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Five critiques of church and their resolutions

#1. The apostolic view: a critique of form

  • This critique cuts right to the heart of the forms inhabited by Christian movements. The church appears incapable of fulfilling her calling and unable to rise to the challenges of our day. Why is this?
  • The inadequacies of Christian movements are directly related to their core design. The shape of any given social structure is animated in such a way that it both creates and limits the possibilities of what can be produced.
  • So if we are not producing that which we would hope for, it’s not necessarily from lack of trying or lack of good intention. It is simply part of the built-in limitations of the form we’re inhabiting.
  • The solution to this crisis of structure begins by learning to recognise the necessary relationship between the centre and the edge in social forms. 
  • Pioneers carve new space at the edge. Settlers move in and make that new space inhabitable. These different roles are related to the different gifts people have to bring to the ecclesia (“called out ones,” the NT word for what we now call church) and to society more widely.
  • The insights, knowledge, experience, and newness of life discovered by those generative pioneers who are carving out new space at the edge should be seen as gifts for the rest of us.
    1. (Ours is an age for the radical deployment of strategic, connected, visionary, dangerous, and compassionate pioneer ministries on an unprecedented scale. That is a different topic but is worth saying.)
  • The edge is not more special than the centre, but the centre needs the edge. The gains that are won at the edge must flow back to the centre. Why? So that the institution has the resource it needs to continue it’s critical task of continuous re-formation. 
  • The edge also needs the centre. Why? Because God has designed us to depend upon and serve one another. More specifically, the full machinery of the centre needs to be activated in service of the new life that the edge uncovers. Otherwise it risks being a gain only temporarily won and then surrendered.
  • Another thing to note is that there is often a space between the edge and the centre. In this space, we can find those people who are gifted with the understanding, connection, and breadth of vision that is needed to design scalable movements. Finding and empowering such apostolically-gifted people is an essential part of this equation.

#2. The prophetic view: a critique of substance

  • This critique may be directed at what is perceived to be either a lack of true worship or a lack of true justice within a particular Christian community, movement, or tradition.  There is almost certainly truth to be found wherever such a critique is found, and thank God for those who are courageous enough to speak when it is so needed. However, one challenge is that questions of worship and justice are intricately connected to one another. True expression of either of these cannot be had without the other. God is holy and just.
  • The prophetic view is a question of the wellness of the gospel in a given community, movement, or individual life. Justice and holiness are not something that we can enact fully or perfectly in or of ourselves. Rather, they both flow out of the same source – the very life of God.
  • How can this critique be resolved? It’s a question of the gospel. If we, despite our limitations, are able in faith to receive the gift of God that is offered in Jesus, we become increasingly free for God. As we daily enact this freedom through core prayers, identity-affirmations, discipleship reflections and other such tools, our freedom and openness for God grows.
  • The result of this is that we give Jesus more and more space in our life. We can grab hold of the practical implications of the Gospel. We realise anew that it is not our own work that fixes this world. It is not our own righteousness through which we can be in the presence of God. It is not through our own purity of heart that we worship God rightly.
  • When we arrive in this place, we are entering the realm of Jesus-life. It is here that the Spirit of Christ begins to truly animate our action in the world, uniting us to Christ so we may stand with confidence in the heavenly places (Ephesians 2:6), contending for us in the ongoing battle for our hearts that is the worship of the one true God.
  • The resolution to the prophetic critique begins with each believer pursuing the whole life of God for themselves, and prayerfully seeking Holy Spirit life on for the whole church. 
  • It also requires us to be fiercely gentle and kindly fierce in our speech as a way of keeping each other accountable to God’s holy and just life. We are seeking to live God through Christ, and to love the world through the Spirit.

3. The evangelistic view: a critique of method

  • This critique is related to a perceived lack of substance in our evangelistic efforts, and an over-reliance upon particular methods in our quest to reach people for God. 
  • The place at which this critique hits closest to home is when the method with which we are seeking to reach outward is incongruent with the substance of the message we’re seeking to share. 
  • It is clearly important that we learn to use the tools and methods available to us to communicate to and connect with people outside the church for the cause of Christ. But it is important as we do that is to rely first and foremost on the gospel itself as our evangelistic priority, rather than relying too heavily on the latest approaches to conversion, church planting, or growth, for example.
  • One of the most radical effects of the gospel is the way God forms one people out of many individuals. If you have ever experienced discontent with community, disagreement with others, hurt, disappointment, or disunity, then you will know that it is miraculous when the Holy Spirit brings about a strong and sacrificial unity among a group of people.
  • God desires to nurture communities of people who are on mission together. Such a community pursues Jesus, seeking to share in the Spirit’s work of forging a stronger world, in a network or neighbourhood where God’s alternative future is taking tangible shape among them, even in the smallest of ways, for the blessing of the nations.
  • Healthy evangelistic action includes the empowering, training, and activating of evangelistically-gifted individuals, from within the context of a hospitable, welcoming, and invitational Christian community which itself provides a beautiful window into what it is that the gospel does in both individual and shared lives.
  • This is a community of people who have encountered the transforming love of God, who hear the call of Jesus to confront the darkness and be the light, who are healed from brokenness, and who join in the healing ministry of the Spirit.
  • All methods of outreach should be designed to be in congruence with the Jesus-life that is being witnessed to.

