Advice to Churches, Part 4: Live in Tension

The local Church is the Hope of the world 1.

I hear this phrase uttered in churchy settings from time to time, mostly by pastors who came of age in the height of the “seeker sensitive” movement in the 80’s and 90’s. Every time I hear it I cringe. Not only is this message wrong, because Christianity understands Jesus is the hope of the world, but the second half of the quote is ripe for all sorts of problems, “…and its future rests primarily in the hands of its leaders.” Again, the future of the Church is not in the hands of its leaders 2. The future of the Church is in the hands of her Lord, and in a more secure place it could not be.

Church institutions, on the other hand, are a different story. Human constructs, which is what our institutions happen to be, are often dependent on their leaders to function, grow, and move forward. I don’t have a problem with accepting the difference between the Church of Jesus Christ and church institutions as a reality. In fact, serve a two church institutions in my vocational work and am quite pleased to do so. Human beings create institutions to pass on customs, information, and shared expectations. They are an inevitable aspect of human life. At the same time, I think we’d be served well by regaining the theological tension between the Church visible 3 and the Church invisible 4.

In practical terms, such theological tension would lead church institutions to drop any assumptions they have about being “God’s people,” and instead delve into an introspective reflection on how they may or may not be aligned with the actual hope of the world 5 This directs our church institutions to see themselves in a subordinate, rather than a ruling, posture. The institution doesn’t exist to promote itself, but to be in service to a Lord who has a much larger story in mind.

But herein lies the tension. If a church institution is to exist so it can be in service to the Lord of the Church, if it is to function as a vehicle for the mission of Jesus Christ, it must be maintained. And yet, maintaining these institutions must never become an all-encompassing endeavor. Maintenance must always be oriented to the mission of the Church Invisible. When it is not, the structures we’ve created lose their purpose and begin to crumble. Balancing ourselves between the call of the mission and the maintenance of an institution to support that mission is painful, it is often frustrating, but it is also necessary. Without institutional support the stories of both faithfulness and failure from the past would be lost to us, leaving us to reinvent the faith from scratch with every successive generation 6. Without a focus on the Lord of the Church an institution becomes purposefulness, existing only for its own existence. When the tension between the two is strongest, then it’s possible to create bridges between the call of what is cosmically true, and what is humanly real. Then a church institution becomes the vehicle of the Church, which is the chosen body for her Lord. This is a good place to be.

  1. An oft-quoted line from Bill Hybels 
  2. This often means, in this mind-set, male pastors. 
  3. Our institutions. 
  4. What Jesus recognizes as his body. 
  5. Jesus. Sometimes the Sunday School answer works out just fine. 
  6. People might say we should do this anyway. I disagree, but I’m a lover of history so such a notion makes me cringe. Church institutions should always contextualize themselves, but this isn’t a re-invention. Those who claim it is do so only the certain assumptions which have been passed down through the institution of the church – the canon of Scripture, theological language, and the general order and actions done in worship all pass to us through institutional means. This is a good thing.