“Are we trying to retrieve the church or are we attempting to become the church?”¹
This provocative question came up in a book I read last year. While the rest of the book failed to leave a lasting impression, this question has been a catalyst for much thought and reflection.
The question, as posed, offers two perspectives on the changing of church over time. The first perspective is that the church will inevitably drift from what it is supposed to be, resulting in church leaders needing to work hard at understanding and retrieving the church’s original design. The second perspective is that in order for the church to become what it is supposed to be, it requires growing and changing. Today’s church leaders are better equipped with greater theological knowledge than leaders from the past, and can use this understanding to help develop the church into how God designed it to be.
Both of these options are a bit limiting. Ultimately, I think we need to expand our relationship to the past and to the future.
Our Relationship To The Past
I think that if Pentecostals were forced to pick one of the two options, most would believe the first perspective, that we need to retrieve the church of the past. We see our story as rooted in Acts 2, where the Spirit is poured out on the disciples, Peter preaches with power, turning many to Christ, and this new church community is described as “continually devoting themselves to the apostle’s teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayer” (Acts 2:42). We find our story in historical movements such as the Reformation, the Wesleyan movement, and the modern day outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the early 20th century. Each of these movements attempted to reform the church in some way by retrieving something important from the early church. Whether it was the priesthood of all believers, access to the scriptures in the common language, or the use of the gifts of the Spirit, we have seen ourselves as returning the church to its original design.
But here’s the thing. The past is not the gold standard. No historical period of the church represents the perfect or pure design of what the church should be. If we argue that it was it the Acts 2 church, then why did this church community hold councils in the years that followed (Acts 15), debating issues and making decisions that changed the future of the church? If we argue that it was the Acts 15 church, then why are the New Testament letters full of issues in the church that needed to be addressed?
No historical period of the church represents the perfect or pure design of what the church should be.
Within the Pentecostal movement today we have a tendency to look back at “the good old days” and lament what we have lost. Pentecostal and evangelical circles mourn the loss of a christian society (if that was ever a thing), or the loss of the church’s place within society. We often look at the past with nostalgia. However, nostalgia can lead us to forget or disregard serious issues during the time period we are so fondly remembering. When we look at the past as ideal we can too easily glance over major issues and injustices, such as women not being able to be ordained.
The point is, we cannot look at the past as being binary–good or bad. We cannot idealize certain time periods of the church and ignore the issues that were present. Instead, we need to have room to address both the good and bad, even admitting to times where the church has been wrong. The truth is that the church, even the Pentecostal church, has been wrong in the past.
Although we cannot hold the past as the gold standard, and we need to recognize and admit where we have been wrong, there is still a lot that we can learn from the past. There are valuable insights to be found in the teachings of the early church and the church fathers, throughout all of church history, and even in our modern day pentecostal movement. These insights are not about the perfect way to be a christian and do church, but they are helpful practices from other Christians like us that can help refresh the way we walk out our faith. When learning from the past, we need to distinguish between what is beneficial and problematic. We need to discover how the historical teaching can be better implemented in the life of the church moving forward.
Our Relationship To The Future
Let’s come back to the question at hand, “Are we trying to retrieve the church or are we attempting to become the church?” If Pentecostals were forced to pick one of the two options, I think some would have a difficult time saying that we are becoming the church. The concept of “becoming” seems to signify that the past is incomplete. That new methods and practices are better. There can be an arrogance associated with preferring new methods over old traditions.
To say that we are becoming the church also signifies that we need to change what we have been. And change can be uncomfortable, even wearisome. Change can provoke fear over what we will lose. There is uncertainty of what lies ahead. This is understandable because our faith is founded in the historical person of Jesus Christ. If we start making changes, what will stop us from changing the very foundation of our faith?
