamental misunderstanding of the church that is endemic not only in rural America but also in suburban and metropolitan areas. That problem has to do with our seeing the church through the lens of what we need to do to make the church “successful” rather than understanding the church through the lens of what God has already done and who God declares us to be in his Word. When that happens, the success of any particular congregation depends more on our strategies and mechanisms more than it does on the fact that God has called us into existence for a purpose that may be larger than ours.
Eugene Peterson in his book Practice Resurrection writes:
Americans talk and write endlessly …about 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…. Everything is viewed through the lens of pragmatism. Church [becomes] an instrument that we have been given to bring about whatever Christ commanded us to do…. 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…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 responsible for no end of shallowness and experimentation in trying to achieve success and relevance and effectiveness that people can see.
The Apostle Peter in 1 Peter 2 parallels Paul’s sentiment in Ephesians and almost certainly builds on Jesus’ promise in Matthew 16 in which Jesus declared that he would build his church and that the gate of hell would not prevail against it.
So what does all this mean for us? For one thing it does not mean that we should ignore the Great Commission or minimize the importance of caring one another in the body. What it does mean is that God is up to something bigger than our time and culture bound expectations might lead us to think. Just look at the past 2000 years of history and the mission expansion of the church.
It is said that that all politics is local. And yes, while the church is Christ’s global kingdom, its effect is local and personal. What is God doing by bringing together such a strange assortment of people as us into one fellowship if not continuing his work of grace in us by the very interaction that we have with one another? And what is God saying to the watching world through such a strange assortment of people such as us as we live out our commitment to one another despite our differences?
It’s not all our programs and strategies that will bring younger (or older) people into the pews. If that’s all that is needed then we will indeed appear superficial and will prove ourselves to be irrelevant. No, it’s the conviction that our church is God’s unique creation; that God is a work in us and through us; and that God really resides in his “holy temple”, for that is what we are.