Ethics and Preferences
fossores, 7 years ago 0 15 min read 1155
The Local Church: a study in ethics and preferences
When it comes to the issue of Church, the make it or break it issue for every Christian is an understanding of ethics and preferences. Ethics are your beliefs and your actions as informed by your beliefs. It’s what you really, really care about. Preferences are the things you like. They’re important to you, but it isn’t life or death stuff.
For the Christian, ethics are composed out of a dynamic relationship with the Spirit of God, the core doctrine of the Christian faith involving personal holiness and lifestyle, and belief in and understanding of Jesus Christ. The Christian ethic embraces community, hospitality, the welcoming of strangers, biblical application, prayer, personal devotion, a daily rule of life, loving people, loving God, worship, etc…
These are our ethics.
Preferences are things like what kind of music you like, what style of preaching you like, how you like to dress when you go to church, where you park, the kids’ programs you elect, the kind of youth ministry you enjoy, the way the Church celebrates the liturgical calendar (or not), what happens on Halloween or Christmas, etc…
These things are preferences.
My great sadness is that in churches all over North America, Christians are willing to compromise on their ethics but will not compromise on their preferences.
So when we come to church and say it is an ethic to worship Jesus (or study the word of God and live together in community, etc…), but then we refuse to worship because we don’t like the style of music – it’s ugly, it’s terrible.
Now, I understand preferences. I am a person of sharply defined preferences. I grew up in church; I know what it’s like to be in church services you don’t enjoy. My dad is the bishop of a Canadian denomination. Growing up I would often visit other churches with him that had other kinds of services (including different racial and ethnic backgrounds, different demographics, different musical tastes, etc…). To be honest, I don’t think I ever really liked any of them.
When you are a sixteen year old kid, there is not a lot about Church that is really cool.
But you have to learn that Church is not about your preferences; it is about your ethic as a servant of Jesus Christ.
For Bible believing, New Testament Christians, worship, and community singing are a part of church. So you have to get over your bad self when you come to worship. It’s not “your” music it’s probably not two-thirds of the other people’s music either, but what are you going to do? Have everybody come and bring their own original compositions to sing while somebody sits in the corner with a banjo and somebody else brings a boom box and you just hope you all get along? No, that’s foolish. Ultimately, you need to have a music leader you honor and trust. You also have to have a teaching pastor you honor and trust. You have to be committed to scripture and unity, life, ministry, evangelism, love. If you don’t like the way a church “does” community or evangelism or love, then there are other responses than just taking your toys and going home.
I once worked at a church where I’d been serving and worshipping for over a decade. I grew up there. I was a young adult’s pastor and enjoyed a great history with the Church and experienced a lot of affection from the people.
Then I took over as the worship pastor. Two years into it I was broken . . . brow-beaten to death by people who were my former babysitters, friends, friends’ parents, and by a collection of sweet, dear little old ladies who were writing me notes saying I was quenching the Holy Spirit with my rock music. So I got up one Sunday morning and I talked for 30 minutes on ethics and preferences. I told them I was ashamed of them. I was ashamed that the same people who once talked proudly about changing my diapers were now sending me notes accusing me of serving the devil. I was pretty sure I was
going to get fired. Instead, I think it was an important day for the Church. Only through the pain of those two or three years did I have the moral authority to call that behavior into question.
You’ll experience tension and heartache no matter what church you go to, but you’ve still got to belong to a church. Sometimes it is common to dismiss our modern churches as being unrelated to New Testament community, but that is simply untrue. Biblical community was never perfect, and it is deliberately fanciful to see churches in the New Testament as “better” than ours today (given the incredible immorality in Corinth, the half-heartedness in Laodicea, the wealth and deception in Smyrna, etc…, we can begin to understand that in many ways, they were worse than ours).
“The New Testament,” says John Wesley “knows nothing of solitary religion.” Sitting in your bedroom reading your Bible and listening to good teaching is not the same as living and engaging Jesus Christ in community. For some, that’s all they can do, and God bless them for it, but it is not the same.
Sometimes in our conversation about Church the word “relevant” is used to justify a particular methodology. Sadly, I think this approach sometimes makes us guilty of creating consumer Christians; for, in the end, our conversation of what Church truly is isn’t really about relevance as much as it is about an experience of God.
