What is church – John Drane

Usual tact is to go to computer making a powerpoint with lots of bells and whistles and then work out what to say with this. This time started writing, wrote 22 pages, and thought let’s do a conventional lecture!

Something weird and ironic about being in Church House and asking the question what is the church? Surely they know after 500 years of practicing. Let’s all go to Westminster Abbey next door and discover things.

Googled the single word “church” has lots of adjectives and adverbs – vibrant and growing, vibrant and growing and multicultural, bible based, Christ centred. Clicked on some of the websites but none answered the question in any significant sense beyond locker-room humour of my church is bigger, better, more linked to the original church. Part of the consumeristic 21st century – proving they are better than the church down the road – all defined around what we believe – but really we believe something different from the other churches down the road as we are … .

Don’t want to focus on what is the church as not enlightening or a pretty site. But what could church be and become. Chosen very carefully as for many people the word church is actually a turnoff, the word Christian is a turnoff, for growing numbers the word God is a turnoff. Our terminology is important for missional opportunities. With non-churchy people use a few key expressions:
Christian faith community
follower of Jesus
ecclesial community if speaking to Christians

To talk about what the church might become, not semantics to talk about where we go from here, but what are we becoming as Christians is at the heart of the gospel. Jesus doesn’t rake over the ashes of the past, we always seem to go into auto-pilot mode criticising all the bad decisions and bad people; but the gospel has an eschatological dimension – inviting us not to focus on the past but to ask God who might we become and what might we become as disciples of Jesus. We make a mistake when we rake over the past – we need to know where we come from – but to be stuck there or even in the past rather than dreaming the dreams of God we have made a mistake. Knowing and understanding roots is important.

What was the church – Acts 2 – the original intention behind the disciples
If we look at the word “ecclesia”, the Greek word, historically translated as church, but that word when the early Christians looked around and chose “ecclesia” they were using a word in common use. Identifying that context helps them to understand what they thought they were.

What is the church today
However much we wish we were we are not inventing the church, there are 2,000 years o Christians before us who must have learnt somethings in their experience. Too often we stay let’s start with a blank sheet but this reality of 2,000 years of heritage has positives and negatives. There are lots of people who have learned a thing or two about following Jesus, and that is foundational because everyone is a Christian because of the accumulated wisdom from those people – we should expect to be inspired by those insights. Negatively we are also implicated in their excesses and mistakes – crusades, imperialism of Christendom, abuse of women and children and much more. In popular culture we are all linked to this, e.g. women in leadership, child abuse – all Christians are misogynists and paeadophiles – we have to live with these historical consequences. The buck has to stop somewhere – so whilst personally and individually no one was responsible for the Inquisition there are times and places where it is important to acknowledge that they got it wrong, and if we had been back there in the Middle Ages etc., we probably would have been doing the same thing they did as living as part of the Christian culture then. Happy to apologise to become leaders of redemptive change organisations.

Working with Raymond Fung in the 1980s at an event in Australia with lots of the majority world, and the Western Christians were smitten with apologising. Raymond Fung said get over it as the missionaries also gave health care and education so in the midst of bad things it was the church as a corporate organisation that enabled Raymond to get out of the existing barriers.

What might the church become under God’s future
The Church of Scotland will be completely bankrupt by 3 years time, cashing in £1mm per month to keep the denomination going. Many mainline denominations have similar issues. The Scottish Episcopal Church is in no better shape but has been struggling for a while so understands struggle and hardship more. Church is asking does each church need to re-imagine church for their generation.

Church is not a noun not a verb – it is about doing, being, creating etc. The word was used in the world of Roman where ecclesia had an honourable history in Greek city structures, and the word features in the Old Testament when read in Greek.

