Friday, November 25, 2011

Are Christian Groups and Organizations Churches?

In the current issue of catapult, the online journal of *cino, editor Kirstin Vander Giessen-Reitsma offers a thoughtful commentary on the relationship of *cino to the church. To her comments, I would like to add my own:

I think part of the difficulty in understanding what church is and what it isn’t and what it does and what it doesn’t do comes from the tendency of Christians to confuse two things. I don’t think *cino is doing that, but I think it's helpful to make some clear distinctions.

First, believers often don’t distinguish on the one hand between the church as a whole (ie the organic church or the Body of Christ) and on the other hand the institutional church. I presume most readers of catapult are Christians. As such they are members of the Body of Christ or the church universal. In that sense, *cino and catapult are part of the church because they are expressions of the work of the Body of Christ and serve His people. However, many of these same Christians attend “church.” Used in this way, this term refers to the institutional church, the structure in which local congregations exist and provide a place where Christians gather to worship and be fed through the preaching of the Word and the celebratio of the sacraments. So Christians working together (and separately) are always doing the work of the church while they also form local, regional, and national organizations that constitute the institutional church

The second difficulty comes because when Christians gather in these various ‘non-church” institutions but run by Christians and for Christians, those institutions begin to serve church (institutional)-like functions, where folks gather for Bible study, prayer time, etc. In parallel to that, many institutional churches or congregations become passionate about certain Kingdom needs and develop ministries such as schools, day care, meeting the needs of the hungry, and so forth. In both cases they blur the lines between these different institutions and confuse the work of each.

I would argue that the church universal would be well served if the institutional church would stay focused on the immediate task of providing a place for public worship and equipping Christians to serve the Kingdom through the preaching of the Word and the faithful celebration of the sacraments and, perhaps, Sunday-school-like training for children and adults alike. At the same time, those in a local church body who see a need such as developing a Christian political organization, creating a shelter for battered women, and so forth, should establish separate Christian institutions with the sole purpose of meeting those needs.

*Cino does this well, I think, in creating a structure, as Vander Giessen-Reitsma puts it, “to feed the hunger for robust, intellectual, artistic faith practice.” What the church universal needs, then, are more congregations who have a broad Kingdom vision to train, support, and encourage the faithful in Kingdom service without undertaking too much work that is not immediately the task of the institutional church but without, on the other side, becoming narrowly pietistic in their outlook just because these congregations don’t take direct responsibility for the various activities local church members are involved in. Meanwhile, Christians should actively participate in institutions established to advance the God's Kingdom in all areas of life and human experience.


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