Reordering the church
I picked up an old book last night and was surprised by how much it described what’s happening today. The book describes the view that “the Church herself may be a hindrance, and that we have got to abandon the Church if we really are to propagate the Gospel.” We must stop preaching and go out, take ordinary jobs, mix among people, and enter into their political and social affairs. “Not preaching, not the old method, but getting among the people, showing an interest, showing your sympathy, being one of them, sitting down among them, and discussing their affairs and problems.”
You hear this a lot today. We need to abandon church as usual, stop the monologues, and just be among people.
The author of the old book, Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, disagrees with this approach. While he agrees that “there is so much that is wrong with the Church,” he argues that the solution is found in restoring preaching.
We all agree that there is much that is wrong with the Church. So what’s the solution? Abandoning the church, or recovering its practices? That is the question.
In Consuming Jesus, Paul Louis Metzger argues that in order to confront the world’s fallen powers, like consumerism, racism, and classism, the church must recover Scripture and sacraments. This is far from the common response that we often hear today. “The church’s priority,” he writes, “is to be shaped by Christ’s victory in providing space for us to become truly creaturely – in communion with God and fellow believers.” We do this in two ways.
First, we reconfigure our stories in view of an all-consuming Scripture. Fundamentalists tend to treat the Bible as a sourcebook for gleaning doctrine; liberals tend to use it to illustrate moral and philosophical ideas; seeker-sensitive churches use it to find principles for practical living. Instead, we must see Scripture as “the ultimate Story, the story that envelopes all of our stories. We must approach the Bible, God’s storied world, from the standpoint that it envelopes and consumes us when we consume it.”
Metzger shows how the biblical drama has helped liberate African-American churches facing oppression. It also offers the hope of liberation to “dominant churches in bondage to consumerism….We desperately need Jesus’ prophetic call to us to inhabit a biblical vision so much more profound than anything our trade triangle has to offer.” Scripture will restructure our church’s life, overcome our race and class divisions, and engulf us in God’s story if we will submit to it.
Second, we must reconfigure sacred space around the all-consuming sacraments. Modern churches have neutralized sacred space and watered down the sacraments. The prominence, or lack of prominence, of the sacraments bears witness to, or detracts from, “Christ’s atoning work and the moral space it creates.” In celebrating the Lord’s Supper, we enter into “communion as a family centered around Christ, who is its head,” overcoming the barriers that normally divide us.
This quote got me. We think we’re not as bad as Corinth, where the privileged ate separately from the poor, but Metzger writes: “At least in Corinth the have-nots attended the same churches the haves did. Today the have-nots do not simply stand outside in the courtyard during the ‘love feasts.’ The church is structured in such a way that the have-nots do not feel truly welcome to attend.”
Bottom line: I think we all agree that churches are in need of something. The real debate is what to do about it. Some are arguing for incarnational living and a missional focus, which is all good. But sometimes those who argue for this approach also de-emphasize Word and sacrament.
Metzger argues that Word and sacrament can reconfigure our lives and churches, overcome divisions, and lead to profound engagement with the world around us. If he’s right – and I think he is – we don’t need less of Word and sacrament. We need a more radical focus on these. This is, Metzger writes, the need of the hour.