For as-of-yet-undisclosed reasons, I find myself contemplating what a functioning church might look like. Functioning is an important word in this sentence. You see, I tend to think of churches primarily in terms of the way they function, the way they work.
Our neighborhood church meets at the most important intersection of our lives. It is the place where the gospel is planted within us, where it begins to green and come to life and send up shoots toward the glorious Son, to grow in the baptismal waters of the Spirit, to feed on the true food of scripture, the place where the gospel cracks the concrete of our hardened souls and the place where it twists and contorts our twisted and contorted forms into the image of Jesus, God’s Son.
To state this with a little more precision: the church down on the corner (or in the storefront, in the strip mall, in the cornfields, etc.) works to change deceived, abused, self-hating, self-absorbed persons into the promise and the presence of the God’s kingdom. Too often we understand our local churches as collections, like baseball cards or Beatles albums: a church is a congregation of individuals whom God has saved. This ignores too much of scripture. If we hold the church to be a benign society of believers, we make static something God founded as dynamic, we make dead something the Spirit breathed life into, something Christ died to bring to life.
I don’t foresee much opposition to the claim that many of us first heard the good news in a church. I certainly did, Sunday after Sunday in what was then the little Bozeman storefront of Fellowship Baptist. Nor will many disagree that some people first hear the gospel somewhere else–at an evangelistic rally, a Good News Club, from a friend, over coffee. But like my sometimes-hero Karl Rahner said, regardless of where we are when we hear it, the gospel relentlessly seeks its fullest expression in the church (the Roman Catholic Church, if one is a good Rahnerian!).
At heart, this post is really a segue to the same old discussion of “what is the Gospel?” that often crops up on this blog. If the gospel meets us as individuals, then it will not matter where and with whom we live our lives. We could be Christ-followers just as well chained in a cubicle as meeting with a cell church. But if the gospel addresses us as persons (as it indeed and thankfully does!), then how can we resist as it blossoms into the most important elements of our personhood, our relationships?
I believe that the gospel Jesus proclaimed (and that we are called to proclaim) is about the coming near of God’s kingdom. I cannot open scripture without finding that coming near concerns our present, personal relationships. The gospel is not “spiritual” (note the quotes), it is not theological, it is not something we accept in our hearts and not in our hands. It is something as real as crying babies, as everyday as money, as concrete as stale bread.
And if this is the gospel, then what can our churches be but the places where we live as if we’re living in the real, concrete, everyday kingdom of God? Church is the place where we shed our false gospels of abstraction, of feelings and of doctrines, and begin to truly live in Christ. Our shabby local churches are the places where the gospel begins to push through our soiled exteriors to grow us up into the people of God.