Prairie View

Sunday, July 23, 2006

"Church" Defined

Trying to get at the definition of "church" has occupied my thinking a lot this summer. One of the things that has fueled my curiosity has been reading books and listening to recordings from The Teaching Company on Early Christian Reformation History in preparation for teaching a class this fall on Anabaptist History. Another has been having the opportunity to observe several new "churches" taking shape.

Last week I broached the subject with members of my extended family, one of whom is the only ordained man in their small church which is an extension of our larger congregation. Another has a master's degree in religious studies.

I began by announcing that I had concluded that whatever else church was for others, I was happy to be part of a church that functions as an institution. I like having our church leaders to have the authorization to "marry and bury" those who need these services. I appreciate the work of the church's ministries proceeding with some organization and intention. I drink in the good, Scripture-based preaching. I love the melodic and harmonious, spirited congregational singing of a large gathered group. I like that all kinds of people come to church, the parent whose child is still learning to be cooperative, and the elderly person who needs a friend to carry an oxygen tank along between the sanctuary and Sunday school room.

I hear of others who love the informality of a "church" that spends their gathered times praying or sharing testimonies or needs or perhaps studying a Scripture someone has picked out. Others idealize welcoming people of all cultural and ethnic backgrounds without placing any cultural or ethnic burdens on new members or imposing any rules on other Christians. I recognize these things as ideals (or is it merely idealistic and unrealistic?) that would be nice in any church fellowship, but I want more than this in our church. These things are now, to some degree, built-in to our ways of "doing church." We do pray, study Scripture, have a testimony time, share prayer requests, and base our church standards on the teaching of Scripture (with our applications admittedly influenced by our cultural tradition). We welcome anyone to worship with us, even regularly, without pressure to become a member. But we have more. We have some structure to all this.

In our family conversation about church we recalled the teachings of Scripture regarding the church and named several of the word pictures the Bible uses to describe the church. It is like a body, like a building, like a family, and like a marriage. Someone quoted the adage that a church is a hospital--not a museum. We also noted that the first Christians broke bread together, prayed and sang together, helped the needy, preached and listened to preaching.

Since then I remembered how Aquilla and Pricilla (apparently a husband-wife team) took Paul under their wings and instructed him privately from Scripture. The Bereans searched the Scriptures daily. They gathered in a conference at Jerusalem to settle disputed matters. They selected leaders and missionaries from among their own number. They wept when one of their own died. Funds were collected among them to further the spread of the Gospel. The early Christians exchanged letters and sent messages and messengers between congregations and from congregations to isolated Christians. Paul preached in a public forum in the middle of a heathen city. Christians received spiritual gifts from God, sometimes spectacularly--in the case of "tongues" or instantaneous healing. They also were equipped by God to do the more mundane activities of teaching, serving, giving, evangelizing, administering, etc. Baptisms were carried out wherever people came to know the Lord. Those within the church organization who sinned were admonished and disciplined when necessary by the church erecting boundaries that limited their interactions with believers.

In the life of the early church I see a dynamic process underway with a good bit of organizational effort invested to make the activity pure, productive, and purposeful. I see some thought being given to long-term consequences of present policies and actions. I note vigorous interaction with the surrounding culture. I do not see "special purpose" churches, although likely different congregations had slightly different characteristics that grew out of the variety present in human experience. The basis of their unity was comittment to the life-changing Gospel of Jesus Christ.

In our family conversation about the nature of "church," my preacher-brother suggested that it may be helpful to think of the church as an organism. This certainly echoes the Scriptural picture of the church as a body. A healthy body-like organism has a means of growth, defense, and repair. It is not merely acted upon, but it acts--upon itself sometimes, but also beyond itself. Its basic shape is usually stable--no ridiculous or routine contortions needed, although it has some built-in flexibility.

I learned in school that an organism is made up of systems which are made up of organs which are made up of tissues which are made up of cells which are made up of cell parts which are made up of molecules which are made up of atoms which are made up of sub-atomic particles. The complexity is astounding, but simplicity is present also, and the whole is marvelous.

Perhaps the analogy that speaks most directly to my church-definition-hunger right now is to see how nothing happens unless an organism has life. With life, a church organization can be both stable and dynamic. No segment of the organism's being needs to be carved out to showcase separately as being the "jewel" of church characteristics and the sure evidence of stellar quality. The jewels are there certainly, but so are the "tools"--plain perhaps and well-worn, but necessary for the growth, defense, and repair of the living structure. Infused with life at every simple or complex level, the whole is functional and beautiful apart from any signature designs man may be tempted to impose on it. Seen this way, I do not feel a need to reform the church organism I am part of and I am not infatuated with all the variety I see in other groups. The life of Christ is present in our church and (barring death within) the characteristics the organism develops over time will reflect the life of Christ. With this knowledge, I am content.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

The Misplaced Halo

This morning before church I told Hiromi about a group of people we both know, "I think they have a real contempt for any kind of knowledge acquired outside an official educational program."

In retrospect, I think I categorized these people a bit unfairly. What I think the real offense is is an entirely unwarranted reverence for all things official and conventional.

In my view, a self-educated person wears a much brighter halo than the person who has persevered through the longest period of classroom instruction. I say this from the perspective of having endured enough classroom hours to earn a bachelor's degree. The skills I carried away from that experience have to do mostly with acquiring and communicating information.

Ironically though, so far, the subjects I've actually taught in conventional classrooms since college days are in subject areas in which I acquired knowledge and skills almost entirely outside of school. Nutrition and sewing, landscaping and interior decorating are all things I'm passionate about and have taught classes on, but I never had a college class in any of these subject areas. I took typing in high school but never took an accounting class anywhere. Yet I've been called on to teach these classes a number of times. This coming year I'll be teaching Anabaptist History, Child Development, and Composition. Of these, Composition is the only subject area in which I've actually taken post high school classes. Teaching these classes is possible only because I've learned something about how to learn and where to find information. I also have a super-sized dose of curiosity.

I grow flowers and arrange them to sell at a farmer's market. I learned flower arranging by studying books from the library and then doing lots of practicing. The details of growing my own plants from seed I've learned from reference books and seed catalogs.

Health care is a field I'm not even remotely interested in as a personal career choice, but I seldom pass up any information I come across in the media related to this subject. I regularly read publications by Mayo Clinic, as well as magazines and newsletters by various for-profit publishers and organizations.

All this is to say that I can't imagine having missed out on any of the things I've learned outside of school. If these things were suddenly all gone from my experience and memory, the hole left behind would be so much larger than the void would be if my college education were suddenly blanked out that I can't quantify the difference.

I have a deep and abiding respect for all those I know who are truly educated. Only a few of them have acquired their education in school. Because of what I've learned from life and from them, I won't be bowing anytime soon in the direction of the nearest institution of higher learning. And I will pointedly ignore your foolishness if I see you bowing.


I have a mantra I keep repeating when people (my sons especially) "diss" an idea that is new or threatening to them: "Condemnation without investigation is the height of arrogance."

I quote it smugly when they groan about something I've come across in the healthcare field. I repeat it and direct them to a recent article in Time when the subject is the value of family meals. I love to trot it out when I want to try something new in the garden or in the kitchen. A new effort at organization or household efficiency is another good occasion to rehearse the mantra.

Perhaps the mantra notion is catching. Shane chided me with one of his own recently when I expressed my emphatic opinion that "they deserved every bit of it" when a group of young people who knew better were discovered and charged with underage drinking. He said mildly, "Mom, I really think you need to work on being able to form opinions. You seem to have a real problem doing that." I think I probably need to investigate the implications of that comment.