Happy New Year! May 2013 be filled with blessings for you.

Having said that, let me begin this new year with what may seem to be a bit of nit-picking, but something which becomes a distorting factor as we look at the New Testament teachings about the church and its divinely given mission. This may be a bit difficult to articulate, but all too much, in our post-Christiana culture, we are captive to the image of the church as a place … we “go to church,” or we say something happens “at church,” or maybe: “Our church has been on this corner for generations.”

This is so common that most cannot conceive of the church other than as some kind of a sacralized place where we attend church, and where certain church activities take place. But this doesn’t fit what the New Testament teaches. The church may have a place to meet, or the Christian community in a city may be referred to as the church in (say) Ephesus. But the church is not a place. Sound like I’m nit picking? Well, I confess: I am. Because with that general acceptance of the church as place there come other distorting factors, such as church-goers being passive consumers of church activities (which while good, may having nothing to do with the kingdom of God or the mission of God).

The church as place, or as institutional form, is certainly not part of the apostle Paul’s understanding, or explication, which are before us in his writings.

Rather, Paul’s vision is of a veritable and visible Spirit-created new humanity that is created to be the demonstration of the communal formation of the kingdom of God. It can gather anywhere: in a living room, on a seashore, in the park, in a ballroom, in a prison, around a table at the neighborhood pub—in the most unlikely places. It is the versatile and mobile and flexible (and perhaps temporary?) recreation of the human community as God intends it to be.

As such it is a critical and contagious component of the glorious gospel of Christ. Its unmistakable sense of identity is that it is a community in which all are self-consciously aware that they have been rescued out of the dominion of darkness, and translated into the dominion of God’s dear Son.

It is to such a calling that all are are to be equipped in order to walk as children of the Light in the midst of the cultural darkness. Yes, and finally it is against such a communal demonstration of the Light that the Prince of Darkness will focus all of his wiles to render it less than that.

Once the church becomes locked into a place and to institutional form its ineluctable tendency is to become ecclesio-centric rather than Christ-o-centric and thus mission-focused.

The church scattered across the community landscape on Thursday afternoon is where the salt and light have their effect, and thus the church is truly the church when it contagiously incarnates its calling while thus scattered. It gathers occasionally for refreshment, equipping, and mutual encouragement for its engagement in mission in the everyday world.

Got it? Stand by …


About rthenderson

Sixty years a pastor-teacher within the Presbyterian Church. Author of several books, the latest of which are a trilogy on missional ecclesiology: ENCHANTED COMMUNITY: JOURNEY INTO THE MYSTERY OF THE CHURCH, then, REFOUNDING THE CHURCH FROM THE UNDERSIDE, then THE CHURCH AND THE RELENTLESS DARKNESS. Previous to this trilogy was A DOOR OF HOPE: SPIRITUAL CONFLICT IN PASTORAL MINISTRY, and SUBVERSIVE JESUS, RADICAL FAITH. I am a native of West Palm Beach, Florida, a graduate of Davidson College, then of Columbia and Westminster Theological Seminaries.
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