Every Wednesday night, a small group of church people walk through my front door.
They bring pulled pork or chicken, maybe a salad and watermelon, and, every so often, a Kool-Aid pie. We sit around our living room eating, drinking, and reading the Gospel of John, or Nehemiah, or most recently, Deuteronomy. Some Wednesdays I remember to recognize the miracle of this little group of people, made up of two men with PhDs, a young woman with a significant learning disability, college students, a young couple, and a 58-year-old man who can’t read. This small, sometimes awkward, group of people embodies the strange, life-giving power of the local church both to me and for the whole world.
Three Ways the Church Is a Living Sign of Hope
The church upends society’s rules.
When my son and daughter were born, they were immediately part of a family. They didn’t ask for our family’s special combination of sin, dysfunction, and joy. And the rebirth is the same. We come out of the spiritual birth canal screaming, needy, and with a new family that we didn’t choose.
The church, at its best, is a cultural and economic anomaly, bringing together people who may never cross paths in a grocery store or school, or never willingly invite one another over for dinner. The peculiarity is no accident—it’s an integral feature of embracing and embodying the gospel for the world. This is part of why Lesslie Newbigin calls local congregations a “hermeneutic of the gospel.” Local churches are places where the unseen is made visible and where people who are unseen have the chance to experience a full welcome into the love of a God who sets the lonely in families (Psalm 68:6).The church, at its best, is a cultural and economic anomaly, bringing together people who may never cross paths in a grocery store or school, or never willingly invite one another over for dinner. Click To Tweet
As members of Christ’s body, social stratification no longer rules our relationships with one another. Life in this strange place called the church is a life where people and positions deemed less honorable are given more honor, recognized as the gift they are to God’s people. It’s the place where a man with a PhD in English and a man who never learned to read will both learn from one another. A place where every person has something of value to bring to the table, both literally and metaphorically. It’s a place where strangers and enemies are made into friends and brothers and sisters.
Feasting together at the Lord’s Table readies us to reach across the dinner table to join hands with people who can be a little bit annoying to us. Side-by-side with our odd and dissimilar brothers and sisters, we learn how to put on the ill-fitting clothes of Christ’s righteousness. Together, we’re learning how to live like citizens of the kingdom of God.
The church invites us to submit to God’s work in the world.
From the very beginning, we’ve found ways to overlook, manipulate, and ignore the teachings of Christ and his vision for the church. James urges Christians to stop elevating rich people over the materially poor. Paul takes the church to task in 2 Timothy for “foolish and stupid arguments.” You don’t have to look far to see contemporary patterns of preferential treatment, foolish arguments, or disastrous abuses of power. I see the devastating fruit of generations of racial segregation in my own church in the heart of the Bible Belt.
The church deserves the criticism we get for ignoring, neglecting, and perpetuating the antithesis of shalom in the world. Cultural narratives and practices rooted in the worship of money, individualism, white supremacy, and upward mobility have infiltrated the church, even our songs and prayers. Many of us have given ourselves over to these false gods, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit, and the American Dream.
My natural response to the spiritual battles waged inside of our churches, especially in my own local church, is to start or find a new church down the street. But this inclination betrays my hidden commitment to the very idols I balk at in the North American church. The idea that, given the right tools and resources, I could “do church the right way” misses the great mystery of God’s work through the church.My natural response to the spiritual battles waged inside our churches is to start or find a new church down the street. But this inclination betrays my hidden commitment to the very idols I balk at in the North American church. Click To Tweet
The downfalls of the church in my North American context are undeniable. But the answer isn’t to forsake the local church for something new or a podcast with five stars on iTunes. I think maybe the answer is, oddly enough, a deeper commitment to the unexpected centrality of this broken and seemingly irrelevant institution. Maybe the answer is to take seriously my vows to support its worship and work, to submit myself to the church, and to study its purity and peace. Maybe the answer is to believe God when he says that he is building us together into his dwelling place.
The church is a place where the weak and vulnerable come to celebrate.
Jean Vanier founded L’Arche Ministries in 1964. In L’Arche communities, people of varying abilities across the physical and mental spectrum live together, eat together, and take care of one another. In his book Living Gently in a Violent World, co-authored by Stanley Hauerwas, Vanier proposes celebration as a key to changing the world.
“Maybe what we need most is to rejoice and celebrate with the weak and the vulnerable,” Vanier writes.
‘Maybe the world will be transformed when we learn to have fun together. I don’t mean to suggest that we don’t talk about serious things. But maybe what our world needs more than anything is communities where we celebrate life together and become a sign of hope for our world. Maybe we need signs that it is possible to love each other.’
I think Vanier is right. I also think that sign already exists. That sign emanates from strange and dissimilar groups of people living and disagreeing and celebrating together. The church is a living sign of hope for the world. And when I’m tempted to think His mission would be better off without us, I remember Paul’s words to the Corinthians, that God chose the foolish and weak things of the world on purpose (1 Cor. 1:27).
And so we, all weak and vulnerable in our own ways, keep celebrating together, as we keep praying together for God’s kingdom to come. As we keep praying for his will to be done on our streets and in our neighborhood and in our homes, as it is in heaven. I keep praying for God to forgive me when I’m confronted with my sin and the sin of my brothers and sisters in the church—even as I’m asking for and extending forgiveness. Through the worship and work of the local church, I have seen and experienced a small window into the spiritual and physical reality we pray for and celebrate together every week.
A taste of our future reality
Week in, week out, we sing and sit and stand and pray. We hug one another, celebrate, argue, laugh, and eat meals together. And, over time, that fragile institution changes us. We’re different today than we were last year. Click To Tweet
The church feels fragile, as if it’s holding on by a string that we all collectively pick at and criticize. But the string holds. And so, week in, week out, we sing and sit and stand and pray. We hug one another, celebrate, argue, laugh, and eat meals together. And, over time, that fragile institution changes us. We’re different today than we were last year. Our Wednesday night small group is different. Our congregation is different. What is God doing with this frail group of people gathering to worship him? What mystery are we participating in? I don’t have a complete answer. But I trust that despite its imperfections and fragility, the church will prevail. And I would not be surprised if the new heaven and new earth will look a little like the meal we share every week with a group of mismatched men and women around our table—Kool-Aid pie and all.