Friday, May 10, 2013

Meeting 5: Church As Powerful Practice



The call to evangelize and the demand for public Christian witness point to the overflow of the Christian Way into action toward and with and for the neighbor, as well. The church is in the world, not as an added requirement of Christian duty, but by the very nature of what church and world mean in gospel perspective.
James Mcclendon (Ethics, 239)

Church is a loaded word, full of baggage. We’ve been using the term ‘community’ to refer to the local gathering of Jesus-followers. It is when people intentionally meet together, and in so doing, they meet the risen Lord Jesus. The organization, key characteristics and activity of the community of the ‘baptist vision’ are essential.

Organization or Structure of the Community
Most Christians have become very comfortable with a pastor, priest, rector or minister conducting the affairs for the group. This ‘professional religionist’ tends to be a ‘jack-of-all-trades’ who can do all the ‘spiritual’ work for a church community. The congregation, also known as the laity, tends to be the group of people who ‘attend’ the church weekly and seek teaching, guidance, a place to worship and for their spiritual gifts to be used in some sort of way. The laity have turned into spectators as the ‘professional Christians’ have become performers. The ‘baptist vision’ seeks to critique this situation.

Shortly after the death and resurrection of Jesus, probably toward the end of the first century [according to Yoder, Fullness of Christ], this split between clergy [the religious expert] and laity [the rest of us] became deeper and deeper. It has led to an underlying notion that there are different classes of Christians, the more radical group being called to actually use their gifts as ‘full-time ministers’ and to live more holy lives. A community who follows Jesus together should not have a split between the clergy and laity. Instead, in word and deed, the community is made up of a group of ‘full-time ministers.’ At baptism, each and every Christian is ‘called’ into the ministry. The diverse gifts of each Christian can all be used to build up the Body of Christ and challenge everyone in the community to live more holy lives of obedience at their workplaces, in their marriages and families, in their times of leisure and study.

In this kind of community, worship should be set-up where everyone can participate in the meeting. All Christians, from the seminary trained to the single mother, should be empowered to their own unique role in the community. This setting is supported by the biblical witness from Exodus, where Israel was adopted by God to be a ‘kingdom of priests’ to serve the world, to Revelation, where Jesus, the Lamb who was slain, adopts a ‘kingdom of priests’ to continue this vocation of service and suffering in and for the world. We are all ‘priests’ with Spirit-initiated gifts and talents to enhance the community, and therefore work toward the healing of the world. Sure, some are teachers and some are pastors [caring, guiding, comforting the community], but these aren’t ‘full-time’ anymore than anyone else in the community.

Key Characteristics of the Community:
It is local, Spirit-filled, mission-oriented, its discipleship always shaped by a practice of discernment. [Witness, 343]

Local-—this is where the action happens! In the ‘baptist vision,’ church is a small, gathered community on a common mission in the wider community in which they live and/or work. Their identity is founded and sustained by how the Spirit of God works in and through the community, not by a regional, national or world-wide denominational name. The name itself is not the problem. Only when that name trumps the unique local interests of that community.

Spirit-filled—-the presence of the risen Christ is active and guiding this community [more in Meeting 6].

Mission--oriented—the community exists to be a ‘conscience’ and ‘servant’ to wider community who desperately seeks healing and restoration. The community does not exist for itself. However, the ability for the community to be formed around mutual forgiveness and reconciliation is a powerful form of witness to the outside world.

Our capacity to be reconciled one to another as the people of God may be the best foretaste we can offer a divided and struggling world of the overcoming of its own deadly divisions. [Ethics, 234]

Discernment-—much focus should be placed on Scripture and prayer as the community calls on the Spirit to guide and convict them in many, many ways. Each Christian is empowered to ‘soar’ when others in the community encourage and challenge them in specific ways.

These 4 key characteristics enhance the contours of the ‘this is that’ and ‘then is now’ community of the ‘baptist vision.’ This community, first and foremost, is both an extension of the biblical narrative and a fulfillment of the biblical expectation of the ‘end times.’

The Activity of the Community: What in the world are we doing?
As we discussed last meeting, in a world of ‘powerful practices,’ the community who meets together in the presence of the risen Jesus engages in ‘powerful practices’ that encounter the wider world. Jesus’ own encounter with these ‘powerful practices’ [the authority structures of Roman government and Jewish religion] ultimately led to his suffering and death. A Christian community of ‘powerful practices’ should continue Jesus’ risky and adventurous mission. But, what exactly are these unique ‘powerful practices’ that the community participates in ‘before the watching world?’

John Howard Yoder [in Body Politics and For the Nations] has offered 5 practices for Christian communities that form the essence of what it means to follow Jesus and are a powerful witness to wider society.

