Pastors and church leaders, as a result of the global pandemic, have an opportunity to rethink and reimagine what the church will look like moving forward. I offer three principles to guide our conversations about the church.
In Part 1 I looked at Simon Chan’s Liturgical Theology and 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, we need to have a good understanding of what the church is; the people of God, the body of Christ.
This brought us to Part 2 where I looked at Karl Barth’s Dogmatics in Outline and the second principle: the church exists in the world for the world. We do not exist as a community for ourselves. We need to be Christ made visible to the world. Most churches would express some desire or mission to share the love of Christ with the world, but the question is, what does that look like?
Part 3: Abstract Love
This brings us to the final book on this short tour; The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky. There is a particular moment that has stuck with me. Prince Myshkin, the main character, is reading letters written by Nastasya Filippovna, the female protagonist. Theirs is a bewildering relationship. Think classic on again/off again, but far more destructive.
In one of the letters Nastasya asks, “Can one love everyone, all men, all one’s neighbours? I have often asked myself that question. Of course not. It’s unnatural indeed. In abstract love for humanity one almost always loves no one but oneself.”¹ Let me expound upon why this quote is so powerful to me.
A popular slogan summarizing the mission of the church is ‘Love God, Love People.’ I know that I have used this phrase before. It comes from the Gospels where the pharisees ask Jesus which is the greatest commandment? Jesus answers to love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and to love your neighbour as yourself (Mark 12:28–34: Matt 22:34–40; cf Luke 10:25–28).
‘Love God, Love People’ is a nice, clean summary of this passage. But after coming across this line from Dostoevsky I wonder if ‘love people’ is too vague and abstract. There are billions of people in the world. It is impossible to love billions of people in individual, practical, and concrete ways. Therefore, is it possible that a mission to love people is simply self-serving? That it makes us feel better about ourselves without actually making any tangible difference? That by loving all people vaguely, we are only ever meeting our own needs? In abstract love for humanity we will end up loving no one but ourself.
I suggest we change one word in the slogan: ‘Love God, Love Neighbour.’ This might not sound too different but I think it clarifies how we are to understand Jesus’ message, not to mention it better represents the language of the biblical text. Neighbour is concrete. When we think of neighbour we think of concrete people in our world. If the church resolves to love our neighbour we can do this in concrete ways. We can form real relationship with real people. We can meet specific needs, whether spiritual, physical, or emotional. We can be the love of Christ in specific and concrete ways.
It is correct to say that the whole world is our neighbour. We are to be Christ’s witnesses to the ends of the earth. But Dostoevsky has challenged me in the way I think about this love. The third principle to guide our discussions about the church is that the church is called to love its neighbour. We need to recognize and admit when we talk of an abstract love for all people, for the whole world. Instead, we need to talk about concrete ways to love our neighbour.
These are three initial reflections as I begin to think about deeper questions of ecclesiology and the future of the church. As we rethink and reimagine what the church will look like, our discussions should be guided by three principles. First, we need to start by thinking about the church ontologically; what it is, not just what it does. It is the body of Christ. It is the community of people who have confessed their belief in God and who are in covenant relationship with him. Second, the church does not exist for its own purposes. It exists in the world for the world. It is to live out its confessed faith in order to make Christ visible to the world. Third, this requires not an abstract love of all people, but a concrete love of neighbour. Otherwise the church may end up loving no one but itself.
How about you? How are you approaching questions about church? What are you reading that is helping you theologically navigate the future of the church? Share your thoughts and favourite resources in the comments below.