When I was a child, my notion of church never went beyond the gathered community that worshiped in the fortress like structure on Chesterfield St. in Aiken, S.C. In fact, my concept of church was inextricably tied to that dark and mysterious building. I belonged to that church. My friend Ernie Shuler belonged to the Methodist church. Derrick Lee and the Tyler brothers were a part of the Lutheran church. Cheryl Smith and our family physician belonged to the Presbyterian church. The Perry family left the Baptist church (they found Baptists too liberal) and joined the Brethren church. I knew where all these churches (as well as many others) were located in the community. But it never occurred to me that we all belonged to THE CHURCH–that we all were part of the Body of Christ.
And although we have grown in our understanding of church and have developed an appreciation of the universal nature of the Body of Christ, I suggest that we still harbor parochial notions when it comes to our customary conceptualization of the church. Church in the minds of most North American Christians is still that gathered community which worships and fellowships at a specific location. At Regional and General Assemblies of our denomination, we become aware of the larger manifestations of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), but for all our efforts at expanding our vision, we still on a day to day basis tend to think of church as the local congregation of which we are a part.
And so when we focus on enhancing the health and vitality of the church, it is so easy to define church in limiting ways. The church is my local congregation–at the most, my denomination. But what is the church? What is the Body of Christ? The church is made up of all those (past, present, and future) who acknowledge Jesus as Lord. And in 2020, that faith profession is made and lived on every continent and in every tongue.
From the villages and townships of Africa to the countryside and barrios of Latin America; from the rice paddies and teeming cities of Asia to the crumbling walls of oppression in Eastern Europe; from the cornfields of Indiana to the killing fields of EI Salvador, Jesus is proclaimed, confessed, and embraced as Lord. The Body of Christ, spread all over this planet, bears witness to the truth of the gospel: “For God so loved the WORLD that God gave.”
In fact, the church in terms of numbers, dynamic growth, and faithfulness, has already moved its center of gravity from the Northern Hemisphere to the Southern. Today there are more Christians in the global South than there are in Europe and North America combined. The time may come when Christians from Africa, Latin America, and Asia will come to our shores in a mission effort to convert our minds, bodies, souls, values, and pocketbooks to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. In that encounter, our cultural “Churchianity” may be challenged by authentic Christianity. If the church is the universal Body of Christ, then what does it mean to enhance the health and vitality of the CHURCH? First, we can take concrete and intentional steps to cultivate an awareness and appreciation of our brothers and sisters throughout the world. I believe in our prayers and in those times of honest sharing with God, we need to bring the church before God, or perhaps more correctly stated, we need to discover the universal Body of Christ already in the heart of God. Listen to these words from the Franciscan priest Richard Rohr regarding the power of prayer to enlarge our vision:
To pray is to build your own house. To pray is to discover that Someone else in within your house. To pray is to recognize that it is not your house at all. To keep praying is to have no house to protect because there is only One House. And that One House is everybody’s home. That is the politics of prayer. And that is probably why truly spiritual people are always a threat to politicians of any sort. They want our allegiance and we can no longer give it. Our house is too big.Fr. Richard Rohr
How often do we think of prayer as having a political dimension? (Our Black sisters and brothers could teach us a great deal about the power of such prayer!) What does it mean to pray for our brothers and sisters in Christ who are hungry, oppressed, tortured, exploited, and crushed in their hopes and dreams? To see the Body of Christ crucified on the idolatrous altars of greed and violence may be the first step in the church’s testimony to the Prince of Peace. To pray with all our brothers and sisters by our side might be the most radical, transforming act of obedience we can ever offer God.
But in addition to prayer, we need direct contact with our wider family of faith. Some of the best money a local congregation can ever spend is to send some of its members to other countries to meet, worship with, share with, and learn from Christians in different cultures. Most of those who have made such a sacred pilgrimage have returned profoundly different from what they were before they discovered Christ in the lives and hearts of others. The partnership that can grow from such encounters can revive the church of Jesus Christ in ways that would exceed the boundaries of our imaginations.
But such an effort on our part must not be understood as our attempt to help, much less evangelize, our sisters and brothers in Christ. We go to learn from them and to allow them to transform us. Years ago, a youth group from the church I pastored went to Honduras on a Disciples’ sponsored mission trip. Our young people encountered another youth group from another denomination heading to Honduras on their own mission trip. These teenagers were wearing shirts with the following words inscribed: “BRINGING LIGHT INTO A WORLD OF DARKNESS.” I was never so proud of our youth as when they recognized the arrogance and presumption of those words. The world has suffered enough from most North American attempts to communicate the Good News of Christ. We do not have a monopoly on the Christian faith. In fact, sometimes I wonder if American Christians have any idea what the gospel is all about. If we go at all, we must go as partners and, most often, as junior partners willing to learn and grow.
And that partnership leads us to a second ingredient in enhancing the health and vitality of the church sharing. In a world of haves and have nots–in a world where 1.3 billion of God’s children are hungry–where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer–where some die of starvation while others die of heart diseases associated with “affluent” lifestyles and expanding waist lines, the Scriptures are crystal clear: “Let him who has two coats share with him who has none. And let him who has food do likewise.” (Luke 3:11) “If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brothers or sisters in need, yet closes his heart against them, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or speech, but in deed and in truth.” (I John 3:17-18)
If we cannot share, then the love of God is not in us. If we cannot share what it takes to sustain life, then we will be unable to share the good news that God is love with any credibility. But this sharing is not one sided. While we share our wealth, Christians in others countries can share their wisdom. While we share our money, they can share their faithfulness. While we share our power, they can share their sacrificial love. The sharing that can come from discovering the universal Body of Christ will enrich us all as some have enough to live while the rest of us rediscover the why of living as God’s faithful people.
And finally, through our discovery of the Body of Christ, we can recover the mission of the church. As we become sensitive to our brothers and sisters throughout the world, we will become sensitive to their concerns for the communities in which they live. Together we will find that the church has a mission from God. Jesus said, “As the Father has sent me, so send I you.” (As my seminary colleague said, “And that’s a powerful lot of sending!”) We exist to serve the world, to love the world, and to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with the world through word, deed, concrete love and deep compassion. From our brothers and sisters in Christ all over the world (some of whom have been able to do the best of things in the worst of circumstances), we can recover our mission sent from the heart of God.
We shall all gain from rediscovering the church as the universal Body of Christ. It is doubtful whether we can be faithful as we begin the third millennium of Christianity without that discovery. But with such a discovery, all of us can be woven into the everlasting tapestry of God’s faithful story of love and redemption. Together as the Body of Christ, each part enriched by the other, we can turn the world upside down and receive the blessed indictment given to the early church by their enemies: “See how they love one another!”