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Church is also an event

I wrote this two years ago in response to the views of an influential minister who I respect greatly.  I haven't kept up with the minister's views on this subject and he might be saying different things now so I've removed reference to him specifically.  But I think the issue is still very much out there in the evangelical ether, so I'll address the issue more generally...

I long for church communities that are Christ-centred, grace-filled, all-of-life and intentionally missional.  I love ministers and ministries that emphasize these things.  But let me raise one caution.  It's common in such circles to affirm church as an on-going family life and to deny that church is an event.

I can understand, to some extent, why language of "event" grates on people.  It can seem like an ungodly waste of resources to turn Sunday morning into a grand performance.  So true.  I've heard people speak in hushed tones about some gold standard of sermon preparation - an hour in the study for every minute in the pulpit.  Yowsers!  If that's the cost of gathering around word and sacrament then I can well understand the desire to re-balance the expenditure of resources.

But there's something deeper to discuss than the re-allocation of resources or the degree of formality to our meetings.  What I want to establish is the absolute necessity of the event for the life of church.  Church is not just family, it is also an event and irreducibly so.  I'll say it that starkly because I know how popular it is to speak of church as ongoing-missional-community in opposition to chuch as event.

Church has its being in becoming.  It ever becomes what it is as it hears God's word.  In this way church is the community called out (ekklesia) to listen to its risen Lord in the proclamation of word and sacrament.  This is the centre of the life of the community.

Let me just take one Scriptural example from Paul.  We are one body because we all share in the one bread (1 Cor 10:17). That is pretty stunning language – and it’s very ‘eventist’.  Here is a consummation of one-body-ness in which we become what we are. The event and the on-going life of the body are inter-dependent.

Think of marriage.  The covenant reality is that husband and wife are one flesh.  But there is an event in which they become one flesh (if you were Presbyterian you might even call it covenant renewal!).

It’s commanded in Scripture (cf 1 Cor 7) and it takes time and effort and a measure of ritual and it’s irreducibly an event.  Of course the degree of ritual and cost and time-expenditure will vary according to many factors.  But to imagine I can think of an ongoing covenant life without also thinking about the one-flesh event is a big danger in marriage.

And, by parallel, church life needs to be maintained by consciously enjoyed, anticipated and ritualised “events” in our church life together.  We can't do without them.  And however much it's necessary to speak of day-in, day-out community life we dare not lose language of event either.  The old reformed ecclesiologies speak of gathering around word and sacrament.  They didn't forget that we were family, but they did highlight that there were foundational "events" at the centre of church life.

So we say Yes to shared life, Yes to Christ-centred community.  But the way in which our community is “centred” around Christ takes a certain form.  The centre is an actual, concrete centre around which we orient ourselves.  As Christ's community therefore we order ourselves around the place where Christ is given to us. And He is given to us supremely in word and sacrament.

Therefore we must maintain language of "event".  As we do so we are upholding two related concerns:

1) We are communities of grace.

Christians keen to ditch "event" language are usually big on "grace."  They commonly reject rituals in the name of gospel grace.  But I would urge caution here.  If we want to be communities of grace we need to orient ourselves around where Christ is given to us, not primarily around what Christ would have us do.  To be a community of grace requires us to centre on events.

2) We are communities of proclamation.

Where we honour the “event” of Church, we honour “proclamation”.  While our community life preaches to the world (John 13:35; 17:21) I'd want to co-ordinate this to a centre of verbal proclamation that constitutes and re-constitutes the community.

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I'm well aware that many who reject the word "event" bang a big and important drum for "grace" and "proclamation".  But I want to say, "grace" and "proclamation" requires "events."  We must never lose our centre.

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9 thoughts on “Church is also an event

  1. theologymnast

    Amen. Thank you for writing this- it's been a fear of mine for some time that, wanting to be Total Churchers (as it's now called round our way), we lose our centre and are ill-equipped to be salty.

  2. Rich Owen

    WordPress just ate my comment... which was quite long :-(

    I will try again in a mo...

  3. Rich Owen

    So... I said something like this...

    Basically I agree.

    But I think even before you get to the 'word events' of preaching and sacrament, there is another, perhaps even greater event which takes place and to overlook that is, in my view, to totally de-value what a church is.

    The gathering and constituting of the body of Christ every week is an event in and of itself. It is in fact the greatest event which is ever witnessed by the world. It is at the centre of the universe and is the very fullness of the mystery of God. By that I mean the 'mere' fact of a hotch-potch bunch of sinners, Jew and Gentile, gathering together. It's a miracle. And it is the setting for the word events.

