Here are my thoughts for the 4th Sunday of Easter.
As I read the passage from Acts for today (Acts 2: 42 – 47), I am reminded how much the church of today differs from the beginning church. No matter what version of this passage you read, the message is the same.
New International Version
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
They committed themselves to the teaching of the apostles, the life together, the common meal, and the prayers.
Everyone around was in awe—all those wonders and signs done through the apostles! And all the believers lived in a wonderful harmony, holding everything in common. They sold whatever they owned and pooled their resources so that each person’s need was met.
They followed a daily discipline of worship in the Temple followed by meals at home, every meal a celebration, exuberant and joyful, as they praised God. People in general liked what they saw. Every day their number grew as God added those who were saved.
Clarence Jordan’s Cotton Patch Gospel
They were all bound together by the officers’ instruction and by the sense of community, by the common meal and the prayers. A great reverence came over everybody, while many amazing and instructive things were done by the officers. The whole company of believers stuck together and held all things common. They were selling their goods and belongings, and dividing them among the group on the basis of one’s need. Knit together with singleness of purpose they gathered at the church every day, and as they ate the common meal from house to house they had a joyful and humble spirit, praising God and showing over-flowing kindness toward everyone. And day by day, as people were rescued, the Lord would add them to the fellowship.
The people shared not only a meal but their goods and belongings. This is most definitely not what we are doing in today’s church.
Now, it should be noted that there were those in the early church who felt that Christ’s return was imminent and they stopped working. On a number of occasions, Paul had to chastise members of churches for their failure to keep working for the good of the group.
It appears to me that we are trying, when it comes to the nature of the church today, very desperately to reinvent the wheel. We seek models of the church that will reinvigorate or revitalize the church. This comes at a time when religion in general is under question, both from within the church in general and from outside the church.
From within the church, we have questions about the nature of the church. None of these questions reflect the history of the early, post-Easter church. Is the church to be the moral police, enforcing rules that determine salvation? Or is it to be the moral conscience, bringing people to awareness? Again, reflecting on the reading from Acts for today, it would seem that the growth of the early church came from the presentation of information that offered hope and a promise, not an enforcement of rules and regulations.
It is also apparent that the view of the church from the outside is one that sees a determination by those inside the church to foster a society of rules and regulations. The rise of atheism-oriented materials and the seeming disdain for the role the modern church has had in society can be, I think, directly related to the view of the church as closed to society, rigid, inflexible, and fixed in a time long past.
In a time when there are serious questions being asked in society, when divisions between people because of race, gender, social and economic status are growing wider by the day, the church should be working to bring people together, not tearing them apart. At a time when people are called seekers, churches should be among those who are helping to answer questions, not simply forcing a fixed answer.
Now, this is not going to be a theological conversation. It is not even going to be a philosophical conversation. The role of philosophy, religious or otherwise, is to provide assistance in a person’s ongoing quest for truth, not to allow a suspension of rational thought by providing you with a final and absolute answer. It is evident that, as a society, we are quite unwilling to seek the truth, preferring to develop it from our own point of view. In today’s Gospel reading (John 10: 1 – 10), we are reminded that there is only one entrance into the Kingdom. For those of us who profess to be Christians and whose lives are a reflection of the early church, the gatekeeper is Jesus Christ.
But what if you are not a professing Christian? What if you are a professing Jew or Muslim? Are you barred from Heaven? I don’t believe so but that is because if you profess to believe in God from the context of another religion, then the rules or practices that apply to me do not apply. And that is the catch. If you profess to believe in God but your life is not a reflection of your profession, or if you have no profession of belief in God, then you are like the one in the Gospel reading who seeks to gain entrance by climbing over the wall. I would also add that those who seek to choose the best of all religions while ignoring the worst of the same are no better than one who professes belief but does not act on that profession.
In response to this, many churches are examining their processes and trying to figure out how the church can be more relevant in today’s work. There are at least three models for church growth. I have previously discussed these in “Opening the Circle” so I won’t go into the detail of each model.