Relevance, though, remains a hot topic. Churches want programs that are relevant, services that are relevant, etc… But I have to tell you that the things relevant to me are probably not going to be the same things that are relevant to you. My life, my week, my habits are all probably a little bit different from yours, making my context slightly different from yours.
But transcendence, meaning, supernatural contact, the in-filling of the Spirit of God, the process by which God grows in us when we become more Jesus-like … that is relevant for everyone.
So many times when we are talking about relevance we ought to be talking about transformation.
That is relevant to everybody. It doesn’t matter what kind of music you like or what you look like. Transformation is relevant. That is power. That is authority that results from experience with God.
We need to focus on those things that are meaningful . . . like our mission, how to serve the world, how to love people, how to bring Heaven to Earth, etc…
Because Jesus cares about lost people. He cares about lost people in every little city and community, and we have to communicate that love in ways that are accessible and meaningful to us.
Yet, according to futurist Len Sweet, our motto as individual Christians has somehow degenerated from “we are the Church here to serve the lost and broken world” to “what does this church have to offer me?” Consequently, we view the Church as a dispenser of religious goods and services. Now, churches do offer experiences, training, spiritual encounters, guidance, and community — but we do ourselves great harm when we reduce those things to a church personals ad, looking for the right church, like you’d look for Mr. Right at e-harmony. So when people don’t have the skill set to read and understand the Bible on their own, or don’t already have a community, or don’t know where to begin, then they ought to be able to come to church and find those things out.
The word Church, by the way, comes from a number of different Greek words: curacon, which means fellowship, and the Greek word ecclesia, which means called-out ones. In 1st Century Palestine (under the Roman government), local communities would have an Athenian ecclesia whenever there was some important matter of social policy or military tact to be decided. They’d call out all the important people into the middle of the city and they would have a glorified town hall meeting. They’d make decisions that would form the direction of the community. The earliest Christians expropriated this idea and started calling their gatherings ecclesia, because they believed they had been called out to establish who they were.
The words called out have great backwards-reaching Old Testament significance, because the people of God have always been called out. Abraham was called out to be used especially by God. The nation of Israel and the person Israel were both called out by God. The Tribe of Judah within the nation of Israel was called out by God. In the same way the New Testament Church is called out. It’s called out for noble purposes. We were made for something more than brokenness or fragmentation. There is a better way we can live.
The Church presents itself in four manifestations: local/visible and universal/invisible.
1. The local church is comprised of churches like Westwinds — churches that meet all over the world in which we serve, love, welcome, and learn. It’s important to note what we have here, as different as it is, still bears remarkable similarity to the way the first Christians worshiped. Early on (arguably even within the writing of the New Testament), we have diagrams of church worship spaces in the basements of people’s homes and in catacombs. They set up a pulpit and had some rows, they sang, and there was preaching. As different as things are two millennia later, there are still so many similarities. It’s very popular to talk about how disorganized things were back then, and how they were completely free-form, but there really was much more structure than we like to credit early on in the local church.
2. The visible Church is the difference that local churches can make in their community. When we partner with Big Brother/Big Sister or with the Red Cross, people’s lives are visibly changed because of the efforts of the local church. You can see the difference that love makes in a community. When you look around the city of Jackson, you see something good happening by virtue of some Christian men and woman getting their hands dirty and helping other people.
3. The universal Church is the family of Jesus Christ. It’s the church on every inch of the planet where people want to be called by the name of Christian. Not only today, but backwards through time — right to the time of Jesus’ death on the cross — and all the way forward into the future. Even your unborn grandchildren or great, great grandchildren are a part of this same universal Church should they make the choice to follow Christ.
4. The invisible Church refers to the effects of the universal Church that cannot be seen, such as the way the universal Church has affected history. Look at the way the universal Church has been a voice and a consonant for change throughout culture. If you don’t think the Church has had an invisible presence even in modern history, you ought to take a trip some day to Africa or Haiti or China or Cuba. Just talk to any Christian there and ask them those questions. Think about William Wilberforce in the U.K. or John Woolman in the United States and their roles in bringing about the end of slavery. Think about Martin Luther King and his Christian vision for the United States, being a huge battering ram against racial prejudice. Think about Bishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa. He was hated and distrusted by both sides of the conflict towards the end of apartheid and yet Tutu was instrumental in bringing about an almost bloodless end to that regime.
