It can be very difficult for the church to be the church. The church, you might say by definition, stands over against society and culture and the political structures of existence, by doing it the way it ought to be done. In the Bible, you have a clear view of how the church sees itself. There, you have “church” and you have “world,” with “world” being the catch-phrase for the way it ought NOT to be done.
The church has the inside track to the way things ought to be, and is to live in the midst of the way things ought NOT be in ways that call that way into question and exhibit the “ought to be” in all its relationships and transactions. Nothing is more solidly Biblical than the idea of a people called to a way of life that demonstrates explicitly the way life ought to be lived within the swirl of the way life ought not be lived. This is the calling and the mission of the church.
If you are going to send out missionaries, don’t send them out talking, talking, talking. Send them out living, living, living. The Mission is the same for us all: To demonstrate the way life ought to be lived by living that way, from the heart, in all of our relationships and transactions. Just go live among the people in ways that are right. That’s all there is to it. And the church has never done it very often, very long, very well.
The church has made a mockery of its mission. The church has lost the way, left the path, said “to the seers, ‘Do not see’; and to the prophets, ‘Do not prophesy to us what is right; speak to us smooth things, prophesy illusions, leave the way, turn aside from the path, let us hear no more about the Holy One of Israel.’” (Isaiah 30:10-11)
The people called to be the church have always wanted to do it the way it was being done in the culture and society within which the church is called to be the church. The people called to be the church wanted a king because the other nations had kings. The people called to be the church worshiped the Baal’s and the idols of their neighbors. The people called to be the church did it the way their neighbors were doing it. And, even when they did not, they didn’t do what ought to be done the way it ought to be done. Their hearts and souls weren’t in it. So, Isaiah could say, “These people draw near with their mouths and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their worship of me is a human commandment learned by rote” (Isaiah 29:13).
Jeremiah continues the theme with this pronouncement: “From the least to the greatest everyone is greedy for unjust gain; from prophet to priest everyone deals falsely. They have treated the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace” (Jeremiah 8:10c-11). Amos chimes in with these familiar words, “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:21-24).
Jesus makes exactly the same condemnation of the people called to be the church in his day. Jesus’ mission was the same as the mission of the prophets before him, the same as our mission, the same as the mission of the people called to be the church since people have been called to be the church, namely TO BE THE CHURCH! To do it the way it ought to be done in the midst of those doing it the way it ought not be done.
Jesus ate with prostitutes and tax collectors. He associated with those thought to be “sinners.” He forgave sins and told those burdened by the idea of their sinfulness that they were accepted and loved by God and by him. He healed on the Sabbath and broke the Law in ways that kept the spirit of the Law intact (Not a not an iota, not a dot, of that spirit did Jesus alter or ignore [cf. Matt. 5:18]). And, he called those charged with the oversight and administration of the church to repent and begin doing it the way it ought to be done. He said they were “white-washed tombs,” going through the motions of purity and obedience without their heart being in what they were doing.
And, they killed him for it, as they had killed all those before him who came doing what he did. So, he could say, at the end of his career, of his work, of his mission to BE the church: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem—the city that kills prophets and stones those sent to it…” (Matthew 23:37). And, it wasn’t long after that that the church failed, again, to be the church, failed, again, to do it the way it ought to be done, for the sake of what the church perceived to be its own self-interest, its own future in the world.
Here’s the thing: To have a future, the church must give up its future, just as Jesus did. The church has to live its life being the church, not so that it will have a future, but so that it will be the church. The future of the church depends upon the church living as though it has no future, as though it only has this moment right now in which to do what needs to be done, in which to live the way life ought to be lived.
The church has sold its soul for the sake of its future. Once its future is solid and secure, THEN it will be the church. Until then, it must be careful, guard its interests, cover its bases, watch its step, and hold its cards close to its vest. Does that sound like Jesus to you? Is that the way Jesus did it? Jesus never allowed the future to rob him of his present. He lived in the moment the way the moment ought to be lived, and let the future be the future. He took care of the present, and let the future take care of itself. "Do not worry about tomorrow," he counseled. "But let the day's own trouble be sufficient for the day."
That's much too radical and risky for us. And, once we shy away from radical and risky, we shy away from being the church. To be the church is to be radical and risky, and controversial. It is to be who Jesus was. It is to call a fox a fox and a white-washed tomb a white-washed tomb. It is to acknowledge what is real, and say what needs to be said, and do what needs to be done. It is to step into the political and social arenas. It is to address injustice, and unconsciousness, and abject wrong-headed-ness. It is to do more than tut-tut about racism. It is to sponsor dismantling racism worships. It is to see who is being left out of the process and invite them in. It is to say, "No! No! No!" to death in all its glorious guises, and "Yes! Yes! Yes!" to life in all its harshness and pain.
Just try that and pay the bills! The church cannot be the church and pay the bills. Jesus never got ahead, and probably couldn't make ends meet. The inheritance he left was the cloak on his back.
No Mega-Church is politically and socially corrective. Every Mega-Church knows which side its bread is buttered on, and plays to the preferences of its constituency. Every Mega-Church focuses on personal piety, individual salvation, and how to be a better person, which comes down to how to keep things as they are only make them better. Keeping things as they are, only with more prosperity, for instance, is very important. No Mega-Church upsets apple carts, rocks boats, makes waves, or calls the status quo into question. That kind of behavior wakes people up, forces them to confront their comforting illusions, disturbs and disorients them, and they will not have it. People will not pay you to tell them what they do not want to hear.
People do not want to wake up. They do not want to think about their thinking, believing, and doing. They do not want to question their assumptions. Change their minds. They want to settle into comfortable routines. They want to be lulled to sleep with gentle reassurance and constant repetition. They want to be told the same old, same old, with the same old hypnotic rhythm and cadence and inflection, so they can disengage, shift into neutral, and drift off into dreamland.
The church can't be the church without waking people up, challenging the status quo, calling attention to the gap between how things are and how things ought to be, saying what needs to be said and doing what needs to be done. But, who is going to pay you to do that? You see the problem.
If the church is going to be the church, it has to reduce its bills and swing for the fences. It can't be expanding its programs, and launching building campaigns, and buying busses. It has to be refining its vision, engaging reality, waking itself up. Which, of course, it cannot do. No one wants to wake up. Dreamland is the place to be.
So. The work of the church begins with working to be the church ourselves, working to wake ourselves up, working to bring the church to life in our own personal lives. And that means facing the truth of how it is with us, the truth of how things are in our own lives, the truth of how things really ought to be and the truth of how we feel about that, and what we wish were true instead, and confronting the difference between how we wish things were and how things truly need to be.
We do not often or easily go from the way we wish things were, the way we want things to be, to the way things truly need to be. The easy thing is to assume that things need to be the way we want them to be. But, that’s dreamland. That’s the place from which we are having to wake up. And this is exactly the work to be the church, confronting the difference between the way we wish things were and the way things truly need to be. It is the work of maturation. The work of being a true human being. The work of doing what ought to be done the way it ought to be done whether we want to or not, for the sake of how things ought to be.