The Embodied Church

Today we had the first get together in person, face to face prayer meeting at our church in almost two months. While in lockdown in May and June, some of us would meet on Zoom to pray together. Having such technology available has certainly been a blessing over the last year and a half. Without Zoom and the ability to livestream, we would have had to have gone weeks at a time not being able to connect, hear each other’s voices, and see one another’s faces. Granted, the online option doesn’t work for everyone. Being the pastor of a church where some members don’t even have a computer at home means there are some who get left out of this online participation. But at least there was something. Though, honestly, I am much less enamored of such technological possibilities now than I was a year or more ago when the whole lockdown thing began. I am grateful for them but not satisfied by them.

I heard somewhere that there were statistics showing that in some places only 60% of people would return to church in person after COVID. The remaining 40% are those who have found the online option preferable because it is more convenient. After all, who wouldn’t rather watch church on their TV or laptop screen in their PJs with a hot cup of coffee? Any parent, knowing what it’s like having to wrangle kids into clean clothes and into the minivan to make the trek to church, might be tempted by staying with this option. So such a statistic, if its bears any resemblance to reality, is certainly worth unpacking.

However, as convenient or helpful as being able to go online has been, I can’t imagine it ever being a substitute for actually gathering together in person. I will show my bias by stating it simply: online church isn’t really church.

Why? My reason is simple. We have bodies. And our bodies are not simply transportation devices for our heads. Our bodies matter. Who we are as physical creatures, as flesh and blood human beings, matters. We are embodied souls created by God to live in relationship with other embodied souls. That we can gather in one place with other people, smile at one another, shake hands, hug, and even just hear one another’s voices and see one another’s faces, matters. Profoundly.

Whatever else we say about church, it has to be embodied to fully be church. People attend worship services not only–and probably not even primarily–to hear sermons and sing songs. Sermons are available by the millions online. No pastor should be under the illusion that their preaching is indispensable. You can stream music at home or in your car, lifting your voice along with your preferred worship songs and hymns. You don’t need to go to a designated building to hear good teaching or music.

But church–that is, genuine Christian community–is much, much more than sermons and songs.

You see, you can’t embrace or be embraced at a distance. You can’t mourn with those who mourn and rejoice with those who rejoice only by texting. You can’t shake hands or offer someone a shoulder to cry on while on Zoom. A kind, loving tone of voice doesn’t translate well in an email. Genuine, long-term Christian community requires physical presence. It means being with others. It’s virtually impossible to obey any of the New Testament’s “one anothering” passages unless people are actually together.

Staying online for worship and other forms of spiritual nourishment also has the potential effect of feeding our already bloated consumerist approach to church life and Christianity. I find what I like. I stream what I prefer. My favourite preacher. My favourite music. My favourite liturgy. And if we’re watching an online service and the speaker or preacher says something that doesn’t conform to our preconceived ideas, we can turn it off. We move onto something else. Our own preferences and comfort zones become the arbiter of truth and value. We can safely become theological islands. Our Christian faith becomes a buffet of biblical interpretation and practical application–all based on our own appetites.

And when “going” to church from the comfort of our living rooms, we can sidestep the awkwardness of actual relationships, of people who don’t like us (hard to imagine) or who rub us the wrong way (perhaps easier to imagine), the person who smells funny or doesn’t quite understand common social cues, not to mention the potential disagreements and conflicts that cause many to leave congregations in the first place.

No wonder some people avoid church and opt for watching their favourite mega-church pastor on YouTube or Facebook instead.

But doesn’t all of this messiness provide the very conditions within which God seeks to conform us spiritually into the image of his Son–our Lord–Jesus? Doesn’t growing into spiritual maturity involve much more than increasing the amount of biblical information in our brains? Indeed, isn’t wisdom not only the accumulation of scriptural knowledge but living that knowledge out around other people, in actual relationships, in specific circumstances?

Learning to live patiently with people who annoy us, even if they are brothers and sisters in Christ, is most definitely not the same as intellectually understanding the concept of patience. Bearing one another’s burdens is not the same as recognizing the importance of compassion and sending an etransfer to a worthwhile charitable organization. No, to become patient people, thankful people, humble people, faithful people, merciful, forgiving, and loving Jesus-like people, we need to be smack dab in the middle of Christian community, of a family of faith through which God by His Spirit cultivates these qualities in us by placing us with people who test them.

Besides, isn’t our faith an incarnational one? After all, God did not remain afar off, but came near–indeed, became one of us. The entire arc of the core biblical narrative is God dwelling with humanity in a reconciled, whole, flourishing relationship. That’s the whole point of creation and redemption. That’s why the second Person of the Trinity became a human being, entered our world, went to the cross, and was raised again. It’s why we need forgiveness and repentance. It’s what our sin wrecks. It’s why, ultimately, Christ is coming again to judge the living and the dead. In the end, it’s all to bring together heaven and earth, to reconcile all things.

