What will define us as a church?
Churches could be, and are, known for many things: “That’s the political church.” “That’s the cool church.” “That’s the mega church.” “That’s the church with traditional worship.” They can be known for good things: biblical preaching, inspirational worship, or friendliness. Or they can be known for not so good things: decline, apathy, or scandal. Each church needs to reckon with their own identity, not just with how they are known, but with who they are, with what defines their center.
So do we.
For a long time, I believed that we are defined by what we do: We preach the Bible. We build community. We serve our neighbors. We proclaim the gospel. I defined myself by what I did, too, and by how well I did it. Too often, I still do. But my thinking has been shifting recently. It’s a shift from performance to grace.
What makes a Christian?
In our church tradition, we love to quote Ephesians 2:8: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.” When it comes to salvation, we place grace at the center. From there it’s easy to fall into two traps – legalism or lawlessness.
In legalism, having been set free by God’s grace, we submit ourselves again to the yoke of slavery by establishing rigid rules. We’re saved by grace, but as far as we or anyone else is concerned, we’re defined by how well we conform to our rules.
In lawlessness, we rejoice in the grace of God and then go on to abuse it as a license to fulfill our own desires. We deny the transforming nature of grace. We say we’re defined by grace, but the “grace” we’re defined by is counterfeit. We’re not defined by grace after all, we use a caricature of it, but end up being defined by our own selfishness.
Jesus rejects both legalism and lawlessness. We’re saved by grace, transformed by grace, defined by grace, and we live by grace. And since grace is more than a concept, it’s more accurate to say that we’re saved by Jesus, transformed by Jesus, defined by Jesus, and we live by Jesus. Or, with Paul we can say “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” (Galatians 2:20)
For the Christian, not only our salvation, but everything is grace. Everything is a gift: Our daily bread, our families, our resources, our skills, our breath, the community of faith, our perseverance, our holiness, the revelation of God in the Scriptures. All of it comes from the hand of a generous and good God. And, not only that perspective, but that reality, will work its way out. Grace is the heartbeat of the Christian life. Grace brings us to life and sustains us, so that not even death can separate us from the love of Christ.
What makes a Church?
As with the Christian, so the church. The church was birthed through grace and is sustained by grace. Jesus gave us life and the Spirit of grace sustains us. We’re animated by “Christ who is our life” (Colossians 3:4).
I’m saying nothing new or surprising. Of course, a church must be defined by Jesus. But I’ll submit to you that I believe we will be tempted to be drawn away from our Center. Or, perhaps, to drift away.
There’s a Presidential election coming in 2020. Will we be drawn away? Will we allow politics to define us?
We have some major capital improvement projects on the calendar. Will they define us?
We may stay the same size. We may grow. We may shrink. Will our size define us? Will it take center stage? (“We’re the growing and vibrant church” or “We’re the faithful few”, we always interpret in our favor.)
There will be challenges. There will be interpersonal conflict, differences of opinion, arguments over strategy, hard words. On those days, will there be evidence of God’s grace?
We’re finding ourselves more and more out of step with prevailing notions of morality. Will the culture war define us? Will we draw in for protection or push out in grace? Will we welcome or wall off?
Perhaps all will go well. Will we be drawn to pride? Will we come to believe that it was our power all along? Perhaps we will fail. Will we be begin to distrust the loving hand of our good father?
Weeds abound in this field, and they threaten to separate us from our Source, to make us unfruitful. It’s going to take tenacity and perseverance to keep Jesus the center.
Action which grows out of identity
By placing such a high premium on identity, I don’t mean to denigrate action or set aside mission. But identity must always be prior. The disciples had power because they had Jesus. They had authority because he gave it to them. Their mission grew out of the personal indwelling reality of Christ.
Grace comes in from the outside, it transforms our inner reality, and then it manifests itself in action. We see it and feel it. What does it look like? What does a church look like that has truly internalize the grace of God? That’s a future post.