On February 3, 2015, Scot McKnight, Erin Lane, Darrell Johnson, and Hans Boersma discussed why church matters.
No church is perfect. And sometimes this reality hits close to home. It might prompt you to dig your heels in and try to fix it. It might persuade you to stop going to church altogether. After all, there are so many competing and attractive ways to spend your Sunday mornings. But church is so much more than a place we “go to” or a project we “work on.”
How much of church is about my own spiritual needs? How much is about my relationship with God and neighbour? What is it about this historical moment that’s driving so many of us away from church? Finally, how can we allow grace to ground our relationships and create safe spaces?
Watch the video above us for a lively discussion as four down-to-earth experts debate the theological meaning of the word "church" and what an authentic, Christ-centred church community could look like in our current cultural moment.
You sent us so many more questions than we could answer during the hour we had with our speakers. So we wanted to follow up! From over 50 questions submitted before and after the broadcast, we chose two for each panelist. Here are their answers.
Erin Lane: I think all of us have probably given up on the church (or wanted to) at some point along our faith journey; the more important question for me is, do you want to believe in the church? If the answer is yes, then I think you begin by naming that desire—either to God or someone else or both—and praying for its increase. Eventually, the desire becomes strong enough that you agree to start showing up at a church again, knowing that the discipline is not going to feel good or easy, but you've made the choice because there's something here that you want. You tell other people what you want, too, and ask if they can help you discern where to find it. It's the longing that leads you home.
If the answer is no though, I don't think there's much I or anyone but God can do to convince you. Still, even the prayer, "Lord, I want to believe in the church but help my unbelief," is a start and goes a long way to finding home again.
Erin Lane: Yikes! Is that comment enough? I can hardly honour my commitment to one church, let alone two at the same time! I think part of this practice has to do with the sentiment that it doesn't feel authentic to choose only one church when more than one church (and even tradition) has shaped who we are. Churches would do well to honour this spiritual hybridity when articulating their expectations for belonging. For instance, they might have different tracks for membership between those who are committing/converting to this denomination and those who simply want to commit to this particular congregation. While we have the capacity to belong to many people and communities at one time, I think we experience more of the benefits of belonging when we commit ourselves to only one local church at a time.
Hans Boersma: Pierre Berton is great for quotes, and I love this one! But I’m not sure Christianity is revolutionary on principle. Christianity focuses on Christ. Sometimes, that means that the values of Christians conflict with those of non-Christians; at other times, there’s little difference between the values of Christians and non-Christians. I do think that in our post-Christian society, the distinctness of Christian morality will become more and more obvious in the way Christians live: caring for the poor, protecting life at every stage, and modelling strong marriages and family structures seem to me the most obvious ways in which Christians are called to witness in Vancouver today.
Hans Boersma: I knew there’d be a question that would get me into a hornet’s nest... So, let me answer without commenting on the issue of women’s ordination per se. My answer is: no, I don’t think you’re wrong at all for not feeling more passionate about this. Look at it this way: for over 1,900 years of the church, we haven’t had women’s ordination. That should give us a lot of patience with churches that stick with that long tradition. I think we should be passionate about doctrinal heresy. My respect for church history (and divine providence) means I’d be hard pressed to accept that the church has been heretical all those years. In short: express your passion when it really counts!
Katelyn Beaty: You are certainly not wrong for not feeling more passionate about it. All of us, to some degree or another, find ourselves in church communities that don’t fully reflect our personal convictions. The trick is determining whether a particular church simply differs from you, or whether it is veering into heterodox or spiritually unhealthy territory. There are many church traditions that believe Scripture does not permit women to preach yet are passionate about unleashing women to lead in other forms, like as deacons, elders, Bible teachers, executive pastors, and worship leaders. If you feel that women are fully included and incorporated in the worshiping body, then you may conclude this church is right where you belong.
Darrell Johnson: Oh, dear! I am so sorry. No sermon should ever be boring, for we have the greatest news imaginable to announce to the world! And if the songs we sing about the God who comes to us in and as Jesus, no musical worship should ever be boring! Ok, so what if one finds the public worship event boring? Two things. First, it might help to visit another congregation, not so much in search for the ideal worship service, but to see if a different format, a different approach to preaching, might engage one more fully. If that is the case, it would be right to pray about possibly moving over to that church for a season. Second, and I say this carefully, one can pray differently, as I do when worshipping in a format that is not the norm for me. Pray: "Dear God, here I am. Please, will you help me enter into the reason these songs were composed, and will you please speak to me through the text read and the sermon preached to today. I want to meet you and hear your word to me. Please, I do not want to be bored." I hope this helps.
