With the global pandemic affecting all of us, the church has been forced into a situation where it cannot continue on as it was. Pastors and church leaders have an opportunity to rethink and reimagine what the church will look like moving forward. To those ends I offer three principles to guide our conversations about the church.
In Part 1 I looked at Simon Chan’s Liturgical Theology and at the first principle: we need to define the church ontologically–by what it is–and not functionally–what it does. Before we figure out all the details of what we are going to do, and how we are going to do it, we need to prioritize defining what the church is; the people of God, the body of Christ. But how do we keep ourselves from thinking of the church simply as a community of people with similar beliefs, existing for itself? Let us continue our book tour.
Part 2: In The World For The World
There is a strong connection between Chan’s argument about the pre-existence of the church and what I am currently reading in Karl Barth’s Dogmatics In Outline. This is my first introduction to any of Barth’s writing, and I am, understandably, taking my time with it. The book captures a series of lectures he gave framed around the Apostles’ Creed. It can also be viewed a meagre summary of his multi-volume Church Dogmatics.
Like Chan, Barth stresses the idea that God created the world in order to have relationship with us, whom he created. Covenant relationship between God and humanity is the reason for creation.
As I mentioned, the book is framed around the Apostles’ Creed, which Barth describes as the Christian confession of faith. It is those who confess belief in the contents of the Creed who are the church. This is important for Barth who argues that a true confession of Christian faith needs to be spoken publicly and in the language of the Old and New Testaments and the Creed. We cannot say in vague terms that we believe in some god. To be part of the church we need to confess with the Creed that we believe in the Father, in the Son, and in the Holy Spirit. This is how we know if we are part of the church.
The main point in all of this, however, is that the church does not exist only for itself. This confession, rooted in particular and historic language, must then be translated into the language of the world outside of this community. The light of Christian faith is not meant to be placed underneath the bowl of the church. Instead, Barth proclaims that “where Christian faith exists, there God’s congregation arises and lives in the world for the world…not for its own purposes, but as the manifestation of the Servant of God, whom God has set there for all men, as the Body of Christ.”¹
If we understand the church ontologically, by it being the people of God or the body of Christ, then we must also recognize that it exists in the world for the world. It exists as the manifestation of the “Servant of God in the world.” The church is to be Christ visible in the world. We see this in Chan’s summary of the primary mission of the church; it is to be itself “which is to be ‘Christ’ for the world.”²
Barth takes this further. Our Christian faith, which is spoken of in the language of the Creed, and needs to be translated to the world around us, must also be lived through “corresponding actions and attitudes.”³ Echoing the Apostle Paul, Barth asks, “what would it avail a man, if he should speak and confess in most powerful language, and had not love? Confession means a living confession.”³ Being the church means we are called to live our confession.
This is the second principle to guide our discussions about the church. The church exists in the world for the world. We cannot get caught up in simply being a community separate from the world, with particular and often contrary beliefs to those the world holds. We need to be able to translate who we are to the world around us. We are called to be Christ visible to the world around us. The church is the love of Christ in the world for the world.
But some level of sharing the love of Christ is found in most church mission statements. The question is, what does that look like? Part 3 is the final stop on our book tour.
¹ Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline (New York: IVP Harper Torchbooks, 1959), 29.
² Simon Chan, Liturgical Theology: The Church as Worshiping Community (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2006), 40.
³ Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline (New York: IVP Harper Torchbooks, 1959), 34.