#4. The pastoral view: a critique of nurture

  • You would think the church of all places should know how to do relationship well. After all, coming to be in personal relationship with Jesus is core to the Christian message. Shouldn’t the experience of God’s transforming love be the perfect training ground to make us into relational experts? So why is it that relational depth, true care, and authenticity are so hard to find in the church?
  • This is a fair question. Of course we should have high expectations of our organisations and the people who inhabit them. A church community is a witness to Jesus, and it is a serious problem if relational wellness is not easily perceived within such a community.
  • This critique is related to the apostolic view – you get what you design. Where there is systemic failure, it points to a fundamental issue in the way things are structured. And the care of people is certainly a question of structure, of social organisation.
  • It is also related to the prophetic view. How should we nurture one another so that the holy and just life of Christ can take shape within us? The church’s fundamental task is discipleship, so pastoral nurture is not simply one-directional care but is based on a mutual relationship of shared accountability. Care is offered, and accountability is provided, in multiple directions. They are two sides of the same coin.
  • It’s also worth recognising that no church as an organisation is solely responsible to provide all the care and nurture for every aspect of life. That idea is over-inflating the expectation of what the church is called to do, and what the church realistically can do. It also underplays the role of other organisations and structures within the wider society of which the church is a part. Actually, if the church fulfills her role well, then all sorts of people, exercising all sorts of ministries will be empowered and released into gifted service throughout society. The true church gathers around the life of Christ in the power of the Spirit, and from that place of divine encounter, blessing and service should pour outwards.
  • So the church should be a place in which outward-facing nurture is able to take place, as the people of God find themselves nurtured through the saving love of Christ, and empowered to give out from what they have received.
  • That still doesn’t answer the internal question of nurture. Why does there often seem to be a lack of substance, diligence, and authenticity in Christian relationships? Having already dealt in part with the system view, the answer continues with becoming the change. We can do that by building questions such as these into our personal practise and pastoral reflection processes. In what way are you allowing space within you for compassion to well up for the awkward person, the outsider… or the annoying insider? What can you do to make tangible improvements to the pastoral care system that is currently in place? What might you have to offer to the church that could help to contribute to a genuine change of tone throughout the organisation? What things have you and others noticed within the church’s culture that seem inauthentic or toxic? Can you position yourself to be an agent of change for Christ’s sake?

