By Mark Thomas
Since New Testament times, the church has been understood to be the body of Christ, an organism made up of many parts, yet one in faith, purpose, and ministry. But most of us have lived through an era in which we have thought of the church a bit differently. We have regarded the church as an institution, as a kind of corporate entity, with budgets, strategic plans, classes, teachers, financial campaigns, officers, and a board of directors. Or we have regarded the church as a family of faith into which we are adopted, in which we have brothers and sisters, children and parents, and in which we share meals together. These two ways of regarding the church have been important, valuable, and efficacious for a long time. Unfortunately, the culture in which the church resides is changing. Institutions are no longer trusted as they once were, and an institutional church suffers in that environment. And families are no longer of one kind, but can be extended, blended, single-parent, divorced, empty-nested, and dispersed, but rarely multi-generational, and even more rarely do they sit down to eat a meal together. To call the church a family anymore can be as confusing as it is edifying.
More and more, I think the future well-being of the church will depend on us embracing again a New Testament understanding of the church as an organism, as the body of Christ, made up of many parts, but singular in faith, purpose, and ministry. But more, that we understand the church as the continuing incarnation of Christ, meaning that the church as Christ’s body strives to reflect Christ’s divinity as well as his humanity. Those outside of the body are quick to recognize how we reflect Christ’s humanity. But those of us in the body can also point to the ways in which the Spirit helps us reflect Christ’s divinity. The glory of Christ is that he is both. When the church reflects both, we reveal the living Christ in our words and deeds. The next generation of believers doesn’t want to join an institution, and they aren’t sure they want to get mixed up in another dysfunctional family. What they want is to meet the Christ, and participate in God’s new creation. It’s up to us to make Christ known.
I think the participants in NEXT are well on their way toward making this subtle, but absolutely critical, transition in our self-understanding, and I think it is a movement of the Holy Spirit. It’s important, however, that our nomenclature reflect this new self-understanding. Bodies, for instance, don’t have strategic plans, boards of directors, or church schools. Body language is more personal, relational, physical, and spiritual. It’s been so long, though, since we have used such metaphors that we have forgotten them. What are the metaphors that describe the body of Christ? What language shall we use to tell people who we are? This, I think, is part of the growing edge of what is NEXT.
Mark P. Thomas, Pastor of Ladue Chapel Presbyterian Church, St. Louis, Missouri.