    When Jesus ascended to received an endless High Priestly anointing, the Spirit flowed from the head (Jesus) to the body (the church) and He gave gifts to men. He brought together Jew and Gentile to form one new man. This gathering needs the gifts of the Spirit in order for there to be any unity and function at all. When the 'church goes in' as they say up north, it is an event of quite extraordinarily cosmic proportions.

    That isn't to say that the on-going missional lifestyle which is also advocated is not relevant. I'd say it is, and is totally necessary. But it's not church.

    The body is a constituted, pentecostal event given to bless the world. It happens under the authority of a plurality of elders who shepherd, feed and discipline, so that this body, this bride is prepared to receive her Bridegroom. It is an event of joy and harmony, one faith, one baptism, one body, one Spirit. It is a joyful, sacrificial praising of Jesus the Head which then overflows to the world. Full of the praises of Christ having been filled up, fed and beautified, we simply cannot help but go and share with the world what Jesus has done.

    We must never, never, never underestimate the enormity of a church meeting.

    Rich

    (it was better first time round... sorry)

  4. Glen

    Thanks very much for reposting Rich. Glory.

    Interesting how irreducibly "word"y Ephesians 4 is. Perhaps it's not a case of "before" you get to word events but that - through and through - our gatherings are word events?

  5. Rich Owen

    Yeh, that's helpful. It's not a bridge to the word. Nein! But it is the ongoing consequence of the ascension.

  6. Keep Asking

    Thanks for writing this. In my church at the moment the people leading the meeting often say "It would be wrong for me to to say, 'Welcome to church,' because you are the church all the time."

    In saying that they are wanting to emphasise (rightly) that we are a family and we need to spend time with each other and with God outside the formal meeting, but they are going to far.

    I think part of the problem is that the word "church" is an unhelpful translation of ekklesia. It's unhelpful because "church" is actually derived from another Greek word, kyriakos, meaning "house of the Lord" referring to a building. It's unhelpful because "church" is not used in any non-religious meanings in modern English, whereas "ekklesia" was used in Greek refer to any type of gathering.

    Although it might grate at first, I think it would be better to ditch the word "church" completely and replace it with "gathering" or "assembly". When we say, "the church is Christ's body" we tend to think of the members of an organisation regardless of whether those members meet together. However, saying "the gathering is Christ's body" helps us to understand what the Bible is saying, namely, since those who gather are Christ's body they must love each other and be Christ's hands and feet in the world when they are gathered together and when they are separated, and since Christ's body is the gathering, those who claim to belong to his body must be part of the gathering - you can't claim truly to belong at the gathering if you are not taking an active role in being part of the body, nor can you claim to be part of Christ's body if you never gather. Of course there are exceptions because of illness and isolation and I'm not trying to say that non-Christians are unwelcome at the gathering, but I think it helps to remember that Christ's body is defined by reference to a gathering, or as you say, an event.

  7. Keep Asking

    The danger of talking about Greek words when I don't know Greek - I don't get it quite right. Just to clarify "kyriakos" I'll quote the New Bible Dictionary where I got it from (and trust that they do know what they are talking about):

    "The English word 'church' is derived from the Gk. adjective 'kyriakos' as used in some such phrase as 'kyriokon doma' or 'kyriake oikia', maning 'the Lord's house', i.e. a Christian place of worship. 'Church' in the NT, however, renders Gk. 'ekklesia', which mostly designates a local congregation of Christians and never a building."

  8. Glen

    Yes, very helpful KeepAsking. Ekklesia is important to understand and it relates to what Rich is saying here too. The 'gathering' is a gathering of 'called out ones'. And the calling happens through the word. Therefore there is no gathering (no church) without the word.

    Welcome to the blog!

  9. Charlie Allison

    Hello folks. I think a relevant question in many circles is: "what does it look like when the 'called out ones' 'gather together' to hear the word? Must that look like the elder giving a monologue / sermon? As the Bereans search the scriptures intently at a weekly interactive bible study, where the apt-to-teach elders see with the Spirit's help that the word is being rightly divided - is this a 'gathering'? I need to find out what I think about the place of

    preaching / the declaration of the word, to the people of God, by the teachers gifted for the task by the Spirit

    is in the life of the church. I want to understand what scripture teaches about the form of the ministry of the word at the gathering. Helpful pointers / books welcome...

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