One of the consequences of the over-simplified biblical story is the distortion it creates regarding Christian community. If the story that is told and retold is “Jesus died so that God would forgive my sins so I can go to heaven when I die,” then the Christian community is virtually stripped of its true biblical purpose. The simplified story only addresses conversion and after-life, leaving an “awkward middle” between baptism and grave.
When paired with our consumerist and narcissistic culture, Christians become “consumers of religious goods,” to borrow a popular phrase from Dallas Willard. And our local churches quickly alter their true purpose to fulfill the perceived need.
When I left professional ministry in 2003, I wrote a rather scathing and non-nuanced critique of this phenomenon called “Detoxing from church.” While I would probably say things differently today, I still believe the critique stands. The shrunken popular story contributes to the average Christian viewing the local church as they would a supermarket or restaurant — shopping for programs and services that “meet their needs.”
In contrast the full biblical story as we have been exploring compels Christians to form communities as we see in the pages of the New Testament. Jesus has faithfully fulfilled God’s covenant with Abraham, rescuing Israel and thereby rescuing the nations into the renewed Abrahamic family and their vocation as God’s royal priests within his inaugurated New Creation. The early Christians understood that through Jesus, God had rescued them into a family and that family’s business. They were part of a community with a vocational purpose.
The local church is to be a colony of God’s New Creation. Remember that Paul states in 2Cor 5:17 that if anyone is in the Messiah, that person is the New Creation. So the local church’s members share their lives — the meaning of koinonia or “fellowship” — as both the benefactors and agents of God’s New Creation in the world. They live together with the singular purpose of LEARNING to be like Christ in order to actually BE Christ together in community and in the world.
This purpose should then shape the church’s practices. The local church should be a community of worship, key to the biblical human vocation of God’s image-bearers. It should be a community of sacrament, experiencing God’s presence and grace in special ways. It should be a community of apprenticeship to Jesus, learning from him how to be like him in both virtue and vocation. It should be a community of vision, telling and retelling the biblical story so that the community is continually renewed in this counter-cultural vision of God’s kingdom. It should be a community of unity, where all human sociological boundaries are eclipsed by membership in God’s covenantal family. It should be a community trained to rush into the places of the world’s pain as both the prayer and presence of God’s Holy Spirit.
And all of the church’s practices should be in the life and power of the Holy Spirit, who is Jesus’ presence in every individual member of the community. The Spirit is the animating force of all the church’s work toward God’s New Creation.
The natural outflowing of the local community’s life should be a community of royal priests, bearing God’s image into the world for the sake of the world. This outflowing of the church’s life should be God’s blessing to all.