And then there’s the church. Which is a secret of sorts. One of the best-kept secrets in the New Testament. In fact, it’s one of the best-kept secrets in history. More hidden than the mystical secrets of the cabala. Or the rites of the Masons. Only it isn’t supposed to be a secret.
The New Testament is perfectly plain about what the church is meant to be. It’s not obscurely stated the way things in the cabala often are. What has obscured our understanding of it is the churches in our culture.
Over decades and centuries, something has developed in our culture that we call church. It bears remarkable little resemblance to what the New Testament talks about as church. Most Christians would even tell you so if asked. But in a remarkable example of disobedience, we settle for our culture’s idea of the church.
I suppose it’s understandable. A vast, worldwide network of these institutions has developed a system that includes more than a billion people. How do you fight a system like that? It’s like trying to set up an alternate U.S. government. Neither our present government nor our present church system is what their respective founders intended or what anyone much wants, but what is the point of a few of us trying to do better? We should just join the system, crazy as it is, and improve it what little we can. Anything else is utopian foolishness. Systems can’t be fundamentally changed.
Except that we then have to content ourselves with being spiritual runts. And not just ourselves, but everyone. Because the New Testament is clear: we grow up in Christ to the extent that our church is functioning the way it’s supposed to. Or as Paul puts it, “As each part is working properly, the whole body promotes its growth by building itself up in love” (Eph. 4:16).
As each part is working properly? That means if I am not doing my part in church, then the whole body won’t be growing as it should. If you aren’t doing your part, if the pastor isn’t pastoring, if some of the parts refuse even to be part of the church, then the whole body isn’t growing as it should. We then won’t love each other as much as we should—or could.
Paul is rather precise about his meaning. Through the incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, Jesus acquired gifts and gave them to his body, the church (Eph. 4:7-9). Gifts like teaching and pastoring, evangelism (Eph. 4:11), speaking in tongues, prophesying, giving, serving the poor (1 Cor. 12-14; Rom. 12:3-8). Growth happens when we use the gifts he gave us, not for ourselves but for each other. “He gave the gifts . . . to equip the saints for the work of ministry and for building up the body of Christ until all of us come . . . to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Eph 4:11-13).
The full stature of Christ! Not many churches have grown to the full stature of Christ. And perhaps there’s a reason (besides our sin). Perhaps the reason is that we don’t try Christ’s method—using our gifts in the church for others and having others use their gifts for us. We are so wed to forms of the churches of the system that we’re runts instead of being “the full stature of Christ.”
It’s not always obvious how to use your gifts in the church of the system. System churches consist primarily of performances to be observed. The only gifts that matter are those of the performers and the people who finance the performers and the “theater.”
Now, I don’t mean to say that no gifts are used in system churches, that no part is working properly. When I’m exasperated, I sometimes feel that way, but it’s not true. I suppose that even the worst churches have some parts working properly. The essence of many system churches is preaching and teaching, and while that was never meant to stand alone, it’s an important part of the church. To the extent that it is done properly, spiritual growth happens. Other churches serve the poor, and while that wasn’t meant to stand alone either, to the extent that it happens, spiritual growth happens. Others focus on worship (especially charismatics and those with high-church liturgies), and to the extent that they worship God together, spiritual growth happens. And so on.
But few churches welcome or have a way to use the full range of Christ’s gifts to us. You can’t when a few people do all the performing. You can’t when for every person standing in front, ninety-nine commute in to watch them perform.
In other words, we’re using about 1 percent of the gifts Christ gave us.
Which is shocking.
It’s shocking in the utilitarian sense that it means that we’ve chosen to be spiritual runts.
But it’s perhaps even more shocking in the sense that it means we’re contemptuous of Christ and the gifts he gave us. If I’m reading Ephesians 4 correctly, when he left this earth, Jesus left us presents. These were not the kind of presents we get for our families on birthdays—things bought in the department store in the section for people who already have everything. Christ’s presents were costly, very costly, presents he got through the painful process of becoming human, being crucified, and then rising in power.
And we leave them unopened.
I said we were spiritual runts by choice. And I think that true, but it’s not the whole story.
Another reason we have failed to grow is because we’ve never seen a church using a reasonable percentage of the gifts Christ gave us. We can’t envision what a different church would look like. We’re so limited by the practices of system churches that we can’t imagine what it would mean to use the gifts of the other 99 percent of us.
What do you do, make lots of people ushers? Enlarge the choir? It’s hard to see how these changes would produce dramatic growth in love. Those are obvious changes to make in system churches, perhaps the only obvious ones. But they just don’t do much.
[tweetshareinline tweet=”We need a different model where the church isn’t a building with meetings to observe performers” via=”no”]but where it’s people being formed into a body, a group of people who depend on each other, use each other, help each other. Where it’s church if two believers are together in a café or at work or over dinner. Where the majority of the work of the church is done one-on-one with no paid staff present. My encouraging you. You helping me. Her confronting me
Then we grow.
But for that to happen, our lives have to overlap. A lot.
As we all know, New Testament churches were neighborhood gatherings in believers’ homes. People’s lives overlapped not for a few hours on Sunday, but at work, in the market, cooking dinner, throughout life. They were together enough to use their gifts for each other.
It’s not a magic bullet—it’s a long journey in the same direction. But if we choose it as our way of life, we will together gradually grow up in love . . . to the full stature of Christ.
John F. Alexander was editor of The Other Side Magazine (this article appeared in the March-April 1993 issue) and was a pastor at the Church of the Sojourners.
Photo credits: Alarm Clock by Toshiyuki IMAI; Church by Shawn Carpenter