But now a new model for church growth is emerging and it is known, coincidentally, as the emerging church matrix. The proposed goal of many in this movement is to provide an alternative to the “seeker-driven, big church” model that blankets the evangelical countryside like kudzu on a southern hillside. For those of you who have never encountered this ubiquitous southern weed, kudzu grows anywhere and everywhere under almost any kind of condition. It has been said that if you parked your car on the roadside next to a hill where kudzu was growing, it would be enveloped by the kudzu within twenty-four hours.
If “seeker services” were considered contemporary worship and looked more like a Christian version of a rock concert, then emerging church worship could be considered more like a Christian version of Starbucks with its small spaces, comfortable seating (preferably couches) and interactivity. The things that have been stripped from the contemporary worship services of the seeker service (the cross, candles, bread and wine, altars) are very much a part of the scene in this new style of worship. In addition, just as in the contemporary worship service, there is a heavy emphasis on the modern technology.
What I found most interesting in this discussion of the emerging church is the use of words such as post-conservative and post-liberal. There seems to be a discussion of the relevance of the church in a world that has been divided by the church and its adherents, both liberal and conservative. This discussion focuses on using the methods of today in conjunction with the traditions of the past to bring about a more relevant relationship with God. But for all its new style and return of old traditions, the emerging church model will fail as an alternative if it does little more than offer a newer, more hip version of the current culture. (1)
I will admit that I have not quite figured out what is meant by the terms “emerging church” and “emergent church”. I once wrote that I thought such churches were associated with coffee houses. If the church had a coffee house associated with it, or if a coffee house had a church associated with it, then it was considered an “emerging church”. (2)
However, I discovered that there was more to this “movement” than the location of the worship. I came across an article by Hal Knight (“John Wesley and the Emerging Church”). This is an interesting article because it points out that Methodism, from its inception, is essentially an emerging church. This is interesting because emerging churches are considered a relatively new phenomenon and Methodist churches are considered traditional.
There are clearly differences between emerging churches and the typical Methodist church of today. First, as Knight pointed out, the emerging church tends to be diverse and decentralized and averse to static structures and fixed ideas. It is also driven by an increasing dissatisfaction with the assumption and practices of many churches.
But they also understand that discipleship is meant to closely follow and emulate the person and ministry of Jesus. And while many people express Christianity as I did last week (water at birth, rice at weddings, and dirt at funerals), most emerging churches see the mission of the church. They see that they are to be communities who participate in the mission of God in the world.
Emerging churches also reject many of the dualisms that dominate the traditional churches of today. They tend to see all of life as potentially sacred and all culture subject to transformation and renewal by the Kingdom of God. Emerging churches are alternative communities. No longer do people go to church; they are the church.
While emerging churches hold to the authority and primacy of the Scriptures, it is more of a narrative than a reading. With a narrative reading, the church is able to draw upon a broad scheme of things and offer more diverse forms of worship. Finally, there is a sense of what some call a generous orthodoxy. By this, truth is not something that is captured and mounted on a wall like a stuffed trophy but rather exemplified by the community of believers.
Each point in this description of the emerging church has a Methodist counterpoint, a point developed by John Wesley almost two hundred and fifty years ago. Wesley developed the Methodist Church of his time in response to the needs and demands of society and the lack of response by the church of that time.
The needs and demands of society today are quite easily the same as they were then. But, since we are often a society that tends to forget what it is that got us to where we are today, we have forgotten what it is that we have done and what we are supposed to do. In his first letter, Peter reminded his readers that Christ bore the pain of our sins so that we would not have to do so.
We need not reinvent the church because we want to respond to the needs and demands of society. All we have to do is remember what the church was at its beginning and what the Methodist Church was at its beginning. All we have to do is do what has been done in the past and we will find the success that was then and can be tomorrow.
(1) Adapted from “What Comes Next”
(2) See “A New Beginning”