Part 3: From Idea to Embodiment

When we talk about ecclesiology (our understanding of the church), there are two levels to consider. The first is the abstract, presumably universal level at which we think about what the church is. The second is the practical level at which which we think about how a local church must embody that essence. One problem that has affected many churches is the assumption that the second level, that of application, is just as universal as the first. This belief leads some to the conclusion that the forms, styles, practices, and traditions of the church universal should be pretty much uniform throughout the church local. The expectation that the New Testament will provide those forms bolsters the assumption. 

In this series, I will work through some of the factors we take into account as the church in Arequipa seeks to embody Christ faithfully in our context. I hope to show how we go about translating the first level into the second level. 

Last newsletter we left off with the question, how do our contextual ways of being together as family manifest? Or, how do we move from our theological claim about what the church is (the family of God) to a lived experience? In order to pose the question in one more way, I’ll share a story: 

When Tim, Denise, and Noah Henderson visited us last year, Noah became ill. We called Alfredo’s wife, Judith, since she is our pediatrician. She saw Noah at her clinic as soon as she could work him in. But when he didn’t get better, we called her again, and she had him come to their house, because she was off at that time. After she had seen him and adjusted his treatment, Tim and Denise naturally thanked her for the generosity of seeing him in her home during off hours. She responded,“Don’t worry about it. You are Alfredo’s family and maybe mine soon as well.” (For those who don’t know, she has since then been added to the family.) 

The question here is, what causes a non-Christian to take seriously her husband’s church as family in the sense that she responded in the same way she would toward her own in-laws? I’m not suggesting that Judith wouldn’t have been as generous to other friends. But it is significant that she did not say,“You are Alfredo’s friends,” or “You go to Aflredo’s church” (thank God!), but rather “You are Alfredo’s family.” How do we demonstrate that with our lives so that it is real to someone who doesn’t otherwise believe that God is in the business of adopt- ing us “as his children through Jesus Christ” (Eph 1:5)? 

In the US, church culture in general has phased out the use of “brother” and “sister” in regular discourse (not to mention “brethren,” which has naturally gone the way of most KJV- speak). I even have the sense that there is a little awkward- ness when we speak in those terms. In Peru, it is the opposite effect, though I suspect for very similar reasons: hermano has become synonymous with evangelical Christian. “He is an hermano” just means, “He is a Christian.” In other words, the family metaphor has lost its power in Peruvian Spanish. The general expectation here is that the claim to be a member of the Christian family means nothing more than to be a member of the Christian religion--what it is to be family in the Peruvian sense of that word doesn’t actually come into it. 

Given that my overarching point in this series is that appli- cations are not universal, let me reiterate that the question is about how best to foster the lived expression of church- as-family, not about which are the only good or right church forms, styles, practices, and so forth. To point out what we do to foster church-as-family is not to suggest that other practices are opposed to family life or otherwise inferior. Rather, I merely wish to explain why we do what we do. 

So, finally, what do we do? Most fundamentally, we work to ensure that “church” is not identified with a building or holy space. A family is not a home; a household is not a house. Thus, we seek to detach church from its typical cultural meaning in order to attach it to a new definition--not just by preaching about a new meaning from within the old but by living the new meaning. In this way, we try to create the question, If church is not a place or an identifiable institution (in the usual sense), then what is it? How can we call ourselves “church”? 

One of the most important outcomes of this non-institutional identity is that it diminishes the impulse to evangelize by inviting nonbelievers “to church” (i.e., to a location and religious ritual). Of course, it is still quite reasonable to invite friends to church (i.e., to a gathering). When we invite nonbelievers to our meetings, though, they are not invited to a church but rather into a family gathering. The dynamics are very distinct. Yet, inasmuch as we avoid attracting people to “church,” we also avoid attracting people to the family--because our aim is to win as many as possible to Christ. Therefore, we root our familial self-understanding in the identity and call of Jesus. He says, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother, sister and mother” (Mark 3:25). Our existence as family is not our goal or primary concern; it is a result of kinship to Jesus. But our way of life together does serve to proclaim this gospel in deed. 

A primary way in which we shape the Sunday assembly per se into a familial mode of existence is through intimate conversation. Rather than merely adding this onto supposedly core religious activities, we attempt to weave it into the everything that the church gathering is about. This necessarily shapes the ways in which we sing, pray, read Scripture, confess, encourage, bear burdens, and otherwise carry out the “one another” dimension that the NT calls fellowship or communion. The practical upshot of this is a need to meet in small numbers (this is the “quality by way of size management” mentioned in the last article). In order to facilitate a truly relational, familial gathering, we encourage small, intimate meeting sizes. Naturally, there is a need to meet with the extended family, so to speak, but every meal cannot be a holiday gathering or a family reunion (to stretch the metaphor a bit). 

All of this is centered around the table fellowship that is the Lord’s supper. Thus, a family meal is at the heart of every Sunday gathering, because “communion” is at the heart of every Sunday gathering. Here we have a form or practice that is different than many in our home context are used to. I point this out in particular in order to exemplify the web of considerations that inform our decision to “do church” in this way: although there are scriptural considerations directly related to the supper at work as well, the family-meal shape of our communion practice is bound up with much more. It is a vital part of our embodiment of family life. 

On a final note, I will add that another very important aspect of redefining church as family is the demonstration that church is not just the Sunday assembly. Our church tradition has long argued for a technical redefinition of church as assembly (the people) rather than church as place (the building). But even among such strong advocates of a biblical understanding, the emphasis has often fallen on the assembly rather than the people of God. In order to embody a more complete redefinition, then, it is necessary to ensure that the Sunday gathering does not bear the whole weight of “life together.” That is, we must live together (singing and praying and reading and all the rest) throughout the rest of life and not just at a scheduled time of religious observance.