Witness

In Praise of the Church’s Substance over Style

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I’ll admit it—I’m a church guy. Incurably so, I hope.

I’ve been in the church my entire life, and though I’ve seen plenty of her flaws and a great deal of ugliness, I’ve also seen how wildly alive, vibrant, and beautiful she can be.

I grew up in a mid-sized non-denominational church in central Wisconsin that was born out of the Jesus Movement of the 60s and 70s. In college I attended a church that for a time was the hot new church in town, attracting people from all across the region. In graduate school my wife and I attended a large “Bible” church, then several years later we moved to Denver to help some friends plant a church. And then after eight years, the Lord called us out. We’re now at a large, multi-congregational, charismatic, evangelical church in Colorado Springs, working alongside the saints in a labor of love to see the kingdom come and the will of God done in Colorado Springs just like it is in heaven.

In each congregation I have been part of, I’ve met Jesus, and I’ve been strengthened by his presence and life through the saints in unique and profound ways. And the longer I am in the church, the less impressed I am with the differences in her many expressions and the more impressed I am with what binds her together and makes her one – her unique ethos given by and in Christ Jesus. Better yet – her unique ethos that simply is Christ Jesus, incarnate, crucified, resurrected, powerfully present by his Spirit, and returning again.

The longer I am in the church, the less impressed I am with the differences in her many expressions and the more impressed I am with what binds her together and makes her one - her unique ethos given by and in Christ Jesus. Click To Tweet

The move from our church in Denver to our new church home here in the Springs has had the largest impact on this area of my thinking for the obvious reason that on the face of it, perhaps no two churches that we have been part of could be more dissimilar. Our Denver church was very young, uber-organic, mostly-progressive and somewhat skeptical, smells-and-bells, worship-in-the-basement-by-candlelight. Our Colorado Springs congregation is multi-generational, slightly-more-programmatic, mostly-conservative and less skeptical, sound-and-light, worship-in-an-actual-sanctuary.

And yet, having been here for more than two years, I can honestly say that it is the similarities that stand out to me more than the differences. Both churches are devoted to proclaiming the glory and goodness of the crucified and risen Christ. Both churches are devoted hearing his voice and encountering his presence in Word and Sacrament. Both churches have deep regard for the faith of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. Both churches seek a radical openness to the Holy Spirit. Both churches are bent on creating human structures that allow people to serve one another in love, to share life deeply, and to make manifest Christ’s mercy to each other. Both churches are reaching out to neighbors who do not yet know the Lord. Both churches have turned their ears to the cry of the poor in concrete, tangible ways.

By the same token, I have been surprised to discover how the pastoral challenges of each congregation are so similar. Is our worship and our preaching faithful? Are we caring for people well? Where are we missing it on the discipleship front? How do we help people disentangle their faith from the culture? What do we do about the many “spectating” folks in our midst? Are there new areas of pain that the Lord is calling us to in our city? How do we help people open their lives even more radically to the Holy Spirit?

The style and even the container of both churches are so different, but the substance is the same. And that substance is Christ, creating a faithful body for himself out of people from every tribe, nation, people, and tongue, releasing them into the world with and for blessing.

The style and even the container of both churches are so different, but the substance is the same. And that substance is Christ, creating a faithful body for himself out of people from every tribe, nation, people, and tongue... Click To Tweet

 

As church leaders, we need to fight to become less enamored with styles and containers and more enamored with substance.

This is important for a few reasons:

1 – It will allow us to really see each other as brothers and sisters united by Christ in a common effort.

There are many reasons to be discouraged about the church in the United States right now. But, the more I travel to visit churches and the more church leaders I talk to, the more convinced I am that the wind of the Spirit is blowing in a fresh way, across old denominational and ideological barriers, to remind us of our common heritage, of who and Whose we are in Christ, and of the kingdom to which we belong.

I am constantly surprised and delighted at how many megachurches I hear are embracing the sacraments… how many Bible churches are leaning into the Holy Spirit… how many charismatic churches are listening anew to the cries of the poor. These are signs that our “in Christ” ethos is being realized more and more, and when we learn to look past style to substance, we will see that the Lord is indeed preserving a wider remnant than we ever thought possible. This will motivate us to stand with each other and to work together wherever and as often as we can.

2 – It will allow us to appreciate our differences without insisting that other churches be as we are.

The Apostle Paul spoke of the local church as a body with many members. Not all members are the same. Each has a different function. All are necessary. While contextually Paul’s words apply first to local communities of believers, I believe his vision has a wider application for the church at large. We are not the same. Nor need we be. I believe that a good many of our differences (where they are not heretical or sinful; more on this below) are divinely orchestrated so that the one Body of Christ can be and do all it needs to be and do in every place where the Lord has called it. Large churches can do things that small ones cannot. Organic networks of house churches can do things that large churches cannot. Urban and suburban, ethnic and multiracial, low-church charismatic and high-church liturgical all have a role to play. Learning to recognize the common ethos that is Christ will allow us to appreciate and bless those differences.

3 – It will give us the necessary context to, when necessary, lovingly critique.

With all of this said, it is nonetheless important to point out that styles and containers are not automatically neutral. Sometimes our styles and containers are inimical to corporate faithfulness to Christ Jesus. By the same token, however, we need to recognize that we can have theologically sound and thoughtful styles and containers and still be unfaithful in our ethos—believing what is not true about Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, behaving in ways that are more (wittingly or unwittingly) anti-kingdom than pro-kingdom.

Which is why we need each other.

In the context of the shared confession that the Christ revealed in Holy Scripture is indeed our Lord, we are free to ask questions and, when necessary, lovingly critique, sharpening one another as iron sharpens iron. In so doing, our faithfulness will rise, and Christ will be made more fully manifest in the world.

In the context of the shared confession that the Christ revealed in Holy Scripture is indeed our Lord, we are free to ask questions and, when necessary, lovingly critique, sharpening one another... Click To Tweet

The truth is, no congregation, no denomination, and no movement is without its faults, failures, and blind spots. None of us has cornered the market on faithfulness. And so Paul’s words to the Ephesians are as important to us now as they were when they were first penned:

Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. (Eph 4:15-16)

We are living in divisive and polarizing times. In the church, it need not be. Seeing and seeking Christ in each other, receiving one another in all our diversity and difference, learning to speak the truth in love, we can and will rise towards the fulfillment of the Lord’s own prayer: That they may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you (John 17:21).
So be it.

 

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