Just to be clear, I’m still for the local church, and am grateful to be part of one. But I just can’t get behind some of the fear, despair, and worry surrounding her alleged decline. And, I wouldn’t credit these guys with really giving me the idea, but I often hear the echo of AVB in my head when I read the doomsayers’ pronouncements: “U can’t go 2 church/’Cause the church is U.” We aren’t growing or saving or losing the church; we are the church, built together by Christ.
I know what everybody means. But this true thing seems to outweigh the troubled tones of post-Christendom hand-wringing: the church is the body of Jesus, in gathered response and lived commission, however the love of God is performed. Can we measure that? Should we?
It strikes me, that as those of us in Stone-Campbell pews tally our numbers, we have lost an aspect of the vision that started this stream (not to mention the vision they were squinting at). It wasn’t “get in here!” so we can count up and see who counts. It was “come out!” – come out from the narrow ideas that limit what and who we label “church.” Come out and feel the freedom and faith of being defined simply by the decision, in good conscience, to follow Jesus.
One of our founding documents was not a church growth strategy, but the last will and testament of this faulty idea of church as a human institution to be managed or protected:
Of course, feeble as frail, they didn’t get it all right. For many who followed them, “getting it right” ended up being the way of deciding who’s out and who’s in. Once you get it right, put up a sign, and fill that auditorium like it was the ark.
Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, ‘The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, “Look, here it is!” or “There it is!” For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.’
Same as it ever was. There are, I understand, legitimate pastoral reasons to keep track of “membership” in a local congregation. But what does God gain by my estimation of who makes up his church? What does God lose if I lose track?
What is produced if I spend our energy worrying about our stats? What might be produced if I give myself to the work the Spirit has given me to build up the church? If I define belonging to community by the extent to which my life is useful in God’s work with his people for his mission, when might I notice I’d left?
Not when I walked out the door this morning. Not when I moved from one congregation to another. Not even when I checked out to nurse the wounds of disappointment. Maybe I have left the church when I am no longer invested in God’s work with God’s people. But, even then, I can no more declare myself a member or not than my own fingers can declare themselves free agents because they’re in a splint for six weeks.
Today, if I measure belonging or count attendance, may it be to the extent I am measuring my love expressed for others and attending to my purpose for Christ’s body, as we love them all and let God figure it out.
And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. – Ephesians 3:17-19