It has been noted, often with a bit of irony, that Jesus preached the coming of the Kingdom and what came instead was the Church. The irony is of course that while Jesus proclaimed a new reality, what we got was another fallible institution, subject to the same frailties and limitations that define all human existence. Yet for 2,000 years this institution has been the place where Christians have met their Lord—the place where they have come together to struggle with issues of faith and love. As we approach the beginning of the Church’s third millennium of existence it is appropriate to consider what it is about this institution that keeps it vital after so many years.
For most of us the Church is a given. It existed long before we were born and will exist long after we have been forgotten. For many the Church has been part of life itself, from that moment when as infants we were splashed with the waters of Baptism, through adolescence, marriage, and the grave. It is no wonder that so many Christians give little thought to the nature of the Church. “The Church? It just is!”
Luckily the Bible, creeds, and Confessions give us some help. The Church is the body of Christ. The Church is one. It is holy and Apostolic. The Church is the assembly of the saints where the Gospel is taught in its purity and the Sacraments are rightly administered.
Yet as simple, elegant, insightful, and authoritative as these ancient formulas are, they fail to sufficiently capture my experience as a member of a particular congregation: Grace Lutheran Church in the Metropolitan Chicago Synod of the ELCA. Most of the time I count myself among those who take the Church for granted. Yet when I try to analyze those times when I have been most vividly aware of the power of the Church I find that certain conditions must fall into place.
First, the Church must be people among whom the Gospel is proclaimed. In proclaiming that the salvation promised by the prophets has come and has become visible in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Church challenges me to live a new life of service to God and the world. It pushes me to break free of my unreflective “take-it-for-granted” way of living. It pushes me to seek a life that transcends the self-centeredness and self importance that is so seductive.
The proclamation of the Gospel reveals the second element that I find present in those instances when the Church seems particularly vital, and that is service. In the face of the Gospel, how can one live for one’s self? The cross is a call to live for others, just as Christ was and is the “man for others.” Service is more than doing good things, more than charity. It is giving one’s life for others just as “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many.” The Gospel moves beyond words and ideology and manifests itself concretely as God’s people seek justice, love righteousness, and learn to give of themselves in service to the world.
The final element that I have found present in those times when the Church seemed most alive, is community. When I first came to America from Korea I found myself isolated. I didn’t speak the language well. American society and American institutions were incomprehensible. My family, friends, and other sources of support were inaccessible. Life in isolation, life without community, is not human life. In the Church I found a community that could expand its boundaries to include a foreigner who, though she didn’t share a common ancestry, culture, or even language, did share a common encounter with the Gospel of Christ.
The Church is a special kind of community. It is community formed around a common encounter with the Gospel of Christ. The Gospel is never proclaimed to me alone, but to and through the community. Alone I could ignore or rationalize the proclamation. I could selectively interpret it to confirm my own aggrandizing illusions. The community acts as a check on my self-deception. It reminds me that Christian faith is so much more than just me and Jesus.
The community is the people among whom the Gospel is proclaimed. It is also the assembly among whom service is affirmed, directed, and supported. I go to the community when I am in need, to be assured of God’s love through the witness of others, to be healed by their self-giving love, to be challenged by their living-out of our common encounter with Christ.
German theologian Dorothee Solle (Thinking About God, 1990) identifies these three basic elements of the living Church: kerygma, diakonia, and koinonia (proclamation, service, and community). The three are interdependent and share an almost catalytic relationship to each other. Kerygma without diakonia is little more than tired slogans and empty words. Diakonia apart from kerygma is unable to identify the roots of the problem and ultimately is ineffective in changing lives. Koinonia apart from kerygma merely affirms the status quo while kerygma and diakonia apart from koinonia become simple egoism.
While it is necessary to hold these three together, the amalgamation itself produces a power that can be felt as a real tension. For example, the Gospel will always challenge the community to expand its boundaries to include those who have been excluded. Churches like Willow Creek, which take the cross out of the sanctuary, have responded to the threat kerygma poses to the status quo by adopting a too-cozy koinonia, and have lost the creative tension of Christian community.
Solle suggests that we can think through our own church experiences in terms of these three elements by asking such questions as, “Where have I encountered kerygma? Where have learned something for my life? Where has diakonia come alive for me? Where have I helped and where have I been useful in helping others? Where have I met koinonia? Where was I supported and felt myself “inside?”
Being the Church is a never-ending struggle to keep in balance these three elements as we live and worship as God’s people. But when this occurs, this fragile, fallible, aged institution still has a remarkable ability to reform lives by building a Gospel-formed community of diverse people, united in a mutual love of and service to God, each other, and the world.