The first word was The Way, Disciples, Christians, but calling themselves ecclesia soon enough, and the very early bits e.g. Galatians or Thessalonians at 50CE Paul could use that word without needing to explain it – suggesting that it was in common use by then. If a citizen of Ancient Athens the ecclesia was a town hall gathering in USA terms, people coming together to engage in town life. Ecclesia is composed of Ecc – out of – caliou – together. City Council was used as a separate word, whereas Ecclesia was only when people actually get together. Given two or three different words, it is interesting that the choose them coming together rather than being a body or institution – they saw themselves not as an organisation but an organism – something that was living. They were steeped in the Hebrew Scriptures seeing themselves as part of that story. In 2-3 centuries before the OT was translated into Greek as the Septuagint, with Ecclesia being translated for kahol which is more complicated. Kahol could be translated Ecclesia or the word for the synagogue. When the gathering was static they used synagogue but when a lively gathering it would be ecclesia.

The intention of Abraham’s journey wasn’t to create a new structure but to create an example of how to live in shalom. To create a just society, and the prophets told them to be intentional in sharing this with others and being inclusive in a way that the sociological norm didn’t stretch too.

Images of the Church in the Old Testament, 96 metaphors to describe the church, all of which are active images – not a structure or institution – but an interplay between humanity and divinity:
The people of God
The new creation
The fellowship in faith
The body of Christ
The fifth category he calls minor images of the church but are still active, e.g. nature with grapes, olives, figs, church as a wedding feast. “It invites us into a restoration of the Christian imagination”. Imagine and dream what church might become, let your creative juices flow as to where we guess God might be leading us in the 21st century.

4th century to the Nicene Creed council. In the Nicene Creed it has 4 adjectives: one, holy, catholic, apostolic. Initially it can seem that they are opposites of the biblical words. The Nicene Creed is created in an institutional structure where sociological changes were beginning to be large. What does that link with youth, culture – is it just jargon? It mirrors very closely the descriptions of the people of God in the OT:
They are holy, called by God – they misunderstood what God was doing and is about but they were called
One – gathered together to form a community
Catholic in its embrace of other people – to be centrifugal to embrace the whole world – to be a light to the Gentiles.
Being Apostolic – taking the missional task seriously. Apostolo means someone who is sent out – what it means to be sent out.

The Hard Questions lectures at Manchester Cathedral spawned by Fresh Expressions. We can see we are doing new missional things but what makes them church. Is this Nicene definition just another way of speaking about a church that is organic, spiritual, inclusive and lives within the big story that is God’s kingdom?

Church as Organic
Organic can be defined in many different ways. John Dunne said none of us is an island. We’ve realised we’re much more inter-dependent with each other, the environment and the wider cosmos. A key thing that the neo-pagan movement has hijacked from the Christian community and has now been forgotten in the Christian culture. Everything in the cosmos is inter-connected. When a butterfly flaps its wings in Tokyo there is a Tsunami in Alaska! Our way, the white western rational, analytical way was seen as the best possible way. We saw ourselves as the best of God’s creation/evolution. That is no longer a credible way of living at peace with ourselves let alone other people. Spawned a whole set of social justice, environmental care, relationship restoration. Grandparents and beyond wouldn’t think in this way – they would be embarrassed by the conversation. A search for belonging is so deeply embedded in the human psyche. This is a key concern for young people.

Not all Christians agree, partly as some Christians operate on a very limited definition of spirituality. We restrict it to the use of explicit God language or Christian jargon. When people say there has to be something more than this is not just mid-life frustration but young people on a search experimenting with alcohol, drugs and even in suicide. We need to bring our experience of the divine and other people and say if our beliefs don’t stack up as to how God is now working we need to alter our thinking. Richard Passmore explores what it means for young people to be part of “the flow”. We see it in those who do extreme sports.

We talk about Missio Dei but God is doing lots of things that some Christians disapprove of. What happens when God does things that don’t fit our paradigms. So we need to listen to young and older people asking ourselves questions rather than starting from our own understanding. We need to listen and take it seriously. Constraining the spiritual limits not only our understanding of God but also the missional opportunities.

If spirituality is a bad word then inclusivity can be even worse! It has been hijacked around gender and sex. Jesus was all about inclusivity, and the Early Churches do it with some intentionality – Paul was determined to include Jews and Gentiles, women and men and that is why he died. Including slaves and masters was difficult given the sociological context but he tried. The areas that were open to him, Paul did something about it but lost his life for it.

