This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Verb Endings.

“The point of church isn’t to get people to come to church….

[It is] to feed them,

so they can go out and, you know, be Jesus.”

Sara Miles

The classic statement of the “Great Ends of the Church” in the Presbyterian Book of Order needs new verbs. The current wording expresses a static, even inertial, inward gazing, complacent, protective institution. It is incompatible with a missional understanding of the church as sent out into the world to do something. The current language reflects a bias against change and an assumption that what we now have is perfect and will last forever if only we don’t mess with it. People only need to hear what we say and watch what we do in order to be saved.

Here they are:

The proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind.”

Is the gospel a purely verbal phenomenon? Is it only proclaimed and announced, or is it also enacted, embodied, and accomplished? Does talking to people save them? Did Jesus merely talk, or did he also heal, exorcize, fast, pray, suffer, die, and rise from the dead? Is the church’s responsibility done when it has delivered verbal statements and pronouncements?

The shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God.”

Is the purpose of the church limited to gathering, feeding, and protecting believers? Is it just a safe harbor in a nasty world, or is it also a launching pad for mission? The church is certainly a gathering, but it is a gathering with the purpose of being sent out.

The maintenance of divine worship.”

We maintain our houses by plugging the roof and cleaning the furnace. We maintain our cars by keeping them in good repair. This wording gives the impression that worship is a static and unchanging set of rubrics and ceremonial actions that we “maintain.” That is, we keep doing the same things, and make sure the same things keep happening. This statement might be used to justify maintaining worship language and forms of previous generations as if they were the measure of faithfulness. There is no sense of adaptation, cooperation, or continual dialogue with either the world or the demands of the gospel. Worship is not maintained like an old clock; it is celebrated, danced, and explored in wonder.

The preservation of the truth.”

Again, is the truth of the gospel something that is a static deposit that we own and that needs our protection so it doesn’t ever change? Do we possess the truth so profoundly that we can preserve it? Is the truth written in stone or captured forever in amber? Does not this statement reflect the arrogance of Uzzah, who thought to preserve and stabilize the Ark of the Covenant (1 Chronicles 13:9-10)? Is it not more accurate to say that the truth of God’s love for the world in Jesus Christ possesses us, and that it preserves us for service? Is not the truth a mystery far larger than the church and beyond the capacity of the human mind to grasp?

The promotion of social righteousness.”

Is it the church’s calling to promote righteousness, or to actually be righteous? Is it to advocate goodness, as if that is our recommendation for someone else, or is it to do good actions? Too much of this smacks of the pompous pronunciamentos the church has been in the habit of generating, telling other people (usually the government) how to be righteous. These might have mattered a little in the days when the church had some social clout. But now they are ridiculous. And since the church itself does not often live up to its own vision of social righteousness, they are hypocritical.

The exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world.”

At least this one has an “ex-” word, indicating some kind of outward focus. But even here, an exhibit is still a fairly controlled and artificial presentation, like a diorama a child might make in 7th grade history. The assumption is that we have something that others need to passively observe and perhaps buy. Do we call on the world to watch us as spectators? We invite people to watch us as if we were an ant farm… do we really want people watching us that closely anyway?

I am sorry to say it but these “great ends” are just that: the end, as in termination and extinction, of the church. They depict a church that is in the process of imploding within its hermetically sealed protective container. Nothing escapes but a few words, words that are increasingly unintelligible to the rest of the world.

How about:

o The active living of the gospel for the liberation of humankind.

o The healing, empowering, and spiritual formation of the children of God.

o The exploration and celebration of God in worship.

o Standing in humility and awe before the great mystery of the truth of God’s love for the world in Jesus Christ.

o Seeking to follow Jesus Christ in our life together.

o Reflecting, expressing, embodying, anticipating, and activating the commonwealth of God in the world.

1 comment:

John Edward Harris said...

I do not disagree with anything your point, but I guess that I, a progressive Presbyterian, have always read and interpreted the great ends to communicate the same idea you have presented. I realize that others can be more concrete and might be unable to re-imagine the Great Ends as we have re-imagined them, so perhaps a more post-modern and fissional rendering is indeed called for. I think your ideas are not only worth exploring in a sermon or six, but perhaps in a short book.