One hears fairly often people in the Church suggesting that our buildings are a burden, that our traditional ways of doing church are a barrier to engagement, that mission should be understood in terms of service and a variety of other ways of saying that “doing church” is a good thing but seeing church as revolving around a Sunday morning “hymn sandwich” service is not.
This often goes along with another set of rhetorical devices around “inclusion” and “welcome” that seem to indicate a view that being part of the Church is a privilege and that we should worry about this privilege being denied to people because they don’t live in the same way as those already in it or don’t believe as they do.
Before going any further I’d like to point out that I don’t deny that there are good reasons for thinking and saying the things outlined in the paragraphs above. The way in which Christians worship has evolved and changed over the centuries and should and will continue to do so. The worship of the church of the future will undoubtedly look different from the worship of a typical contemporary URC congregation (although exactly how it will look is difficult to predict – will it include lots of talking in tongues, for example?). Similarly where a church refuses to make welcome anyone unlike its present members it will inevitable wither and die, and so it should.
I would like, though, to explore one of the assumptions made in this line of reasoning: that Church membership is a privilege that we would ideally like all to share. This thought seems to me to be largely unquestioned in much of the outward looking, missional, and inclusive theological speech I’m responding to and I’m not sure I entirely agree with it. It needs, it seems to me, to be balanced by seeing Church membership as a task, a responsibility, a burden, and one only some can, will and should undertake.
This requires a different view of salvation from that which focusses on the individual. I am inclined to the view (which I find well expressed in some of Tom Wright’s books) that salvation, for Christianity, is not something that happens to the person but something that God promises to Creation. We cannot, finally, be saved as people without all of us and all of what exists being saved. This salvation is what will occur at the parousia, the second coming, the end of this age.
We can participate in this salvation “proleptically”, to use the theological jargon, but it is not complete and our participation is (“only”) anticipatory, until in God’s good time it is brought to full realisation.
The Church, thus, does not and cannot “save”, it can only act as the means by which God makes the promise known and, through the work of the Spirit, enables the “out of time” entry into the coming Kingdom. Entry into the Church is neither necessary nor sufficient to salvation by God’s grace.
This means that those who do not come into the Church are not (necessarily) being denied salvation. This can and will only be known at the end. The Church, we must trust, has its role to play in God’s working out of the salvation of Creation, but we do not, fully, understand what that role is.
My own inclination is to focus this role on the Reformation “marks of the church”; the Word and the Sacraments. That is to say the biblical witness to Christ read and explained in all its complexity and depth, baptism as entry into the Church, and the Eucharist as the making present of Christ by the Spirit in the elements of bread and wine.
This means I’m inclined to assert the importance of insisting on our understanding of what God says in God’s Word and of a traditional observation of the sacraments. This does NOT imply that I’d like to go back to a rule bound and exclusive baptismal or Eucharistic practice, of insisting on testing the faith of those who wish to participate in either sacrament. I trust that God knows who to admit and how to understand their participation and feel no desire to act as a gate-keeper.
However I don’t, either, see any point in seeking “relevance” or numbers through the abandonment of preaching the Word or of forms of word. Neither God nor creation is any worse off if a smaller Church witnesses than if a larger one does. God’s saving plan is not the exclusive property of the Church, nor are all those outside it unhappier or otherwise in worse shape than all those inside it.
The Church should concentrate on understanding the particular thing God calls it to do and doing that thing with integrity. Those called to other things should not seek to make them part of the essence of the Church’s mission. There is nothing preventing them doing what they are called to while also being members of the Church and joining in its witness.
But if the Church abandons its special (“peculiar”) vocation this will not get done. The Church needs its “walls”, its boundaries, so that it can be what it is called to be. At the end of the age, when Christ returns in glory, there will be no further need of the Church, and then its walls can, thanks be, go.