Yoder asks sincerely, ‘How does the gospel impinge on the rest of our world?’ In other words, how can the community who follows Jesus do so outside of the church building and into the ‘real world’? These five practices, in the words of McClendon’s ‘baptist vision’ are the ‘powerful practices’ that churches spend time creatively engaging in: ‘almost infinite adjustments, distinctions and gradations.’ These ‘powerful practices’ are not a formula or recipe for exactly how each community in North America should look. Each and every community of the ‘baptist vision’ should discern how these practices might function in the life of their own community AND each community should be open to other practices that embody the continued identity and mission of the risen Christ today. So…what are these 5 practices?

1. Multiplicity of Gifts—-this is a model for empowerment of the humble and the end of hierarchy in social process. Everyone has gifts and corresponding roles in the community. This is also called ‘the fullness of Christ’ and it can be, in larger society, an alternative model for vertical business models of management. This practice empowers the underdog. Based on Ephesians 4, Romans 12 and I Corinthians 12.

2. Dialogue under the Holy Spirit-—every member of the community as a voice and should be relied upon to help guide, encourage and challenge the community in diverse ways. This is also called ‘the Rule of Paul’ or the open meeting and in wider society it is ‘the ground floor of the notion of democracy’—This is consensus-decision-making—not to be confused with ‘majority rule’ where the most votes trumps the minority voice. Based on I Corinthians 14 and Acts 15.


3. Admonition to bind or loose at the point of offense-—this is the foundation for conflict resolution and consciousness-raising. Perhaps the most difficult and underrated of the practices because it involves loving, one-on-one confrontation. This can produce alternatives to litigation and/or corrections in wider society. Based on Matthew 18:15-20.

4. Baptism—-The earliest Christians viewed baptism as an initiation into a community defined by the radical messianic way-of-life, not by ethnicity, gender or vocation. All are ‘in Christ’ and these other distinctions take backseat. It enacts interethnic social acceptance in the community and wider society. Based on Galatians 3:28 and II Corinthians 5:17.

5. Breaking Bread-—Jesus celebrated the first ‘communion’ as an actual meal with his disciples. This is how the first Christians remembered Jesus—at the table together, eating and drinking. A radical command for the community to share possessions with fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. This celebrates economic solidarity. This is about soup kitchens and homeless shelters, but also Social Security and negative income tax in wider society. Based on Acts 2:46 and 4:32-34, Luke 3:10-11, I Corinthians 11.

These practices give the community some substance. They are extremely tangible ways to live out the gospel together. This is discipleship, evangelism and worship all wrapped into one. They form a bridge from the church to the wider world—they naturally invite our non-Christian neighbors to join us on mission.

The believing body is the image that the new world—which in the light of the ascension and Pentecost is on the way—casts ahead of itself. The believing body of Christ is the world on the way to its renewal; the church is the part of the world that confesses the renewal to which all the world is called. The believing body is the instrument of that renewal of the world, to the [very modest] extent to which its message is faithful. [Yoder, Body Politics, 78]

For Discussion:
1. What aspects of the ‘baptist vision’ for church are the hardest to swallow or most confusing? Explain.
2. What aspects of the ‘baptist vision’ for church are most appealing? Explain.
3. Review Yoder’s five practices together. Point out times when you [individually or communally] have participated in one or more of the practices.
4. Read the passages for each of the five practices and pray for discernment to implement these in the life of the community.

For Further Reading:
Ethics, McClendon [chapters 6 and 8]
Doctrine, McClendon [chapter 8]
Witness, McClendon [378-380, 402-406]
Body Politics by John Howard Yoder
The Fullness of Christ by John Howard Yoder
For the Nations by John Howard Yoder [Chapter 2]

Working Overtime:
Let’s face it, many young Christians [and many old ones and in-between ones] in Southern California are highly skeptical about church. Much of this stems from a desire for different styles of worship and sermons. However, the ‘baptist vision’ is calling for ‘church’ to look radically different than what most Southern California Christians are accustomed to without taking any style into consideration. The transformation of structure, characteristics and activity of these communities will go a long way. I myself am highly skeptical that existing churches can make [or even desire to make] this transition.

Too much would be demanded from both clergy and laity alike. For instance, most paid church professionals [pastors, priests, ministers] would have to give up much of the decision-making control of the community. In fairness, the laity would have to take a serious interest in all matters of the community and would have to get out of the ‘spectator’ mode that has anesthetized most congregations. In addition, Yoder’s five practices provide a whole new paradigm for how church is done—-no longer content to stay in the building on Sundays or any other day of the week and no longer content to have boundaries that neatly divide ‘sacred’ from ‘secular’ or ‘spiritual’ from ‘everything else there is.’

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