In today’s world inclusivity is seen around sharing food, Paul and Peter had a fight in Galatians, in 1 Corinthians they didn’t share the food properly. Hospitality was central to NT churches and comes natural to so many people today. Commissioned to do research for Church of Scotland on groups being funded, e.g. Hot Chocolate in Dundee working with marginalised young people. Hospitality was intuitive to the young people – they was always another young persons floor or sofa until they sorted themselves out. McDonaldisation of the church examines how we use sacrament of communion in the church – central to the New Testament but not much food in it now.

Big Story
20 years ago not many people went to the cinema as got all the VHS tapes and watch at your convenience. The cinema reinvented itself as a destination nothing to do itself with films, and also became a place where big story spirituality is put into films – allows us to see a bigger story where we can see ourselves in the world. People use language from movie, trying to live in it finding an opportunity to reinvent themselves.

When philosophers debate meta-narrative – people could be right or wrong – but either way people still look for a meta-narrative. Dan Brown’s gnostic search for a hidden meta-narrative.

Acts 2
Picture of the church with four statements, cf. Nicene Creed:
Apostles teaching
Breaking of Bread
Not really a dichotomy between these and the ecclesia or the terms in the Nicene Creed.

Apostles Teaching
What was Jesus’ story they were repeating – big picture of the kingdom, renewal, opportunity and possibility – imaging what the world might be like and become – so come and hang out with us and let’s work it out together. By Mark 8, they are heretics by our creedal statements. The Apostle’s teaching focuses on this new way of being.

This is isn’t an individualist place to be. Shared community, building, food is fundamental to the ecclesia.

Breaking of Bread
Might refer to everday meals – certainly an outcome of being in community. But also the concept of the breaking of bread – happened in a meal – sharing the body of Jesus. The underlying intention is that they are a people called out.

Unites us with the divine spirit through all times and all places. What the Nicene Creed speaks about Catholic. These are all active things that happen to recognise our oneness with humanity and the whole of creation.

Ended up turning it unexpectedly into a defence of the Nicene Creed etc., there is value in what has gone before not just for transition etc. but for the sake of the world today. What better message when contextualised as the people of God allow us to be affirmed and included in partnership with God and one another in time and space.

Where is the vision that is big enough that says this is worth giving your life for? Not sure there is such a dichotomy of Acts 2 and the beast we have today. It is impossible to recreate the 1st century, nor can we use just the 4th century creeds. “We should listen with the ears of God and speak the word of God” Bonhoeffer challenging us to look forward eschatologically. The word of God needs to be expressed afresh for each generation. How do we explain the whole Nicene Creed in 21st century language. So it invites us to work out what the church is for us today and tomorrow in the places where we minister. Maybe the question is better than many of our answers. In order to be prophetic as Christians to find the right way to formulate the questions and leave the answers to God!

Archbishop Rowan Williams says the church is a mixed economy – no one size fits all – but the values from OT, in Jesus’ vision of a world transformed, picked up in Acts, picked up by the Nicene Creed. That is our calling – how might we formulate the question in an appropriate way for the groups we work with in their own unique ways. Your Christian faith community might look different to what it looks like in my different circumstances.

How do we develop communities?
Lesley Francis done a survey of over 60,000 church leaders, over 90% are ISTJs. In missional terms the government have an analysis of the UK population and reckon 10% are ISTJs – could it be we are doing as well as those who if they were going to follow Jesus they would do it that way! How do we do church for those who wouldn’t do it the way we do it!

The Church is institutional, how do we keep ourselves on the edge and asking those questions
Events like this, giving permission to think these are okay and good questions to ask from an institutional perspectives. All denominations are in melt down with none of them having a future. One day it will be like the collapse of the Soviet Union, and a trivial event of someone taking a brick off the top of the wall will trigger the collapse. People asking questions need to be positioned to pick up the pieces and create something new but equally trusted by the institutions. The Bishops know this, but the question is where do we go next. The whole Western Culture is in upheaval and church is a part of that. Which is why it is very exciting to be a part of this.

Married to the amazing Sarah and raising Jakey, Daniel, Amelia, Josh & Jonah in our blended family. Passionate for Jesus, social work & sport.

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