What should a congregation following Jesus Christ in ministry look like?
This kind of question gets us nowhere in the 21st Century.
The distinguishing feature of the question, “should” sets up a dichotomy that only brings about a negation of Church, instead of a purpose to Church. Immediately, where “should” exists, a “should not” would invariably follow, a hidden phantom. That is not to say that a Jesus Christ ministry should not discriminate. Absolutely. One should be able to tell a Jesus ministry versus a Mohammad ministry versus a One Eyed Spaghetti Monster ministry. The verb “should” implies a condition, a construction, a man made construction when a Jesus Christ ministry does not need a construction except of the God-meeting-man variety, where grace is realized, but not understood. To quote Karl Barth, “The Church, must therefore know that nothing is gained by replacing an objective with a subjective religion, by transforming the service of God into ‘pious practices’ and righteousness into a law of righteousness, because even so it does not find what it is seeking” (Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, 365). Nothing is gained by asking what should a congregation look like. Are we only interested in appearances now? Is the Church a loving Church or does it only look like a loving Church? Is the Church a rebellious Church or does it only look like a rebellious Church?
Then let’s exchange the word congregation for community. A congregation is defined as a group of people gathered for religious worship. Even if you were to define this assembly down to the very nuts and bolts belief of every soul, you would still not know anything about the life of that congregation. A Jesus Christ community, however, is a community in tension, a group of associated (diverse, even) people sharing common interests or a common heritage. As G.K. Chesterton asserts, “How can we contrive to be at once astonished at the world and yet at home in it?” Our home is our community and our community is where the action of the world takes place. Not in congregations. Our community is a choice, a choice to see Jesus the Christ as a role model, as the one being who can inspire us to save a world that leaves us both astonished and agonized, as a Savior who is a radical against any nation, who reminds men that they are men and not God because if we were God then there would be nothing left for us to do. If the Church is only a congregation, it can only be a system that traps religious experience, “but it cannot do more than this; for religious experience is not the same thing as faith or righteousness; it is not the presence and reality of God, nor is it the divine “Answer” (Barth 366).
Religious experience needs a community because we have all heard of community activists, but how many of us have heard of congregation activists? The commandment from Jesus is to love your neighbor as yourself, not love your congregation as yourself. Luke 10: 25-37 illustrates this beautifully. An expert in the law stands up to test Jesus about what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus does his best rhetorical answering a question with a question and asks the expert what the law says. The expert ends by saying “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus simply replies by saying, Do this and you will live. Then the expert audaciously (and sarcastically) asks, who is my neighbor? Now I would love to imagine what that expert in the law expected Jesus to say, but surely he did not expect the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Again, this is community in action, a Samaritan (Jesus) acting as a Samaritan (Jesus) bringing his community with him, acting with mercy to an injured man. The Samaritan is Jesus being Jesus without all the rigamarole. The Samaritan never preached to the man about his Samaritan values, he simply acted. The Samaritan never threw his holy book in the injured man’s face, he simply acted. The Samaritan didn’t say, I’ll give you these silver coins if you come to my congregation next week. He simply acted with mercy because that’s what his community taught him.
Finally, a Jesus Christ ministry cannot help but look like Christ Jesus, the only mirror that is worth measuring itself against. What did the Good Samaritan look like? The parable never gave the listener a physical description because it wasn’t important. The only radical ministry is the one that has Christ Jesus as its center, who said to love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind. And love your neighbor as yourself. If a ministry does that, then it cannot help but look like a Jesus Christ ministry. Does the ministry look forward or backward or does it abstain from the obtuseness of looking anywhere but its center? I’m sure the priest and the Levite in the Good Samaritan parable were looking forward, planning important lectures, obsessing over historical critical fallacies, and forgetting the questions that drove them into ministry in the first place. How does a ministry show mercy and love not to those people who deserve it, but to those that don’t? How does a ministry grow a community in a nation whose sole purpose is to make us rugged individuals? How does a ministry embrace paradox and contradiction without becoming a contradiction itself?
So the question finally becomes: What can a Jesus Christ community do in a 21st Century ministry?
The NIV Serendipity Bible for Groups. Zondervan Bible Publishers, 1988.
Barth, Karl. The Epistle to the Romans. Translated from the Sixth Edition by Edwyn C. Hoskyns. Oxford University Press paperback, 1968.
Chesterton, G.K. Orthodoxy. The Annotated Edition. Edited, with an introduction and notes by Craig M. Kibler. Reformation Press, 2002.