Being the church means learning to live into this reality even now, becoming over time a living display of what God intends and will bring about for all of creation in the new heavens and new earth. As hard, as messy, and as inconvenient as church seen in this light might therefore be, it can only happen in the way God fully intends when it’s embodied, with people actually gathering together, learning to forgive and love one another as Christ in the flesh has done with us.

Where are the Dividing Lines?

Let’s take a brief inventory:

Trinitarian versus Arian.

Calvinism versus Arminianism.

Infant baptism versus believer’s baptism.

Cessationism versus continuationism.

Young earth creationism versus old earth creationism.

Complementarianism versus egalitarianism.

Church organs versus guitar and drums.

Carpet versus tile.

Ok. So those last couple of examples might have been a little facetious. Churches never fight over music or buildings.

Right. Ok.

But my real question is: At what point do differences between Christians become something worth dividing over?

I could add to the above list more current hot-button cultural talking points such as Critical Race Theory, LBGTQ issues, COVID restrictions, masks, and vaccines, Liberal or Conservative, and Democrat or Republican.

I don’t think I have ever seen politics and culture have as profound an effect on Christians and churches as much as I have over the last few years or so–and maybe especially over the last year. I know it’s always been a reality, but with COVID-19 it feels like everything has gone up several notches. Whether the last year has simply exacerbated pre-existing differences or has given rise to new ones, I don’t know. But it’s incredibly frustrating and discouraging as a follower of Jesus and as a pastor.

What differences are fundamental and which are secondary? How do we define what we might call a “gospel” issue? Because not every conflict or issue listed above ought to carry the same theological weight. So, how do we weigh these matters?

Part of what I am wondering is how much difference of opinion can exist within one congregation, in one body of believers? If in one congregation you have significantly different political perspectives, can people of such deep but differing convictions still serve together for the sake of the kingdom? What about theological differences regarding the age of the earth and how to read and interpret Genesis 1 and 2? What if two people in a group of believers reach different conclusions? Can they still serve in the church alongside one another, pray together, and worship together?

At what point do differences become intractable? And is this always necessarily a matter of conviction or is it sometimes relational rather than theological? That is, might it be that the issue is more about my inability to accept that someone else doesn’t share my view which I hold so strongly?

In other words, can I accept someone else as a brother or sister in Christ even if they don’t believe everything exactly as I do? And where do I draw the line? Or better put: how do I determine where to draw the line?

Are Christians destined to gather only in groups where there is agreement on virtually every issue, both theological and cultural? Are we only comfortable having fellowship with Christians who never challenge our assumptions and ideas?

Look, I’m not saying that a Christian can never have a good reason to leave a church or even switch denominations or traditions. I am a trinitarian who thinks Arianism was heresy. I am a continuationist with respect to spiritual gifts. What I am asking is how we make that determination. What is our standard? And before you say our standard is the Bible, remember that people reach very different conclusions based on their interpretations of Scripture. Not that I disagree with saying the Bible is our ultimate guide to faith and practice, just that it’s a little messier than simply making that assertion.

Maybe I can put it this way. What was Jesus praying for in John 17? In case you don’t know what I mean, John 17 contains what is often called Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer. He prays for his disciples and for those who will believe because of their ministry. After he prays for his disciples, he goes on to pray this way:

I pray not only for these, but also for those who believe in me through their word. May they all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us, so that the world may believe you sent me. I have given them the glory you have given me, so that they may be one as we are one. I am in them and you are in me, so that they may be made completely one, that the world may know you have sent me and have loved them as you have loved me.

John 17:20-23

What kind of oneness is Jesus praying about for his disciples and future followers?

Better yet: Has Jesus’ prayer been answered? What would that look like?

I think of what I read elsewhere in the Bible too.

Therefore I, the prisoner in the Lord, urge you to walk worthy of the calling you have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope at your calling—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

Ephesians 4:1-6

What sort of unity is Paul talking about? And is it the sort of unity that can exist between believers who do differ from one another on some matters? Can unity even exist if there aren’t differences? Without differences, isn’t unity simply uniformity?

Paul’s words also point to the underlying relational aspect to unity. Such unity requires humility, gentleness, patience, love, forgiveness. This unity requires effort to maintain. It is grounded in the very unity of the trinitarian Godhead of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Given the current tenor of cultural conversation on divisive issues, and the inability of many to have such conservations in a civil and winsome way, ought not the church, by the power of the Spirit, be able to provide a better example about how to deal with differences? Rather than join the arguing, are we not able–together!–to bring more light than heat thanks to the gospel of our Lord Jesus?

Perhaps more of us who say we are followers of Jesus ought to turn the above passages from John and Ephesians into prayers of our own. Maybe then we will more clearly see what unites us rather than what divides us.

Pastors and Friendship

The other day my wife and I were picking up our twin sons from preschool, and we met another father who also has twins. “No one else knows what this is like,” he said. We all agreed. Unless you have twins (or multiples) you have no idea what it’s like. Only by having the same experience can you identify with having twins.

That’s true of many things, including being a pastor.

