Our church is approaching the end of a sermon series exploring the “Great Ends of the Church” as articulated by the United Presbyterian Church of North America in the early 20th century. I memorized these six great ends as a seminary student preparing for my ordination exams and appreciated the holistic vision they set for the mission of the church.
Those of us preaching have faced a surprising challenge: It has been easier to frame these great ends individually rather than corporately. In one sense, this is a positive thing. The church is not rooted in its institutions but in its people, scattered across neighborhoods, communities and nations, demonstrating in word and action the good news of God’s Kingdom.
We, as a church staff, have wanted our congregation to take ownership of the fact that THEY are the church.
But, as our preaching content team discussed the promotion of social righteousness (the fifth great end of the church), our individualistic frame made me feel more uneasy. Quite appropriately, the team discussed the need for each of us, as individuals, to care about the plight of the vulnerable in our society and world – to recognize our privilege and respond accordingly with our resources and advocacy.
But what about the church? Not just the Church Universal, but our local congregation? Don’t we also have a mission together to promote social righteousness? To speak up for the voiceless? To respond to the needs of poverty and injustice? Surely we could do more together than as mere individuals.
Our team feared that emphasizing the corporate expression of this great end would give people an excuse not to respond. If the institution of our local church, to which we tithe, partners with organizations nationally and globally to help the poor, then do we really have to do anything else as individuals to engage in this mission? As long as we give our money to our church, then we’re off the hook.
I get the concern. The tentacles of sin, knotted by compulsive busyness, beckons us to relinquish responsibility for social generosity and justice. Still, I wonder: Though we say we want people to own the fact that they are the church, might we still believe that the corporate expression of the church is institutional? For example, when our church decides to support a mission organization or offers an opportunity to tutor students in a nearby elementary school, do we think, deep down, that this is a decision of the institution’s staff and leadership, and thus not something we as a body must take ownership to do together?
And yet, it strikes me that we, as a local church, can do far more together to bless our neighborhoods and advocate for the vulnerable than we could ever do as individuals. When we combine resources – including our money, our time and our skills – we accomplish more. Plus, we teach one another about the needs of our world through our differing passions and gifts. Must the corporate expression of the promotion of social righteousness be limiting? Does it inherently give people an excuse not to respond?
Here is the twist: For our local congregation to be expansive and effective in the promotion of social righteousness, each member has to take individual responsibility for the call to justice, righteousness, and peace.
Maybe that’s the bigger challenge – getting members of the body to own the mission individually so that we might do it together.
Rachel Young is the associate pastor of spiritual formation at Clear Lake Presbyterian Church, in Houston, Texas. She is married to Josh, who also serves on staff at Clear Lake Presbyterian as the director of contemporary worship and media.