"Let life enchant you again." - Fernando Gros
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Blog // Thoughts
May 23, 2008

Further Thoughts On Being (Or Trying Not To Be) Post-Congregational

Last month’s topic of Post-Congregationalism attracted an unusually large number of comments and some really great questions. If you haven’t done so already, I’d encourage you to take a look at the discussion in the comments section of that blogpost. One issue that came up again and again was what we could call the risks […]

Last month’s topic of Post-Congregationalism attracted an unusually large number of comments and some really great questions. If you haven’t done so already, I’d encourage you to take a look at the discussion in the comments section of that blogpost.

One issue that came up again and again was what we could call the risks of turning away from churchgoing. Does a lack of Christian community mean we risk our faith becoming too personal and individualised, does it mean we lose a sense of accountability, does the danger even go so far as to imperil the foundations of our faith? It’s a tension at work in the NakedPastor’s post, Flee to the Desert (HT to Linz for the link)

“…When, oh when, will we ever ever realize that all we are doing with all of our ideas, visions, agendas, revolutions and reforms is tweaking that which imprisons us? We are the captains of modification…

I don’t know how to do this. I don’t know how we, as friends of faith, can gather together without the complications of structure, institution, government, mores, politics, laws, hierarchy, expectations, agendas and goals interfering with community. I don’t know how we can stop church from obstructing fellowship. I don’t know how we can stop religion from murdering humanity. It’s almost like our marriage is getting in the way of our love. Can it be done? I have to believe it can and must be done. Otherwise, the demons have won.”

These are important issues to me. I’m not convinced we can truly flourish as believers outside of community and accountability. Moreover, I believe there are important lessons to be learned from being coupled to folks who don’t share every aspect of our outlook or lifestyle. This is something that is essential to the kind of ecclesiological cosmopolitanism I’ve always advocated and essential to having a deep sense of how God communicates with us in the world.

But, if I’m going to be true to that same theological vision that I’ve advocated in past years, then there is an essential component that also needs to be voiced. The sense of a creative, critical and intellectual community of faith that gives room for people to flourish in diverse ways. I was reminded of this vision when reading Frank Rees summary of Karl Barth’s words on the church as a theological community.

“In Karl Barth’s introductory work on theology, Evangelical Theology: an introduction, there is a chapter on community which very clearly identifies both the need of a community of reference, to guide theological work and the need to be critical of that guide. Barth sees the task of theology as a quest for truth. But this truth includes more than asking such questions as whether God exist. More powerfully, the theological task is the task of the whole Christian community, asking itself whether it has rightly understood the heritage or tradition it has received (such as its biblical interpretations and its creedal formulations). Have we got it right?

More still, the task also includes asking whether we are truthfully engaging with this heritage, in our own time. We can think we are being true to the past, but if we are not true to the present, we are not in fact honouring that past, but making it into a museum, in which we hope to live.
So Barth says that a faith community needs to be a theological community, a community constantly in search of truth, in all these forms.”

Frank goes on to quote Barth from Evangelical Theology,

“A community that is awake and conscious of its commission and task in the world will of necessity be a theologically interested community. This holds true in still greater measure for those members of the community who are specially commissioned.”

Mission-oriented and theologically interested feels like a great way to define not just what it means to be evangelical, but also what I look for in a church and would encourage others to look for as well. From Frank’s words I sense a few key points and questions that not only exegete this idea, but might also provide a guide for thinking about this problematic of post-congregationalism.

1. It’s actually pretty hard to find an inspiring local church. Maybe we should be more honest about that? In fact, maybe that should be the prolegomena to all our discussions about this issue? Do our churches really speak about this issue honestly?

2. Christian community connects us with the past and future of God’s activity in the world. Ecclesiology should open us up to a more historical understanding of ourselves. It’s not just that we learn about history, but that we locate ourselves in that history.

3. Theology is a fundamentally critical and hermeneutical task, interpreting our interpretation of the Christian Message. Do our churches really encourage us to be critical of our own understanding and doctrine?

4. The church exists to help us question our interpretations, it is a forum for question, it is a framework for theological inquiry. Do we handle criticism well? Do we train pastors for this kind of role? Do we actively dismantle structures that make it hard for people to question, critique, evaluate and interpret within our churches. Does this questioning framework shape our understanding of what Christian education is?

5. To what extent should we expect the local church to be a source for intellectual and spiritual inspiration? Where do the resources for all this come from? How is it funded? Can we do it with tiny local structures or to what extent do we need bigger structures to fulfil the task. Does it make sense to sequester all the skills in a small number of churches?

6. Perhaps a community that does not ask “have we got it right” is not a church? Is certainty an idol in evangelical contexts?

7. Maybe mission is theology and theology is mission? Or, maybe it isn’t? Have we in recent years placed too much emphasis on mission and on being practical to the exclusion of asking more searching theological questions about our ecclesiology. IS our mission-mindedness making our churches less fulfilling as a consequence?

I realise this is more questions than answers, more problems than solutions.

[tags] Ecclesiology, Missiology, Post-Congregational [/tags]

Matt Stone 16 years ago

Fernando, good set of questions there. I certainly found that some of the expectations that have been created about contextualized churches proved harmful for myself and this was partially behind my abandonment of the “homogenous unit principle” a little while back. As a general comment I would say, no, people like us need more than church, but we don’t need less than it.

Matt Stone 16 years ago

PS I have changed the name of my blog so you might what to change the reference in your side bar.

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