There is something more profound than a developed soul.
There is something more influential than a Christian mind.
There is something more compelling than a call.
This great enterprise gathers these elements together and places them in a context of such cosmic significance that Jesus declared it would be “so expansive with energy that not even the gates of hell will be able to keep it out” (Matthew 16:18, Msg).
He was referring to the church.
Jesus made this staggering claim because the church would be His ongoing incarnation on planet earth. The church is His body, His presence, His life – the means for His ongoing ministry to the world, not simply as the universal body of believers around the world but as concrete communities of faith gathered together in the name of Christ as mission outposts to the world.
And you cannot fulfill God’s plan for your life, much less change the world, apart from taking your place in its mission and ministry, community and cause.
Reflecting on a lifetime of study in the social sciences, Peter Berger suggests that the key to resisting the secular culture of our day is for communities of faith to self-consciously and determinedly stand against its onslaught. As critical as it is to understand the process of secularization, it pales in comparison with grasping the church’s mandate to engage in “countersecularization.”
The church, writes Dennis Hollinger, is the “visible, corporate expression of the Christian worldview.” Famed missiologist Lesslie Newbigin would agree: “I have come to feel that the primary reality of which we have to take account in seeking for a Christian impact on public life is the Christian congregation ... Jesus ... did not write a book but formed a community.”
During World War II the people of London were subjected to the fierce blitzkrieg attacks of the German air force. Throughout the blitz St. Paul’s Cathedral miraculously escaped major bomb damage, though surrounding areas were reduced to rubble. Rising strong and tall against the London skyline, St. Paul’s became the symbol of London’s soul, and its spirit was the foundation on which the city would be rebuilt.
Like St. Paul’s, the church alone can withstand the onslaught of the world and, standing firm, recapture the soul of a lost and weary world.
This is our mission.
Indeed, our great commission: through the church we are to reach out to those relationally divorced from Christ and turn them into fully-devoted followers (Matthew 28:18-20). No other endeavor that could ever be contemplated could eclipse the global impact of this cause.
But it won’t just happen.
We do not live and breathe in a neutral environment but in the midst of a hostile conflict, and we are behind enemy lines. The god of this world has been named, and he is ensconced firmly on his throne. There is only one domain beyond his control which stands in the way of total dominion: the body of Christ. As a result, the church is under constant assault, for it stands alone against the night. It demands constant reinforcement and steadfast commitment. The church is not simply in the vanguard of kingdom advance, it is the entire assault force.
According to Jesus’ words, the church is not only to take a stand against evil but also to stage a frontal attack.
Tragically, Christ followers are notorious for being dismissive of the church, as if it were a disposable institution created by human beings as one option on the Christian front, not realizing it is the front itself. This is particularly true among evangelical Christians.
Carl F.H. Henry, the founding editor of Christianity Today magazine, wrote a masterful six-volume systematic theology that set the stage for evangelical thinking for his generation. God, Revelation and Authority insightfully explores the nature of theology and theological method; revelation, inspiration and the canon of Scripture; and the existence and attributes of God, including the Trinity. It pursues issues related to creation and providence, human nature, and original and actual sin. It moved on to investigate the person and work of Christ, predestination, conversion, justification, sanctification, the work of the Holy Spirit, perseverance, and, in the end, eschatology.
Every major doctrine, save one.
The apparent summa of evangelical thought, and not a single section on ecclesiology. This is nothing against Carl Henry. As a graduate student, I found him to be a gracious and generous man. But he didn’t seem to have a vision for the church. Few American evangelicals have, not simply because our theologians have not led us but because our enterprising spirit has numbed us to the primacy of the church – particularly through the explosion of the parachurch movement, aptly described as “religion gone entrepreneurial.”
Missions and ministries, crusades and campaigns litter the American religious landscape, most without direct ties to the local church. Embraced as a way to enlarge the boundaries of God’s work beyond the traditional church, for many, parachurch organizations have become a substitute entity, often competing with and occasionally antagonistic toward the church. Almost half of all religious giving now goes to such enterprises.
To celebrate this trend from being church-centered to kingdom-centered is terrible theology. The church is the divinely instituted and appointed vehicle of Kingdom ministry.
The very meaning of the word parachurch is “that which is to come along beside [para] the church.” It does not mean “beyond the church,” as some have suggested. Misunderstanding the nature and role of the parachurch has led some to actually speak of the “potential” partnership of the church and parachurch, as if it might be a nice option.
This devaluation of the church in terms of theology, attitude, commitment and participation is a startling compromise of Christ’s vision and intent. The church is not optional for the Christ follower. There is no ministry found in the New Testament that is not firmly planted under its canopy.
But the critical importance of the church goes well beyond strategic primacy. The church is decisive for the Christian to fulfill the Christian life.
Consider what has been entrusted to the church for the sake of the Christian: the very proclamation of the gospel, corporate worship, the sacraments, the new community in Christ, the use of and benefit from spiritual gifts, spiritual care and protection through pastors. Far beyond the church’s central role as the means by which this world is to be engaged and transformed, the church is the very body of Christ, which every Christ follower is an integral part of and is meant to embrace (1Cor 12:12-26).
So penetrating was this understanding at the beginning of the Christian movement that it led the early church father Tertullian to maintain “it is not possible to have God as Father without having the Church as mother.” Cyprian echoed this sentiment with the dictum, “Nulla salus extra eclesiam” –
“Outside of the Church, there is no salvation.”
James Emery White
Adapted from James Emery White, Serious Times: Making Your Life Matter in an Urgent Day (InterVarsity Press). Click here to order this resource from Amazon.
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.