This is why I am glad to be currently in a peer group of other, more experienced pastors. We meet usually once a month and we talk about stuff only pastors are likely to talk about. And in the midst of these conversations that sense of shared experience creates a bond, an understanding, that those of us who are pastors are unlikely to find anywhere else.

There’s a certain incongruity in preaching about the body of Christ, the church as the priesthood of all believers, when as the pastor you are in the unique position of not being just another member of the congregation. The funny thing is that sometimes I long for that feeling of belonging among my own people. I wish I could be more self-disclosed. I wish I could have closer friendships than I do with others in the church.

Of course, some of this is my fault. Because at one level a pastor should have friendships in the church, in his or her church. It may be more challenging, but it’s not impossible. The problem is that there are those who think that the pastor should have a sort of professional distance. I confess that I have thought this way at times. I probably have acted this way even more frequently. I recognize that I have not always made the effort to enter more fully into friendships with those in the church.

One reason I have kept my distance is fear. Fear of saying the wrong thing. Fear of divulging the wrong piece of personal history. Fear of trying to pastor someone when there is now an awkwardness between you. Fear of weakness and failure and of what others think. It’s this very same fear, I think, that makes me want to maintain a distance.

Having a group of other pastors with whom you can discuss the difficult problems, ask the awkward questions, and share more personal struggles is one way of addressing this gap. I am grateful for my fellow pastors. I hope that our peer group grows and becomes closer-knit over time.

Yet as much as I appreciate this peer group, there are aspects of church life that still escape the pastor in his local church. For instance, there have been times when I have wished I were just one of a number of other men at a similar point in their lives in our congregation, talking about kids, jobs, movies, maybe sneaking theological discussions in here and there, helping one another, praying with one another.

I wonder if our (or any) congregation realizes how lonely being a pastor can be. I remember at my induction the pastor who spoke talked to the congregation about making friends with the pastor and his family. He spoke of including the pastor and his family in their lives—even in their life events like birthdays and other significant moments. And there have been a few occasions when a few folks have done this. I wonder now if I failed to take advantage of those opportunities. Was I so afraid to make the wrong impression or of being vulnerable that I didn’t open up, didn’t let myself be known?

Jesus once said to his disciples, I have called you friends. He said this because he was open about everything with them. He shared with them. He let them in. As risky as it might be, perhaps all of us—including pastors—are called to do this as followers of Jesus. Certainly I could use more deep friendships, because despite what Facebook tells me I do not have over 100 friends.

 

Community is Messy

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There really wasn’t anything we could do to help. And certainly by the time I got there it was pretty much all over.  But there we were—neighbours, friends, family—standing shoulder to shoulder with another neighbour, friend, and family member who had just seen the work-shed behind his house burn down. Thirty years of tools, equipment, projects and puttering all gone in a matter of hours, reduced to rubble and ash. The local volunteer fire department was doing their job with precision and care, making certain the area was safe. The rest of us simply stood around, offering more presence than words.

Community can be defined in a number of ways: as a municipality, a district, a neighbourhood, or a population centre. None of these definitions, however, manages to capture the experience of community. These definitions only bring to mind demographics and statistics, by-laws and infrastructure; and so they leave us cold (though who doesn’t enjoy a scintillating conversation about what the statistics are on how the breaking of by-laws affects the infrastructure of our community?).

But there are better words: kinship, unity, support, cooperation. Being in community is the difference between facing life in isolation, cut off from relationships of intimacy, and living life surrounded by those who rejoice when you rejoice and mourn when you mourn. Community is more than living in a neighbourhood; it means knowing the names of your neighbours. It’s sharing our lives with others.

Living as a community, though, comes with its challenges. My wife and I have three children: a daughter who is 8 and twin sons who are 4. As a result our home life is not only busy and often noisy, but usually messy. Toys get left on hallway floors, only to be stepped on the way to the bathroom in the dark of night. Laundry sometimes forms formidable piles. On top of this, family life is not always cheerful. We can step on each other’s toes and feelings. Voices can get raised as much in irritation as in laughter. Relationships are intrinsically messy. As much as I’m something of a neat freak, I accept this because it’s part of being a parent, a part of being in a family: accepting that we all make a mess once in awhile in part because each of us can be a mess!

Community life’s no different. It’s messy. And the more people in the community, the messier it’ll be! Whatever form our community takes, whether it’s in the Moms and Tots group, a string of neighbours along a particular street, the local church, or some extended family, we can be sure that there’ll be nothing neat and tidy about it. Open ourselves to connecting with people around us, make ourselves vulnerable, and we take the risk—yes, the risk—of getting hurt, of hearing harsh words spoken in our direction, of experiencing rejection.

And yet in those moments when we need someone to talk to over a cup of coffee, to have someone simply be present in times of discouragement, disappointment, or even despair, there’s no greater comfort than in having someone willing to do exactly this. Proverbs 17:17 tells us, “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for a time of adversity.” We all need people who are with us through thick and thin. We all need people standing alongside us when our hopes and dreams end up a pile of rubble and ash. When we find such people, that’s when we’ve truly found community.