Putting the Church in its Place

By Neil Richardson.

‘The world is too much with us’. So wrote William Wordsworth. Suppose we change one word, and consider how the Church is too much with us. To adapt some more famous words (Dr Johnson’s): when two Methodists meet – especially ordained ones – their first talk is of the Church.

We are too church-centred. Admittedly, the English word ‘church’ does duty for many things: a building, a congregation, an organization, the Church universal…… But expressions like ‘supporting the Church’ and ‘keeping the Church going’ are simply not in the New Testament. No wonder Methodists (and perhaps others) talk of ‘having a Sunday off’ – i.e off church.

We often see both the Church and the world wrongly. When that happens, evangelism becomes proselytising: claiming adherents for the Church, as if the Church were an organisation in competition with others – other churches, other faiths, the world itself.

Thomas Merton, in one of his books, posed the question: ‘Is the world a problem?’ It seemed to be a problem to Christians from the beginning. ‘You are not of the world’, says Jesus in John’s gospel (John 15.19). ‘Do not love the world’, says a later writer, (1 John 2.15). Does this mean Christians were called to be ‘in the world, but not of it’? I think not. We often misunderstand John’s gospel on this point. But even if we were called to be in the world, but not of it, doesn’t this mean in practice a nervous balancing act, dipping a toe into the murky waters of the world, wary of being contaminated or compromised? So we Christians appear to be in the world a little reluctantly: semi-detached members of the human race whose real home is elsewhere. A church then becomes a comfort zone, with dissent and controversy screened out, as in ‘Let’s not disturb our nice fellowship by talking about politics – especially Br – it’.

John’s gospel doesn’t call disciples of Jesus to be ‘in the world, but not of it’. Certainly, those words are there – but not in that sequence. The picture John’s gospel gives of Jesus is key here. He is our archetype: not ‘of this world’, because his origin was with God. Yet God sent him into the world (John 3.16 etc). And that is the right order for disciples: ‘born again’ and sent into the world: ‘As the Father sent me, so I send you’ (John 20.19-23). Compare our baptism with that of Jesus. Jesus began his ministry with an astonishing act of solidarity with his people – that is to say, the entire human race – ‘The Word was made flesh’. His ministry ended as it began: ‘numbered with the transgressors’ – a death which became his eternal intercession for the whole human race. So our baptism – baptism into Christ– means joining the human race, as represented by Jesus. And Jesus was more human than any of us – immersed in the life of the world.

‘Born again’ can be misunderstood. St Paul writes of ‘the renewing of our minds’ (Romans 12.1-2). That was Simon Peter’s experience in what has been called his second conversion (Acts 10-11). He saw that outsiders weren’t unclean after all. He learned to love foreigners; he embraced the world. And off he went – far away from Jerusalem and Galilee – to places like Caesarea and Corinth. This ‘renewing of our minds’ (‘born again’) is utterly essential for the renewal of the Church. How can we evangelise, unless we are evangelised?

Being a really open church involves far more than allowing other organisations to use our premises. It requires ‘the renewing of our minds’. A church leader once remarked to me, ‘I regard everyone as in, unless they opt out’. If, as I believe, that is faithful to Jesus and the New Testament, then why has the Church turned that into its very opposite: everyone is out(side) unless they opt in? So the Church embraces the world – as its Creator always has.

Being a semi-detached member of the human race is an attractive option these days, and has been down the centuries for Christians – a kind of Gnosticism which doesn’t take seriously the world as God’s creation. But it was not the way of Jesus. Our baptism into Christ means becoming human as he was (and is), and really joining the human race.

This is how Merton concludes his answer to his question ‘Is the world a problem?’

‘The world cannot be a problem to anyone who sees that ultimately Christ, the world, his brother (and sister) and his own inmost ground are made one and the same in grace and redemptive love.’

Measure each day, not by how much you do for the Church, but how full it is of God – and, therefore, of prayer and love.


7 thoughts on “Putting the Church in its Place”

  1. Thank you, thank you, thank you Neil.
    I read this and my heart felt lifted that it was written. Many of us believe this and believe it deeply, but we all have to put aside our fears of dropping numbers and recognise that it remains God’s world and Jesus came into it to help us to learn how to live well within it.
    I believe there is a huge movement of the Spirit around the world, I wonder whether we will be able to sense it and respond to it!


  2. My response to this is the same as Hazel’s.
    Thank you, Neil, for saying what many Christians do believe but often get shot down for saying it.


  3. I spent 25 years as a Minister in Secular Employment because of my conviction that the “church” needed to be on life’s battlefield. We need to actively share in the pain and the joys of life and not be in a “priveleged” position of an observer. During that time I was redundant twice and spent 4 months out of work. All those who are called to this form of ministry should be used to help people in the pews to understand the ministry they have where they live and where they work.


  4. The church has often been seen as an ark of salvation. We have taken the line that if we can get people into the church and convert them, then they will be saved and safe. But the church is meant to be a support ship for mission. The church doesn’t exist to conserve tradition nor to preserve itself as an institution but to fulfil its mission of helping to bring about God’s kingdom. Dietrich Bonhoeffer called Christ ‘the man for others’. Since the church is the body of Christ, he concluded that ‘the church is the church only when it exists for others.’

    We should worry less about bringing people into church and put more effort into getting church members out into the community. It’s love, not organization or preaching, that truly communicates the gospel. The early church survived persecution, because of the self-sacrificial love, care and support they showed to each other, which they extended to anyone else in need.

    Thomas said, “Except I see in his hands the print of the nails … I will not believe.” It has been suggested that what Thomas said of Christ, the world is saying about the church. Unless they see a living faith in action, they’ll think it is all just words, and largely irrelevant to their lives. How are we going to convince them that a relationship with God really does change lives, unless they see that we’re prepared to put God and others first? It’s no good telling people that our faith is centred on love, unless we show that love both within the church and beyond its walls and demonstrate it in our own lives.

    We’ll never argue people into the kingdom. We’ll never convince them with just words. Faith operates on a much deeper level than that. But we can allow God to love them into the kingdom through the compassion that we show and through the sacrifices we are willing to make.

    So what is Christ calling us to do? Where and how does he want us to make an impact? Is he asking us to move outside our comfort zone in order to reach out to others? Are we willing to give up some familiar things and risk new ventures to help to further the kingdom of God?

    If Christianity is about transformed lives, how much are we prepared to be changed? How much are we prepared to be changed personally? How much are we prepared to be changed as a church? How deeply are we prepared to love?


  5. I was involved in weekly religious broadcasting for more than twenty years before becoming a Local Preacher. A dear soul in one early congregation said ‘You should have been doing this years ago!’ – the church building being, of course, the proper place in which to convey the Good News. Sigh.


  6. After more than twenty years in religious broadcasting I trained as a Local Preacher. Someone in an early congregation said warmly ‘You should have been doing this years ago!’ – the church building being, of course, the place in which to tell the Good News. Sigh.


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