Friday, August 25, 2006

Where is the Church?

The Church, theologically, is not the same as the sum of people who are Christians. This is something agreed on by most. But how do we "locate" the Church without getting caught in some symbol-game, throwing around terms as "body of Christ", "Kingdom of God" and "People of God" without any obvious contact with that particular group of people? I will no return to this fundamental question of ecclesiology.

A person belongs to the Church if he or she participates in the life of the Church. This means that the person believes that the life of the Church is fundamentally significant for his or her own identity, as I said in an earlier post. There I used the formula "biblical narrative, sacraments and worship" in an attempt to be as inclusive as possible. Personally I am no sure that a congregation that focuses on the preaching of the Word of God can be equated with a congregation that focuses on the sacraments or on worship (clearly all three are present more or less in all Christian churches, with the exception of the sacraments, which is a real problem no matter how cool the Quakers generally are.) Personally I feel the Sacraments are the best way to preach the Word of God and worship. While focus on the Sacraments naturally includes (or should include) the Word of God and worship, this cannot be said about a service focused on the Word of God or worship. In such traditions the sacramental aspect is reduced.

That said, the Church is more that a "thing" where people preach, celebrate the Eucharist and sing hymns. And this is the heart of the problem: It is not these outer signs that constitutes the Church, but what they signify. This means that although the Church can be said to always be present where people meet to hear the Word of God, participate in the celebration of the sacraments and worship, this is not the only place where the Church is present. Because the true mark of the Church is the content of Word, Sacraments and Worship, the Gospel, the Church is present wherever the Gospel is interacting with people.

The Gospel is not something that can be easily put into words. I have tried to do so in this blog. A person that encounters the Gospel becomes more secure in his or her identity, overcomes fear and finds meaning in life. This is just one expression of the Gospel, there are other that are as valid or more so. The point is that the Gospel is bigger than any religious ideas about life. We have to believe that God with the gospel genuinely want to help people with their lives, not primarily turn them into Christians. This means that wherever people find themselves, security and meaning, there the gospel, and thus the Church is present. It may be in any organisation or institution, or in a group of close friends or in solitude reading a book or watching nature. The Church may be present anywhere, also in other religions than Christianity.

And obviously, there are many houses that says "Church" on the door where the church is seldom present, because the gospel has bee forgotten. Here again I think a sacrament-centred service is harder to "destroy" than another form of service.

2 comments:

WTM said...

Patrik,

As I have said before, I am very much enjoying this series. Here is how I would go about defining the Church. I offer it not in contradiction to your own suggestions, but as a complement to them.

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The Church is a creature of the Word. It is that social institution which called forth out of the encounter with the viva vox Dei, the Gospel, Jesus Christ. It is comprised of all those who, through the power of the Spirit, have recognized the truth that, in Christ, they are elect as God’s covenant partners, and who have taken up lives of covenant partnership with God. It is recognized by the characteristic acts of covenant partnership, namely, the proclamation of the Gospel through Word and Sacrament, inextricably linked and constitutive of true worship.

byron said...

A person that encounters the Gospel becomes more secure in his or her identity, overcomes fear and finds meaning in life.
I agree, though not necessarily straightforwardly. It seems that in the Gospels, an encounter with Jesus sometimes did lead to fear and/or to an initial disintegration of meaning and identity. Though these responses are followed by further movements, the deconstruction of false lives and selfish coherence can and often is an initial response to the genuine gospel of Jesus' transforming rule.

And that is why I feel very hesitant about reversing the equation as you go on to do: This means that wherever people find themselves, security and meaning, there the gospel, and thus the Church is present.