As broken as we are, the more we learn, the more people we meet, the more we travel, the more we grow full of conviction that God is redeeming his Church.
Christ’s love makes the Church whole; his words evoke her beauty.
This is a very different picture of Church compared to what you see in the media. Church today has deteriorated to the lowest common denominator of its New Testament identity (still, whenever people are getting together, embracing God and doing their very best to experience the life of the Spirit —
that is a good thing. At least people are orienting themselves toward God, and that’s a start).
This ethic of New Testament Christianity is really the imitation of Jesus, and there are maybe four sorts of avenues in which you might do this. The first would be identification. The Incarnation of Jesus Christ embodies an act of profound identification with the entire human race.
So being a New Testament Church, being an incarnational Church, means identifying with the people around us, people in our community, people who are our neighbors, and identifying our culture and our society. This is maybe where our conversation about relevance comes back into play.
We identify with culture, but we don’t sell out to it.
The next avenue we might look at is the idea of locality. This involves the recognition that the Incarnation was not just a momentary theophany or divine vision, but involved God actually living among us. Jesus came and lived among real people. Jesus was who he was not only because he was God but also because he was formed through his engagement with people. He lived a real life, so part of being a real Church is being in and around the rest of the world.
The third avenue is the idea of being “beyond-yet-in-the-midst.” The eternal, transcendent God was (and is) right here in our midst. Those who seek God now find him in Jesus Christ, the 1st century Palestinian Jew. This must prompt us to ask the question: “are the people who are seeking God finding him in us” ? If, for example, somebody wants to know about spirituality, can they get that from talking to us? To be a New Testament kind of church that ought to be true. They should get more than the latest business teaching regurgitated into religious jargon. They should get more than a fake plastic smile. They should actually encounter God in conversation with us. People should feel there is something authentic about the way we are interacting with our own circumstances, difficulties, and problems.
Lastly, our churches might best reflect the spirit of New Testament community by recalling the human image of God. From now on all true perspectives of God must pass through the lens of a man called Jesus of Nazareth.
Church really does have to be about Jesus.
We as a church community gather together because of our affection and devotion to Jesus Christ, not just for spirituality or goodness, but for Jesus.
It has been a very big concern to make sure that everyone who comes to Westwinds knows that this is a Jesus church. This is Jesus’ church, and we’re concerned with connecting people with Jesus.
I get irked sometimes because it is so easy to talk in nebulous, nonspecific, impersonal ways about God. But God is personal. Specifically he revealed himself as an earthly person. The Church has to be connected with the person and work of Jesus Christ (God, after all, is a nice, abstract idea, but Jesus Christ is a little trickier to dismiss as superstitious fancy).
The example of Jesus provides us with the means by which the gospel can become part of a community without damaging the innate cultural frameworks that provide that community with meaning and history.
Now I’ll translate – you don’t have to change the way you live and move and talk to everybody around you and become some kind of clone in order to be a Christian.
The bottom line is that being a Christian is less about appearances and more about engaging God in every moment. It’s about being obedient to the prompting of the Spirit of God and trying to walk Jesus’ path in the way he would have done if he were alive today.
When we talk about the local church, we are talking about a community that is actually a counter-community to the community of this world. Churches ought to be living out the reality of the Kingdom of God right now. It ought to be a community where the right kinds of things are held up — generosity, sacrifice, volunteerism, good will, and faith and hope and love.
That’s what church ought to be.
There are some demands for that counter community. That is what brings us back to the discussion of ethics and preferences. You can’t have that ecclesia, that New Testament Christianity in community, without giving up on some of our preferences and prioritizing our ethics. Our preferences are so diverse they wreck our churches when we elevate those preferences beyond mere aesthetic consideration. It is hard to love somebody when you are fighting them about music and preaching.
Instead, by focusing our efforts on engaging God, on prayer, on unity, it becomes very easy to fund a counter imagination of our world.
It becomes our nature to live together in love.
Dr. David McDonald is the teaching pastor at Westwinds Community Church in Jackson, MI. The church, widely considered among the most innovative in America, has been featured on CNN.com and in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and Time Magazine. David weaves deep theological truths with sharp social analysis and peculiar observations on pop culture. He lives in Jackson with his wife, Carmel, and their two kids. Follow him on twitter (@fossores) or online at fossores.com
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