Darrell Johnson: A very important question to be asking! And not easy to answer! Yes, sadly, this is the case. So what can we do? The church I presently serve tries to craft the worship service with mature, new believers, and visitors in mind, recognizing that in taking this track we will not satisfy everyone. So we have music that is both traditional and contemporary. Sometimes, we lean more in one of those directions, but over the weeks, we seek to strike a balance. Another track is, of course, to have different services with different styles. This can work, but requires a lot of pastoral leadership to then keep the various services feeling they are connected to the others under the umbrella of one church. I think the more important issue is a discipleship one: can we, both mature and young, be "mature" enough to seek to help one another truly enter into encounter with the triune God of grace? Can the mature so want the young to be part of the event that they lay down their cherished views of how worship "ought" to happen? Can the young so want the mature to be part of the event that they can recognize that others have been "doing worship" for a long time and just might have something to give? That is, can we together find a way to be the multigenerational, multicultural people of God? I think so.
Katelyn Beaty: I would encourage you to stick it out. Of course, that’s easier said than done. For several years I belonged to a church that I found at times to be “snoozy.” The worship was primarily hymns led by an organist and small choir, and the sermons occasionally meandered. There were some Sundays when I would have preferred to have slept in! But I chose to keep going there because of the church’s orientation around the liturgy and weekly Eucharist. Over time, I learned that the mark of a good worship service wasn’t whether it excited me or even deeply engaged me, but whether it faithfully pointed to Christ and his kingdom.
Scot McKnight: First, I would say the church needs to examine and teach the global and even cosmic vision of the Bible—whether one begins in Genesis 1–11, to the covenant promise with Abraham, to the expectations associated with David, or the hopes of the prophets, the cosmic vision runs right through the Bible—and nothing is as magnificent as Romans 8, Colossians 1:15–20, or Revelation 21–22.
Second, leaders need to model global and missional living by what we talk about (do our sermons and teaching sessions raise the global church or our church alone?) and by how we live (do we connect across boundaries?).
Third, on the basis of the first two, we can begin to urge people to catch the vision and to move forward into a global missional life.
Scot McKnight: Yes and no. Yes, we are kingdom people and cosmic people and part of a universal, catholic work of God in the whole world. Yes, then, to urging us to see the world as God’s work.
But no in this sense: everything God does in this world is local, ethnically-connected, age-shaped, gender-oriented, etc. Postmodernity has reminded us again and again that we are local people and shaped by our local cultures and our own histories of development. (Berger and Luckmann call this “primary” socialization.)
If what God is doing is localized work, then we need to embrace, in your instance, the Chinese cultural manifestation of God’s work. But, and here the no shifts into a larger yes, we need to ask that Chinese localized expression to ask itself: how can we reach out to the non-Chinese? Are we building road blocks that would prevent non-Chinese from [accessing] the gospel and our fellowship? So the wise way is to embrace your people’s vision and ask them to consider how we can reach beyond our borders.
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Hans Boersma is the J.I. Packer Professor of Theology at Regent College. He is the author of several books including Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry and Embodiment and Virtue in Gregory of Nyssa: An Anagogical Approach. His main theological interests are Catholic thought, the church fathers, and spiritual interpretation of Scripture.
Darrell Johnson is currently the Senior Minister at the historic First Baptist Church in downtown Vancouver. He has been preaching the gospel since 1970, serving as Senior Pastor of a number of Presbyterian churches in California and of Union Church of Manila during the so-called “People Power Revolution.” From 2000 to 2009, he taught preaching, worship, pastoral theology, and biblical spirituality at Regent College.
Erin S. Lane is author of Lessons in Belonging from a Church-Going Commitment Phobe (forthcoming February 2015) and co-editor of Talking Taboo, an anthology of writing by young Christian women on the intersection of faith and gender. Confirmed Catholic, raised Charismatic, and married to a Methodist, she facilitates retreats for clergy and congregational leaders through the Center for Courage & Renewal.
Scot McKnight is a world-renowned scholar, author, and speaker. Having authored or edited over fifty books, he is a leading authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. His forthcoming book is A Fellowship of Differents: Showing the World God's Design for Life Together. He is currently Professor of New Testament at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary in Lombard, IL and blogs at Jesuscreed.
Katelyn Beaty is managing editor of Christianity Today magazine. She is cofounder of Her.meneutics, CT’s website for women, and previously served at the editorial director of This Is Our City, a three-year documentary series spotlighting the common-good work of Christians across the country. A graduate of Calvin College (Honors BA Communications, 2006), she lives in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, where she is writing a book about women, work, and vocation, due out in spring 2016.