Re-imagining Church: Where Do We Go From Here?

May 4, 2008

Opening Prayer, Adapted from Psalm 51:10-12 – Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me. In the name of Jesus, the Christ. Amen

Old Testament Reading: Joshua 24:14-18 – “Now fear the LORD and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your forefathers worshiped beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.” Then the people answered, “Far be it from us to forsake the LORD to serve other gods! It was the LORD our God himself who brought us and our fathers up out of Egypt, from that land of slavery, and performed those great signs before our eyes. He protected us on our entire journey and among all the nations through which we traveled. And the LORD drove out before us all the nations, including the Amorites, who lived in the land. We too will serve the LORD, because he is our God.”

New Testament Reading: Acts 18:24-26 – Meanwhile a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and he spoke with great fervor and taught about Jesus accurately, though he knew only the baptism of John. He began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately.

In our discussions about “re-imagining church”, we have used the metaphor of a meandering river, headed in a certain direction, for the Scriptural narrative. The narrative invites us to participate in the journey. We have thought about two important questions:

• What’s the water like?
• Where is the river going?

The first question we answered in terms of a description of “church” based on the Scriptural narrative, largely from the Book of Acts:

• A community reaching out to all of God’s people, seeking peace and justice
• Christ-centered and Spirit-led through prayer
• Teaching, mentoring and guiding through small group interactions
• Seeking to meet the needs of individuals and the community
• Transforming individuals, the church, the community and the world
• Worship that is relevant, vibrant and alive.
• Openness, honesty and integrity in all things

The second question we answered by thinking of the vision that Jesus described through his words and deeds. The Gospel authors, using their own terminology, describe that vision:

• The Kingdom of God (mostly Mark and Luke)
• The Kingdom of Heaven (mostly Matthew)
• Eternal Life (mostly John)

In everyday language, we discovered that we could talk of the Kingdom by saying:

• You can’t get there alone
• You can’t get there at the head of the pack
• You can’t own it
• You can’t get there by violent means
• The Kingdom values “the least of these”
• The Kingdom’s motivation is love
• There is only one Kingdom

But even knowing what the destination looks like leaves another important question for us to think about, “how do I get down the river?”

The words of Joshua to the people come to mind, “Throw away the gods your forefathers worshiped beyond the River…” Of course, Joshua had specific pagan gods in mind and a specific river, but today we get to choose which gods we worship. The “gods beyond the river” in our specific situation are well known: money, sex and power. There is even a book with that very title on this very subject! Joshua knew that which gods we decide to worship are a matter of choice, “…choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve…” Joshua announced his choice to the people, “…as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD” but he knew that each individual gets to make a personal choice.

So when we ask, “How do I get down the river?” the first answer is simple: Choose!

Getting g down the river might call on us to improve our swimming skills. We see this suggestion clearly in Acts 18: “When Priscilla and Aquila heard him [i.e. Apollos], they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately.” Priscilla and Aquila helped Apollos with his swimming skills!

In the centuries-long life of the church, the tradition has found that there are several tried-and-tested ways to improve swimming skills. We know these in the language of the church as “the means of grace”, which include:

• Reading Scripture
• Praying
• Fasting
• Being in Christian community
• Healthy living
• Worshiping
• Participating in the sacraments
• Doing good
• Caring for the sick and those in prison
• Caring for the poor and hungry
• Being generous with our resources
• Opposing systemic evil

These last five might best se summed up in the words of John Wesley:

“Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.”

So now we have a second level of answer to the question, “How do I get down the river?”

• First: Choose!
• Second: Improve your swimming skills.

A third level of answer comes from the observation that swimmers and rowers make – the best way to get down a river is in the middle, far from the drag of the river banks, in the place where the current is strongest. We might then add this answer to our growing list:

• First: Choose!
• Second: Improve your swimming skills.
• Third: Find the center.

If we think of the width of the river as representing the many expressions of Christianity in the world today, we can see at least two approaches to finding the center. One way is to reject traditions in which we object to some aspect of the doctrine or polity. Another way – one that Brian McLaren suggests in his book, “A Generous Orthodoxy” – is to see what we might learn and draw upon from each tradition as we find our center.

Although the task of evaluating the many traditions of Christianity lies well beyond the scope of a simple sermon, we might at least get our feet wet by making some elementary observations about a few diverse traditions:

• Catholic – Respect for tradition – Centrality of Eucharist

• Orthodox – Respect for artistic expression – Centrality of the threeness of the Trinity

• Lutheran – Respect for the ancient creeds – Centrality of the concept of faith

• Calvinism – Respect for the historic confessions of faith – Centrality of the sovereignty of God

• Wesleyanism – Respect for the concept of grace – Centrality of free will and the importance of social justice

• Baptist – Respect for the autonomy of the local church community – Centrality of individual decision

• Anabaptist – Respect for the separation of church and state – Centrality of
non-violence

• Pentecostal – Respect for the validity of mystical experience – Centrality of the movement of the Holy Spirit in the world

When we draw on the central movements of these traditions with respect and grace, we can see how it is possible to speak of “One Body, One Spirit, One Hope, One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism, One God”. In other words, we will have found the center of the river!

And so, in answer to our question, “How do I get down the river?” we see three levels of answer:

• First: Choose!
• Second: Improve your swimming skills
• Third: Find the center

Most important though is to enjoy the swim!

Thanks for visiting!