Idea and Ideal
I know that many, if not most, Christians have become disillusioned with the church. As Katie Galli once noted about her fellow twentysomethings, “We’re disillusioned about almost everything – government, war, the economy.... We’re especially disillusioned with the church. Somewhere between the Crusades, the Inquisition, and fundamentalists bombing abortion clinics, we lost our appetite for institutionalized Christianity.”
But it is an institution, and needs to be.
And while “the church can indeed be bureaucratic, inefficient, and, at times, hopelessly outdated,” Galli wisely adds, “it has also given us a 2,000-year legacy of saints and social reformers, and a rich liturgy and theology – the very gift twentysomethings need to grow into the full stature of Christ.” But this is far from a generational challenge.
Baby boomer Philip Yancey writes of his estrangement from the church, noting how the hypocrisy of the members and the cultural irrelevance of its experience kept him away for years.
Why did he return?
“Christianity is not a purely intellectual, internal faith. It can only be lived in community.”
Ironically, the real dilemma facing the church is not the church itself but the staggering power of the biblical vision for the church. Christ’s dream for the church is so strong, so compelling, so vibrant that the pale manifestations on the corners of Elm and Vine can breed disdain. As Sarah Cunningham writes, “I have been and continue to be frustrated when Christian religious systems seem to fall short of the community God intended his followers to experience. However, my belief in the ideal of church – in God’s design for those who align themselves with him – is uncompromised.” But the telling statement comes later when she owns the rampant idealism that pervades her generation’s approach to all of life: “It’s no surprise, then, that twentysomethings tend to apply these same idealistic ideas to a search for the perfect church. When we don’t find perfection, we can start to get a bit antsy.”
Any ideal can act in two ways: (1) it can drive you toward its fulfillment, or (2) it can drive you away from its pursuit entirely in disappointment. Sadly, many are choosing to leave the vision in disappointment. They remain loyal to the idea of church but not its practice, citing the chasm between the vision and the reality as their rationale.
But this is precisely what must not happen.
Theologian Jurgen Moltmann reminds us that the church does not have a mission; rather, the mission has us. And it is the mission of Christ that creates the church. God has sent Himself, and He now sends us. This is the missio dei, the “sending of God.” Or as Christopher J.H. Wright contends, our mission “means our committed participation as God’s people, at God’s invitation and command, in God’s own mission within the history of God’s world for the redemption of God’s creation.”
So to engage the mission of God is to engage His church; they are inextricably intertwined.
James Emery White
Adapted from James Emery White, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated (Baker).
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is now available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit www.churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.