home page links quotes statistics mission statement success stories resources Lighter Side Authors! Search Page
Posted April 27, 2005

The Church as God’s Avant-garde

Harvey Cox in The Secular City [already posted]

It is no oversight that we have waited so long to deal with the place of the church in the secular city.  The theologians of our generation have tended to be inordinately obsessed with various aspects of the doctrine of the church.  Because of this they have pressed for answers to questions about the church before other questions have been dealt with.  M.M. Thomas, a noted South Indian sociologist and lay theologian, writing for a World Council of Churches publication, says:

. . .we have overdone the idea of church in the last fifty years of ecumenical theological thinking.  I do not think we can go back to any non-church understanding of Christianity, but we have to look at the question of how the church as a congregation is different from the traditional idea of a religious community.

Thomas is right; a doctrine of the church is a secondary and derivative aspect of theology which comes after a discussion of God’s action in calling man to cooperation in the bringing of the Kingdom.  It comes after, not before, a clarification of the idea of the Kingdom and the appropriate response to the Kingdom in a particular era.  Consequently, we are ready to ask some questions about the church now only because we have already dealt with the secular city.

The church is not in the first instance an institution.  It is a people.  The Bible calls it the laos theou, the “people of God.”  It is a people whose institutions should enable them to participate in God’s action in the world — the liberation of man to freedom and responsibility. Archie Hargraves puts it graphically. He compares the work of God in the world, where Jesus Christ is present, to a “floating crap game: and the church to a confirmed gambler whose “major compulsion upon arising each day is to know where the action is he can run there and “dig it.”

Thomas Wieser expresses the same thought in more scholarly language when he says that according to the book of Acts the Kyrios, the risen Christ, always goes before the church into the world. He appears here and there and the church simply follows.

. . .the way of the church is related to the fact that the Kyrios himself is on his way in the world . . .[and] the church has no choice but to follow him who precedes.  Consequently obedience and witness to the Kyrios require the discernment of the opening which he provides, and the willingness to step into this opening.

Theology, in these terms, is concerned first of all with finding out where the action is, the “discernment of the opening.”  Only then can it begin the work of shaping a church which can get to the action. This is why the discussion of a theology of social change must precede a theology of the church.

The key to locating the action is, of course, that the same God who was there yesterday is present in the action today.  To locate today’s action we need to know the lead actor, and this actor has disclosed himself in the life of Jesus of Nazareth.  As we noticed in discussing the Kingdom, here too the location of the action is a Christological problem. After the action has been discovered, when we know where and what God is doing, then we can ask about the appropriate shape and style of church life.

Phrased in more traditional terms, the forms of church life are dependent on the function, or mission, of the church. They must be designed to facilitate locating and participating in the “mission of God.” They must effectuate rather than hinder the congregation’s capacity to discover and cooperate in the work of God in the world.  This means that the content of the church’s ministry is simply the continuation of Jesus’ ministry.  It cooperates and participates in the ministry of Jesus. But what is the character of Jesus’ ministry?  Jesus himself described it in these terms:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
Because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind,
To set at liberty those who are oppressed,
To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.

Jesus thought of his task as threefold.  He was to announce the arrival of the new regime. He was to personify its meaning. As he was to begin distributing its benefits.  Similarly the church has a threefold responsibility. Theologians call it kerygma (proclamation), diakonia (reconciliation, healing, and other forms of service), and koinonia (demonstration of the character of the new society).  The church is the avant garde of the new regime, but because the new regime breaks in at different points and in different ways, it is not possible to forecast in advance just what appearance the church will have.  It is not even possible to delineate the mission of the church “in the city.”  Cities differ, and the visage of the church in any given urban environment will differ.  There are, however, certain basic facts about urban secular life that will need to be taken into consideration by any church.