I can clearly remember the circumstances that led me to compose my brief essay entitled Paper Perfect Churches. Some friends of mine, knowing my convictions, had been asking me if I had the intention of starting a new, family-integrated, elder-led church where I live in southern Virginia. My answer startled them, I think. It was no. Our family has been content to plug into the closest Baptist church to where we live (which in our case is about 3 miles from our farm). Now, is this because our congregation has no shortcomings? Of course not. What church doesn’t have any shortcomings? Currently, our thinking is this: why exchange one set of shortcomings for another by starting (or driving an hour or more to attend) the “perfect” church?
And make no mistake: the perfect church does not exist. Not even close. Age-integrated, elder-led congregations are just as prone to division and carnality as the most tradition-bound churches. Fundamentally, I think we have misunderstood what church is. The title of this essay, “Living Church,” is not referring to a church that is “alive” in the sense that it has attractive programs and charismatic leadership. Rather, the term “living” is meant to suggest that church is something that happens 24/7 (just as our “lives” are lived 24/7). Church is not a physical structure. It is a spiritual temple consisting of living stones constantly offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ (1 Pet. 2:5). It is, as Hebrews reminds us, a group of believers who stir one another up to love and good works when they meet (Heb. 10:24-25) so that they can engage in those good, loving works throughout the week. The emphasis is not upon a building, but on people. In a living church, relationships are paramount. That’s why I am very happy to belong to my very little, very traditional Southern Baptist church. It consists of my neighbors – and finer neighbors would be hard to imagine – and some of the most loving and caring people you will find anywhere. To be sure, none of us agrees on secondary issues, least of all the fine points of ecclesiology, but we agree there are more important things to be concerned about. Our common goal is to “do good to all men, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal. 6:10). We seek to obey what Jim Elliott once called the “inner must” of not only acquiring the truth of the Word of God but living it out in our daily lives as a loving church family.
What, then, does “living church” mean? To me it means belief, certainly. I would never deprecate theology. Our church is conservative theologically. I would have it no other way. But belief does not constitute the heart of the matter. Living church means joyfully accepting our mission of loving one another and giving our lives in its fulfillment. This is, I believe, a revolutionary concept that many paper perfect churches simply do not believe and certainly do not practice. If I may be permitted to make a practical application, scripturally we see that God has called His people – the “laity” if you will – to be His basic ministers. Some of them, of course, have also been called to be “player-coaches” (to use Elton Trueblood’s term), but each and every believer is to be in “full-time” ministry. God’s people must understand, accept, and fulfill this call. Living church means that we do God’s work primarily out in the world, not in our “sanctuaries.” When Monday morning dawns, we are still the church we were when we gathered on Sunday. What happens when we meet on Sunday is not the climax. It is the beginning of our being the church in the world during the week. In other words, the call to be God’s people and the call to ministry are one and the same. The key word is “involvement.” Involvement means that we are willing to know and be known, to care and be cared for. It is an involvement so real and so deep that we are willing to take enormous risks for the sake of the brethren.
I am blessed that God has placed me in such a caring community. Yes, it is a struggling community in many ways. The economy has gone south. Farming is difficult. The population is aging. The curse of Cultural Christianity gnaws away at the heart of our churches. But it is my community. It is where, on bright and cloudy days, I live and farm and assemble as the Body with my imperfect neighbors (none more imperfect than myself). In the final analysis, when all the scholars have had their say, and all the finer points of theology have been debated, and all the authorities have been consulted, nothing remains more basic yet more daunting than this amazing truth: Christians are called to live a life of utterly selfless love, and thus reflect the One who alone reigns over them in love. Just as amazingly, it seems that this life of love can be lived out regardless of the externals – whether your church is age-integrated or age-segregated, elder-led or pastor/deacon led, highly programmed or non-programmed, etc.
One can enjoy new wine even when the wineskins are old.
April 30, 2007
David Alan Black is the editor of www.daveblackonline.com.