A False Dichotomy: Going To versus Being Church
Here’s a graphic that goes around in various versions online that expresses a way of thinking evidently at work among us:
Now both terms “consumer” and “missional” are new terms coined for the purposes of expressing an opinion by the proponents of this new ideology for church life and mission. The classic way of speaking, of course, is that the church is apostolic. This expresses the oneness in apostolic doctrine while also denoting the “sentness” of the church to confess Christ in the world. Additionally, being apostolic in the classic dual-sense is undermined by indulging the collective old Adam, especially in our society’s consumerism. This new way of thinking reflects a theology of glory that must live from seeing the results on our schedule.
This dichotomy represents an incorrect view in regard to many articles of the faith – the means of grace, ecclesiology, the ministry, and vocation, to name a few. The Church is instituted by our Lord Jesus Christ Himself. The “goods and services” that the Church of our Lord has are the spoken and sacramental gospel, which are the salvation delivering means of grace. Everything else the Church may do in a particular congregation should flow from or support that central ministry. The means of grace exist “that we may obtain such saving faith” in Christ, to borrow a phrase from the Augsburg Confession. Furthermore the Lord puts these means together to be administered by the Office of the Holy Ministry for the benefit of the Church as she is gathered.
To speak of “going to church” is to acknowledge that the Word and Sacraments are what makes us the Church, as they are the marks of the Church. By these means we “are the church.” Yet an individual Christian is a member of the Church corporately, whether gathered for the Divine Service or as we are sent out into the world. We all have different vocations as Christ’s baptized people. God puts us in these places to serve our neighbor, and there we confess that Christ is our Savior from sin and death.
This paradigm in the diagram above also fails to note that the reason or the gathering on Sunday morning is not a rock concert with a pep talk or just job training. It is that heaven comes down to earth where the Word is faithfully preached and the holy sacraments are given out according to Lord’s institution and mandate. There we are seen most clearly as the body of Christ. It is the gathering of the baptized to be forgiven, nourished in the body and blood of Jesus and His Word. It is not chiefly about what I am doing for God but rather what He is doing for us in the means He appointed through the office Jesus instituted (see Acts 2:42; Luke 22:27; Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article XXIV,78-83, on the term Mass). Lutherans who follow this paradigm for the activity of church and ministry betray their own stated confession, whether wittingly or unwittingly.
The chief feeding of the flock is on Sunday morning, though, rightly noted; it should not be the only feeding. But the feeding isn’t really “self-feeding” but it is from Christ Himself, where the Holy Spirit takes the Word of Scripture and calls us to faith, enlightens us with His gifts and keeps us in the true faith, while also incorporating us into the body of Christ, the Church. Indeed, as the church is apostolic, she is sent into this world.
The proclamation of Christ in this world by the baptized comes as they proclaim the deeds of Him who called us out of darkness into His marvelous light. And that goes in various directions as the members of the Church are the collective fishing net of the Church cast into the sea of the world. The Lord fishes with a net, not a rod and reel and bait. A net shows no favoritism but is just sent into a place (regardless of demographics). Rod and reel fishing with bait discriminates. Fishing with an apostolic net is more clearly catholic.
While I wouldn’t endorse the inadequate terminology of the diagram at the beginning of this article, one must be a “consumer church” in order to be fed and equipped to be sent forth to confess Christ. No consuming, nothing to confess. Pour more Jesus in, and then the Church confesses. The Church does not live from programs or entertainment or pep talks or cheerleading, but from the clear good news of the crucified One, who has purchased us from sin and death to the gift of holiness and immortality through His resurrection.
One cannot recast the Sunday morning nourishment in the Word and Sacraments into an engineered “worship experience” of such fleeting vaporous existence such that the Gospel is not highly obscured altogether lost. This is the oft-witnessed evangelism at the expense of the evangel. No, our way must be willing to suffer the scorn of a seeming lack of success, a seeming lack of effective ministry, a lowly back-water drowning of the old self to listen to the kingdom of God being revealed ever-so-stealthily at pulpit and altar, with the promise it will be visible at the last. For if they will not believe Moses and the prophets then they will not believe no matter how popular the praise band or pertinent the Power Point.
The gospel of man is a gospel of our doing in the unholy trinity of “me, myself, and I.” God’s earthward descent in words, water, bread and wine is replace by man’s vainly ascending ladders of reason, feelings, and man-defined good deeds. The sheep of the Lord hear His voice and are fed by Him in the green pastures He provided where they may eat and drink. They are not told to feed themselves. The feeding in study and devotion during the week supplements Sunday morning Divine Service, not the other way around. If this is not the case, then the organizing center and gathering energy of the Church is the group of personalities that motivate and entertain, rather than Christ Himself serving with forgiveness, life and salvation through His appointed means. Those means are the life-source of the Church.
The called to faith are those calling out into the world. Those who partake of the Lord’s body and blood are those who go forth to “proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.” Without this, the Church becomes anemic. That is the royal priesthood of the baptized who are beneficiaries of Christ’s work of redemption. As we go about our vocations in life we open our mouths to confess Christ and to serve our neighbor in love where God puts us. Our vocations put us into places that programs cannot always place us. That’s an inherent wisdom in God’s way of putting His people into all sorts of places and situations. We “go to Church” to be renewed and strengthened in “being Church.” We “go to Church” because we are not Church alone but always in fellowship. Even when we are by ourselves we still pray “our Father who art in heaven.”
As pastors sent forth to serve the Church and preach to all, and as the royal priesthood of the baptized, hearing and receiving the gospel gifts week after week, the entire Church on earth is God’s instrument for bringing glory to Christ and His Word. Christ is praised as we tell others what He has done for us in mercy. The Church gathered and fed or scattered and sent is not a dispenser of “religious goods and services” but the divinely instituted treasures that bestow forgiveness, life and salvation. The baptized are gathered to be forgiven, nourished, sanctified, and instructed, and they are scattered out by vocation to serve, love the neighbor, work, pray, and bear witness. So in doctrine and mission, being fed and confessing Christ, we dare not deny or separate what the Lord has joined together. The Bride of Christ is nourished and lives from what she receives by grace alone through faith alone, namely, the spoken and sacramental Gospel.
Some may occasionally confuse our confidence and certainty in the truth as arrogance, but is the joy of knowing all of this saving truth is “most certainly true” and that we can be sure of eternal life through Christ our Mediator. So as we keep the Gospel clear when we are gathered, we will make a clearer, catechetically-formed confession out wherever God puts us vocationally. The apostolic Church is gathered to be fed and forgiven, scattered and sent to confess Christ boldly and serve the neighbor in diaconal love. Finally consider the words of Hebrews 12 (present tense, please note!) to note that the Church is more than what we see with our eyes, and more than our congregation, and more than our generation:
But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel. Hebrews 12:22-24