The 20th century was called “The Christian Century” fueled by the optimism, hopes and global vision of the 19th century ecumenical and mission movement. So what will the 21st century be called? I wonder if we might call it the “century of the church” – or at least I wonder if the “big issue” of our century will pivot on the legitimacy and substance of the church’s existence in the world (what the church is and what the church is for).
As we enter year 499 of the Reformation, it is important to remember that the legitimacy of the church and its witness was very much an open question in the throes of the Protestant Reformation. For more than a thousand years of Christendom in the West, church was simply a given. But as the consequences of the Reformation unfolded in Germany, Britain and elsewhere in Europe, while church was still a given, what church or which church was not a given. Calvin’s correspondence with Cardinal Sadoleto is a famous example of this discussion of what it means to be the church. Sadoleto declared that the true church is the vehicle to salvation and to be part of the Reformation movement is to threaten our membership in the true church and, as a correlate, to threaten our own salvation. The Reformers stuck to their convictions and countered with a definition of the church that did not outright condemn their Catholic counterparts, but rather defined the church as the place where the gospel is proclaimed and heard, the sacraments rightly administered and where discipline orders the church’s life. While the Reformers believed this to be true for their own cause and movement, this definition could conceivably also include their Roman Catholic brothers and sisters in Christ living under this same definition. This definition did a good job defining the substance of the church (e.g. How can I know whether I am in the true church?), but does not help us to see or say what the church is for. Like the pre-Reformation Christendom church, the church just is.
Fast-forward to the 21st century and we are still struggling with this second question (what the church is for) as we near the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. In consumer-driven America the church is often depicted (and we operate) as a religious business, which means our primary task it to tend to, satisfy and program our customer’s religious needs. To paraphrase Nietzsche, we are a religious service provider. This takes on a variety of forms: We are creative at finding ways to be a dispenser of salvation and thus fit with the consumer model whether we are dispensing the salvation of a born-again experience or sacramental salvation or the salvation of lining up behind a particular cause. All are forms of salvation that we like to mediate, whether it is individual, institutional or political. I think one of the reasons we prefer to assimilate the being and identity of the church to look more like a political action committee or a salvation factory or an entrepreneurial franchise is because we are embarrassed by how underwhelming and unattractive the Christian life of discipleship often comes across. And if we dig a little deeper, I wonder if what we are really dealing with is dissatisfaction with Jesus, who we think would look a lot sexier and more appealing if we could turn him into a commodity or into Che Guevara or into a smooth talking entrepreneur or hedge fund manager or into a proponent for this or that cause. We throw around words like “relevant” and “market share” and even assess outcomes, but I wonder if any of those pursuits are reasons why people devote their lives to the work and mission of the church. And I wonder if our “relevance,” our “market share” and our “efficiency” are matters that keep the crucified and risen Lord up at night.
What is the church for? What is the church’s purpose and chief end? How would the world be different without it and without us? We have been quite industrious and innovative at finding ways to legitimize and self-justify the church’s existence, but that is not the same thing as knowing and living as if we know what we are for in the life of the larger world around us. Perhaps as we begin to celebrate 500 years of the Reformation, we can also achieve deeper clarity and purpose as to why we are still around and why it matters.
CHRIS CURRIE is pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Shreveport, Louisiana.