Back to the future?

Monday, 12 December, 2011

Graham Cray's monthly e-xpressions column.

The theology of the church (ecclesiology) is a funny thing. It is meant to guide us as we shape the church of tomorrow. But only too often it is simply used to justify the shape of the church of today. A dynamic understanding of the church, intended to equip it for principled appropriate change, in response to changing cultures, and direction from the Holy Spirit, is given theoretical acknowledgement, while nothing changes. Perhaps we have given too much uncritical emphasis on the church as steward of the inheritance from the past, and too little on the church as an anticipation of the future.

Most mainline denominations say that the church is called to be 'a sign, instrument (or agent) and foretaste of the kingdom of God'. If we take that seriously there are as number of consequences. Signs show people the way and allow them to understand which paths will take them the wrong way. If the church is to be a sign, then it has to be contextual. The sign has to be erected where people, going about their everyday lives, can see it. The local church must live its life where people are, culturally and geographically, not where they used to be. But the church is more than a sign. It is the instrument God uses and the agent he chooses as his partner, to offer salvation and to demonstrate the reality of the kingdom of God. People need the church, not a pointer to something else, if they are going to find salvation through Christ and be recruited to serve in the kingdom of God. So it is vital that the local church engage its life with the localities it has been sent to serve. But, most significantly, the church is a foretaste, an anticipation of God's kingdom. People should be able to see among us an imperfect taste of what God has prepared for the new heaven and earth. Local churches are called to be communities which offer a taste of the future, in advance.

Our Western society lacks hope more than anything else. The best many people can hope for is more of the same, or in these difficult economic tines, holding on to most of what they have. They need local communities of Christians who live in the present in the light of the future Jesus has secured, and do so locally, as they engage exactly the same difficulties and challenges as their neighbours. A regular question for each local church should be 'How can our life and worship together here best show people the future which Jesus has won for us?'

The relationship with the past is vital. The future is only possible because of the past. The incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus have opened the future. The moment we depart from those central truths we have no hope to offer. We are indeed stewards of the inheritance of the past, and that inheritance has shaped the churches over the years. But so has the culture of many different eras. We need to distinguish between adaptations which were appropriate for a different time, and the beliefs and practices, which make the church the church in every time. The past is powerful because it has been such a blessing. But some of yesterday's blessings are the very things which stop us receiving what God intends for the sake of the world today. 

It is the role of the Holy Spirit – the first fruits of the kingdom of God, the taste of the powers of the age to come – to guide the church, so that it becomes a foretaste of the future in whatever setting God has located it. We receive the gospel from the past, and the Spirit equips us to live it out as a local foretaste of the future. We go back for the sake of the future, not simply to justify the present.

+Graham Cray


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