I find church paradoxical

The Mission

[Jesus] said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:7‭-‬8 NIV, emphasis added)

Apparently, ‘Church’ ought to be a place where God’s Spirit empowers believers to share Jesus’ story on a global scale. Following in his footsteps, Christians are called to spread the news that Jesus healed the sick, delivered people from demonic oppression, calmed storms, walked on water, raised the dead, and welcomed the unclean, outcast, morally dubious, marginalised sinners of his day into intimate friendship with him. Of course, Jesus’ outspoken challenge to the power narratives of religious insiders, and the oppression of the Roman Empire ultimately led to his death via excruciating humility upon a cross. Having invited the most unlikely, sinful outsiders into relationship with him, Jesus subsequently atoned for the sins of all humanity by enduring the ignominy and agony of crucifixion. He then defeated death itself by rising from his own tomb three days later, and sent the early Church to go and participate in his mission of sharing God’s love with the rest of the world. All of this encompasses his gospel, or ‘good news’.

Jesus also promised that one day, he would return to complete what his original mission started: the recreation of everything culminating in a new universal reality where there will be no more tears, sin, suffering, evil, or death, and God himself will dwell with humanity. [1] All that remains for the Church to do is to take this message across the globe, (attempt to) live as Jesus did, and await that final moment. [2] Simple enough, right? Rousing stuff, at least?

A Caveat

Yet if modern biblical scholarship upon this short passage (and countless others) teaches us anything, it’s there is reasonable dispute over how we interpret terms like ‘power’, ‘witnesses’, ‘to the end of the earth’, and so on. Moreover, there is no ironclad consensus that the original mission described by Jesus here (if indeed he spoke these words at all) remains incomplete. My intention here is not to delve into these debates, but to simply acknowledge that they exist and therefore add a significant pinch of salt to what I am about to propose:

The Church is paradoxical because the person, character, and events which gave birth to it can seem conspicuously absent from what many people experience of the ‘Church’ today. An obvious question to illustrate this might be ‘what does the word ‘Church’ mean to you?’

A Brief Cavalcade of Caricatures

Caricatures are perhaps unhelpful, yet can often resonate with our collective experiences in evocative ways and lead us to critically reflect upon them. For instance, ‘Church’ may conjure images of an (in)glorious, incense fuelled, sacramental, stained glass cathedral of liturgical tradition. Here, the bells ring like clockwork and the reassuring smell of indifference twinned with ideological entrenchment is difficult to banish. Surely the power of the Spirit can lead the organist to the right notes (at least occasionally)?

Or perhaps we’re more familiar with the modern evangelical megachurch movement? Picture large auditoriums with stadium seating, (perhaps an old cinema/refashioned warehouse, or a purpose built conference centre) housing multiple ‘services’ which seem eerily slick and unashamedly consumer-oriented. Invariably, these ‘churches’ are fronted by well branded, Christian pop function bands consisting of photogenic hipsters who provide an intoxicating multimedia worship-performance to warm the crowd up with oxytocin for the main attraction. After the rock concert aesthetic and cinematic visuals have finished, the focus turns to another pseudo-celebrity speaker offering up a smorgasbord of self-help sermons, anecdotes, wisecracks, proof texts, and soundbites. Hillsong would be proud. Jesus arguably less so.

Are either of these extremes familiar? Doubtless, many other examples spring to mind. Do any of our ideas or experiences of ‘Church’ seem consistent with the Spirit-empowered pursuit of Jesus’ mission? What should a New Testament Church look like?

The Method: Public Cruciformity?

Citing Hannah Arendt, Reinhard Hütter frames this conversation well by arguing that ‘a public is a human space…constituted by its defining walls’, which suggests a view of the Church as a ‘unique public’ defined by both dogma and the Spirit. [3]

He elaborates:

At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit’s activity stands for this overwhelming and transforming “publicity” of God’s mighty deeds, the effective communication of the gospel. [4]

Being familiar with various Pentecostal-Charismatic streams of Christianity, I hold an (at times naive, unqualified) assumption that God can, and does work ‘overwhelming/transforming’ miracles by his Spirit’s power today. Healing, deliverance, extraordinary phenomena, and radical solidarity with/love of despised, forgotten, and ‘unworthy’ outsiders were commonplace in Jesus’ earthly ministry; surely the ‘Church’ should embody these characteristics as it seeks to faithfully share his Gospel? [5]

Arguably, the Church should also follow it’s Messiah to the necessity of crucifixion. [6] As Christ emptied himself of his divine power and prerogatives for the sake of the ‘other’, so the Church should seek to effectively communicate Jesus’ Gospel in word and deed via Public Cruciformity (cross-shaped living) twinned with the power of the Spirit. Anything less is religious form without power. [7]

I find Church Paradoxical because often, despite it’s extraordinary potential, my experience of ‘Church’ looks very different to Jesus. Sadly, being cross-shaped is a description that often only applies to various ornaments decorating church buildings.

Surely there must be more?

M

1. E.g. Rev 21:4.

2. E.g. Matt 28:18-20, John 20:21-22, 1 John 2:6.

3. Arendt, Hannah, The Human Condition, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press: 1958, 194-199. In Hütter, Reinhard, “The Church as Public: Dogma, Practice, and the Holy Spirit”, Pro Ecclesia, 3 no 3 Sum 1994, p 334-361, 347.

4. Ibid, 359.

5. Matt 25:31-46 Springs to mind.

6. E.g. Mark 8:34, Matt 16:24, Luke 9:23.

7. E.g. 2 Tim 3:5, 1 Cor 4:20.


MikeMichael Roca-Terry: Mike is an obscure, occasionally eccentric character who had a powerful, life changing encounter with Jesus in 2006, and has spent the past ten years trying to make sense of his faith. A freelance musician and peripatetic tutor by trade, he has since been blessed with a wonderful wife and son. Somehow, he is currently juggling full time work/family life with studying for an MA in Integrative New Testament Theology at the London School of Theology, which is fueled by his sense of calling to church planting, engaging/serving both church and academy, and overseas mission. He finds writing about himself in the third person rather odd. His family have recently joined a new church plant in Cambridge called Cam Vineyard, and also have an increasingly soft spot for their local Anglican church. He blogs infrequently at www.realjesusology.wordpress.com, and tweets more frequently – @MikeRoca.

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