I’ve heard pastors approach changes in society with fear, saying that the church has lost its power and influence. They speak negatively about today’s culture, society, and the church. But approaching the future with fear is not a Kingdom perspective–a perspective that focuses on the Kingdom of God, where the oppressed walk free, the blind see, and Jesus reigns over a redeemed creation. Fear focusses on not losing the “good old days” but a Kingdom perspective is concerned with enacting God’s Kingdom here on earth. For instance, a pastor may be afraid of the church losing charitable status saying, “Without tithe money coming in, how are we supposed to do church?” This isn’t a Kingdom perspective question. It is a fearful response to future changes imposed on our historic practices.
Fear is an unhealthy place from which to lead the church. Fear does not promote life and growth. Rather, it immobilizes us, narrows our perspective, and makes us resistant to change. In fear, we feel the need to protect what we have and are unable to see what can be gained. But, fear of losing our practices is the wrong reason to hold on to them.
Fear of losing our practices is the wrong reason to hold on to them.
Instead, we need lead from a Kingdom perspective. We focus on proclaiming the coming of God’s Kingdom, and testifying that the Spirit is at work in us. We affirm that the Spirit is leading us into becoming more like Jesus, and more like what the church is supposed to be. We lead into the future praying, “Your Kingdom come, Your will be done, here on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). We trust that God will give us opportunities to bring about his Kingdom, even in small ways, as we follow after him.
I’d argue that, because of our eschatological hope–that Jesus is coming again–we can say with confidence that we are becoming the church. After all, Jesus’ return is central to our movement. For early Pentecostals, the pouring out of the Spirit was a sign that they were living in the last days. Their focus was not on the Holy Spirit alone, but on being empowered by the Holy Spirit to share the good news of salvation in Christ and the hope that Jesus was coming soon. The Spirit is being poured out because the Kingdom of God is near.
Let’s come back to the possibility of churches losing their charitable status in the future. I have a friend on staff at a large church–one with a big building full of expensive technology and other cool stuff. And over breakfast he shared with excitement about this possibility of the church losing its charitable status. Now it is likely that this change would lead to a decline in tithes coming in to the church. So why was my friend excited about a future where churches will not be able to afford big buildings and cool, expensive technology? Because he is not trying to hold on to the past. And he is not afraid of the future. He sees the future as a great opportunity for the church to grow in its understanding of what it means to be a disciple of Christ. He thinks it will force us to figure out the core of our faith and practice.
In a way, embracing the future of the church will lead to a renewal of historic teachings on what it means to be a Christ follower. We will look to Acts 2 and the New testament letters, and to church history to find voices that will help guide is in our faith journey. But The goal will not be to return to a golden age. We will use the past to help chart a path forward and help us become the church God intends. Likewise, we need to approach the future with humility knowing that we will get some things wrong. But we move ahead, trusting that God is leading us.
This question has prompted a lot of reflection for me over the last few months. But ultimately, I think it’s the wrong question to ask because the answer is not one or the other. I would rather ask, “What do we need to retrieve from church history in order to become the church that God desires us to be as we follow the Spirit’s leading and anticipate Christ’s return to reign over the Kingdom of God?”
There are lessons from the past that will help us navigate our future. We can root ourselves in a historic faith while striving to bring about God’s Kingdom in our changing world. We can find ourselves in the “communion of saints”² while setting up future generations of Christians to go further than we have gone. Knowing where we have come from will help give us confidence in where we are going. But we need to continue to grow closer to how God wants us to live as the church. That very well may mean addressing our past with humility and honesty, and charting a path forward. For some help on how to navigate those difficult conversations, please read through this blog series on Navigating Through Doctrinal Changes from Dr. Peter Neumann. It is truly excellent.
Our hope should never be placed in reviving what once was. Our hope is in the future coming of King Jesus. And it is in that future reign that creation will be restored, all things will be made new, and we will fully become the church.
I come back to the question that provoked this blog post: “Are we trying to retrieve the church or are we attempting to become the church?” If you had to answer, how would you go about it?