2010 - Vol. 41.
and the Nature of the Church
Well, I certainly feel like a lightweight defending a heavyweight title!
I am not a church structure expert (ecclesiologist), nor am I an ordained
pastor or priest. My professional training has been in engineering, but
I do have 35 years of community-building experience which includes my membership
in the People of God community in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA.
Over the years, I have received a lot of training in support of this
work. That experience and training notwithstanding, I believe that every
layman has some credible right to comment on the state of things based
on his church membership and on the full responsibility of that membership.
As study after study shows a decline of the influence of the church in
people’s lives and decisions, it is clear that we need more than just a
small set of experts to give input into the nature and expressions of church.
I find it at least mildly encouraging that Jesus chose his apostles
from among those who were least qualified to be built into the foundation
of his church, which is now in its third millennium. In light of scripture,
we all need to question; we all need to contribute; we all need to take
a concern for the life of the church. Hopefully, this effort will be a
A “growth plate” is a section or location in a bone from which all
future growth and development takes place. If it is removed or seriously
damaged when you’re young, it can freeze or inhibit further development
of the size (length and thickness) of that bone. In the New Testament there
are several scripture verses which are like these growth plates: sources
of life for Christian life and its renewal.
One such scriptural growth plate is John 3:16:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that
whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
In such a short statement, we can learn a number of key things: 1) God
loves the world; 2) He sent His Son Jesus; 3) we need to believe in Jesus
to have life; 4) life is everlasting (not confined to this earth); and
5) He saves us from perishing, death, and hell. This verse is seen as seminal
Another such growth plate is John 3:3:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot
see the kingdom of God.”
These two scriptures could be said to be the wellspring of the evangelical
movement. Indeed, they could be said to be the wellspring of Christianity.
The Great Commandments
Another New Testament growth plate is in Matthew 22; it presupposes
the two already mentioned.
“But when the Pharisees heard that he (Jesus) had silenced the Sadducees,
they came together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question
to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” And
he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,
and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great
and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor
as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.
Again, there is much to be learned from these verses: 1) the Lord is
after your heart; 2) the Lord is after your mind; 3) the Lord is after
your soul; 4) He can be loved by us at all three of those levels; 5) the
second is “like it”, which could mean that you could love your neighbor
with your heart, mind, and/or soul; 6) these are commandments and therefore
demand a response; and 7) “on these two depend all the law and the prophets.”
(Not to be taken lightly; much of the Old Testament is summarized here).
I have always been struck by number seven above: “ALL the law and the
prophets.” I believe Jesus is saying that all of the Old Testament is summed
up in these two commandments. At the transfiguration (Matthew 17), we know
that Moses and Elijah appeared with Jesus. Moses represents the law and
Elijah represents the prophets. Moses and Elijah together represent the
Old Testament. Jesus completes this picture as being the full manifestation
of the law and the prophets. It is He who gets the Father’s attention.
The Father says, “This is my beloved son with whom I am well pleased.
Listen to him.” And what does Jesus say? “Love God...love your neighbor...on
these two...depend all...” So Moses represents the law, Elijah the prophets,
and Jesus the commandments of love.
Finally, these two are summaries of the two tables of the Ten Commandments.
The first table (Commandments 1-3 in the Catholic tradition) has to do
with how we love God; the second table (Commandments 7-10) has to do with
how we love our brothers and sisters.
Christianity, at its core, is relational: love of God and love of neighbor.
These two bring light and standards to all of the Old Testament, all of
the New Testament, the Christian life, and the Christian churches. Virtually
every direction and teaching of the New Testament is a reflection of our
love of God and love of neighbor.
Christianity is doctrinal, institutional, ceremonial, etc., but at its
core it is relational: the Lord and his bride.
Jesus said, “the second commandment is like the first” so church can’t
be just worship, it can’t be just ceremony, and it can’t be just vertical
(the first commandment). It must also be horizontal (the second commandment).
As modern church life becomes increasingly de-personalized or more of a
“me and Jesus” experience, a progressive draining of the church’s life
and heart is happening. So a community that worships God is the nature
of church. Not just a worshiping community, but a community that is relational
by intention: a community that worships God together. One pastor declared
that much of modern church experience is fellowshipping with the back of
the head of the “brother” in the pew ahead of you!
“What ever happened
Many years ago, I read an article by a Catholic bishop, “Whatever happened
to Agnes?” He wrote about a personal experience that rattled him a bit.
He was fully aware of his church’s new emphasis on community, and he assumed
that the closest thing to that was the collection of folks who attended
daily morning liturgy together: a small group who saw each other each morning
at Mass. One day he noticed that one of the women was missing, and had
been for several days. After a few more days, he began to ask the others.
Some didn’t know her name. He eventually found out that she had become
ill, was hospitalized and was now recuperating. He summarized his experience
by questioning our understanding, our reality of community. He was clearly
disappointed. He recognized that something was wrong; something was missing.
He did not offer a solution. I would say that his worshipping community
was not a community; it was a set of people who worshipped together but
lived separate lives and separate ways of life. Any one of them might move
to the other side of the state (perhaps unnoticed) and slip into a similar
group (perhaps unnoticed).