#5. The teaching view: a critique of usefulness

  • A final critique is fundamentally about the way we understand learning and transformation in the life of discipleship, and what our role is in relationship to the Holy Spirit’s role.
  • So the question might be asked: what’s the point of all this talking? What are we learning that actually helps us? We don’t understand what difference the Bible actually makes in our day-to-day lives, and even if we have a scent of possibility about it, most of the time what we are hearing just doesn’t seem to connect. Why go and listen to a boring sermon in a boring service when we could watch a sermon on youtube or have a nice Sunday morning outdoors?
  • The critique is directed at the problem of meaning. Much of the core propositions of Christianity seem to be formulated for a past age, and have not necessarily translated well into our contemporary world.
  • This is an important issue, especially as so many of the forms of Christianity that we inhabit at present are fundamentally built upon learning models. Every age group has its own custom learning format. If our church doesn’t have a custom plan for all of the age groups that we need, it’s a problem. But even if we do, something about the learning environment is probably wrong. There’s not enough Bible. Or it’s the wrong view of the Bible. Perhaps there’s not enough relational connection. Or there’s too much space for community. The worship is stale. Or rigid. Or too free. Perhaps the theology is bad. Or boring. Or apparently just… absent?
  • Again, this issue is related to the question of design. We are reaping what we have sowed. Our primary expressions of church are based around communal learning environments, shaped in the pastoral-teacher mode. The first problem is when this becomes the end, not the means. Learning is a discipleship question. 
  • Faithful discipleship relates to the nurturing of Jesus-shaped ife within individual people so as to empower them for Jesus-shaped mission, powered by the Spirit of God. Learning environments that do not provide the content that empowers people for participating in the life and mission of Jesus are insufficient. 
  • It’s not just about content either. The learning environment itself must catalyse action in such a way that it leads outward into mission settings. The goal is not “coming to church”, although that’s an important part of it (if you are so blessed and free to be part of a healthy fellowship at this particular moment of your life). The goal is receiving tools, strength, encouragement, inspiration, and the opportunity to reassess your core motivations, so that you are actually effective in living your life in a way that bears faithful witness to Jesus.
  • So how can this critique of usefulness find resolution? First, the church’s teaching ministry should focus on the person and work of Jesus. The Gospels should be celebrated as a fundamental witness to this. People should be encouraged communally and alone to engage the gospels on a regular basis through reading, listening, praying, and talking. Endless tools might be shared to support this commitment: some examples are lectio divina, Ignatian gospel contemplation, reading out-loud to others, listening to audio-books, following a bible study, memorising key or favourite verses, reading multiple chapters in single sittings, creating artistic works as a devotional practice in response to the Scripture, doing personal reflection on Scriptures, daily or weekly. 
  • There is ample opportunity for ethical reflection in the four Gospel accounts and for engaging multiple different questions about the Christian life. Pastors should centre and design their entire ministry practise around trying to encourage personal commitment to work such as this, and to creating multiple avenues for shared reflection, so as to open up conversation and inform faithful practice. Jesus, as the Word made flesh, is how we come to encounter God. Pursuing Jesus, and therefore starting with the Gospels, is a good first priority.
  • Next, we can recognise in our teaching ministry that the disciples of Christ who have come before us, our tīpuna wairua Tapu (ancestors of the Holy Spirit), have been seeking throughout the ages to point to this same Ihu Karaiti (Jesus Christ), to be witnesses to his life, death, and resurrection. This is how we can think about what the canon of Scripture, the Holy Bible, actually is: the faithful witness of the apostles and the prophets from throughout the ages, declaring with one kaleidoscopically unanimous voice, that Jesus is Lord. It is through this encounter with the Holy Word of God, which comes to us through oral and written tradition, that we find ourselves freed in the power of the Holy Spirit to encounter Jesus Christ as Son of God. So the entire Bible, the whole corpus of Holy Scripture is pointing towards Jesus. When we receive it as such, we discover that portals of divine encounter are waiting for us every time we open it with humble hands and a prayer-filled heart.
  • Third, we remember that we are not being formed primarily to know theological knowledge about God, but that gospel teaching is shaping us through encounter with God. Saving knowledge does something to us. We are built by knowledge. Specific knowledge of who God is takes shape within us. When the knowledge of God is properly taught, demonstrated, and enacted, it becomes a tool that enables us to serve both God and people more authentically and more powerfully – our true and pleasing worship (Romans 12:1).

Ending this essay

There are five critiques of church and their resolutions, from my limited but hopefully helpful point of view. The five critiques of form, substance, method, nurture, and usefulness, are useful for consideration. The apostolic critique may find resolution as the edge and the centre learn to listen to, resource, and champion one another. The prophetic critique may find resolution as more believers become more open to the full force of God’s life in their own lives and communities. The evangelistic critique may find resolution by understanding the Christian community itself as the primary evangelistic tool, and recognising that doing the hard work to make a Christian community resemble Christ will have an overflow effect of it becoming an ignition centre from which salvation might spring forth like the light. The pastoral critique may find resolution when space is created to actively and systematically improve care, and by maintaining a missional mindset in relation to care and its purpose. The teaching critique may find resolution as we re-orientate our resources around forming Jesus-life in people. We want to train people to creatively and robustly engage Scripture, so that disciples of Christ are strengthened with meaningful knowledge and depth of wisdom for the activating of a mission-shaped life.

These apostolic, prophetic, evangelistic, shepherding, and teaching functions can be developed throughout the whole life of the church, and throughout the life of every believer. We should be looking and praying diligently for mature expressions of these five competencies and giftings to emerge and take shape. 

If you are going to pray for God’s church, pray for the resolution of these critiques that I have outlined here. Pray for a new, Holy Spirit consciousness to arise and for it to infuse the Jesus movement in our age, in the ways I have sketched above.

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For more about the APEST framework I’ve used in this post, see my review of Alan Hirsch’s 5Q: Reactivating the Original Intelligence and Capacity of the Body of Christ.

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