Who gets to move
Another story that gets at the relational side of Christian community
is that of Heather. The People of God is an ecumenical community and we
have members from several denominations. Heather was a member of one of
the area’s “mega-churches.” For a number of personal reasons (courtship,
etc.) she decided to move out of one of the community “clusters” (neighborhoods)
to another part of town, closer to her church, and to leave our community.
When she moved, on her last day in the People of God, it was community
brothers and sisters who carried the furniture, and helped to clean and
prepare the old and new apartments.
This is not meant to be a criticism or observation about a particular
local church as much as it is meant to be a call to the broader Christian
church: we don’t know how to love each other within the church. We leave
to families the needs which are increasingly unmet at the family level.
Churches usually are not organized into small groupings that promote relationships;
and in some churches that do have small group structures, they tend to
be “study” groups rather than “life” groups where we care for each other,
grow in social relationships, and seek a common way of life together.
How did we get
How did we get from the early church model of Christianity to where
we are today in the third millennium of Christianity? For both individuals
and groups, the ongoing need for renewal, restoration, and reform could
be a never-ending list of things that could and should work better. It’s
easy to criticize; it’s easy for me to see where you could improve and
for you to see where I could improve. For much of Christianity though,
it is a “code blue”1 situation. There are too many indicators of the declining
influence of religion and the rising influence of secularism.
We see in this “snapshot” of the early church from Acts 2:42-47, that
real community was put in place after Pentecost. They “spent time” together
(v. 42) learning, praying, having fellowship, and having meals together.
They spent time together “in their homes” (v. 46). They had committed fellowship
(v. 44) and cared for one another’s physical needs (v. 45). “Day
by day” (v. 46) they met as a group. It wasn’t just a Sunday worship community;
their pattern was a life together, a life of community.
So, how did we get to where we are today, where so many Christians are
looking for a minimal answer to the nature of the church? I believe the
answers to that are very, very complex and have components at every level
of humanity: spiritual, psychological, sociological, economic, etc. I’d
like to propose a few for us to consider.
A few centuries ago, there was a certain natural community in place;
many lived in villages, and towns were small. Making a living necessitated
certain relational realities. People needed each other and looked out for
each other. Families worked together in the family business or trade. Many
villages and towns had a marketplace where people met and the church was
central to community. When the Industrial Revolution took place, it set
off a migration by which more and more people left rural regions to come
into the bigger towns and cities. This was one beginning of a pattern that
was destructive to natural community at the local level and at the family
level. It was less and less the case that families worked together, or
that fathers worked with their sons. Today it is common for a father to
go to his job, a mother to go to her job, and the children to go off to
school. These were all done together or in close proximity in earlier times.
With the growth of large cities, and the divisions and isolation of
family members, we are less relational or less tied to one another. Today,
it is often considered a virtue if you need no one. In past times it was
a given that you needed others; life was corporate.
There are many other factors that contribute at many different levels:
the isolating effects of TV, video games and modern entertainment, etc.
Suffice it to say that we are very, very isolated and very, very different
from the New Testament church. (Another snapshot is seen in Acts 4:32-35.)
What to do?
Again there are many and varied answers to this question. I suppose
you could just say, “Try something! Try anything! And do it quickly!” We
in the Sword of the Spirit are not the first to notice the serious spiritual
and natural differences between New Testament and modern expressions of
Christianity. Dehumanizing modern life patterns have been noticed by Christians
and non-Christians alike. You have to love and appreciate those who are
at least trying to make a change.
For Christian renewal and reform, we should first understand that Christianity
is relational. It is not emphasizing independent isolation, but inter-dependent
relationships. I would say churches and large Christian groups should reorganize
into small groups, after identifying and training a small set of leaders
who are truly converted and dedicated to Christ. Again, the small groups
are “life groups” not just study groups: life is shared; some accountability
is in place; a contribution to the mission is made.
Additionally, I would say, “Get help.” Wading into these waters unprepared
will cause unnecessary casualties. Remember this: different people have
different capacities for failure. One strikeout can cause some young boys
to never pick up a bat again. Others will not leave the plate until they
hit the ball. Wise approaches on the part of leadership can reduce the
number of casualties as we grow into a Christian family.
The rest of this book will present some elements of Christian community
in an attempt to make some contributions to our understanding of the nature
of church and our experience of the models of church. These elements and
approaches have been developed in our life together and are, hopefully,
part of the solution. But first, let’s begin to close this chapter remembering
So, it is a fact that God loves us and has sent his son to redeem us. Our
initial response is to be born again. The Christian life, our lived-out
response, is to love God and neighbor with all that we have...and that
is the quintessential nature of church.
John 3:16 tells us that God loves the world and sent his son Jesus.
John 3:3 tells us that we can see the kingdom of God if we are born again.
Matthew 22:37-40 tells us the laws of love.
[This article is excerpted
from Essyas on Christian Community, copyright ©
Bob Tedesco 2010, published by Tabor House. Used with permission.]
Tedesco is past President of the North American Region of the Sword of
the Spirit, a founder of the People of God community in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania,
USA, and has been one of its key leaders for the past 36 years.