“What is a Church Anyway?”
This year the topic for the Tuesday night Lent Soup Supper and Study has been “what is a church anyway?” The first week we looked at Acts and Galatians to see what the disciples were doing right after Jesus ascended and left them the Holy Spirit to guide and shape them as a church. And what did they do? They began to disagree on theology and mission (Acts 6:1-7; Galatians 2:1-23) and formed committees to resolve their differences (Acts 15:1-21) and to distribute the work of the church (Acts 15:22-33). Does this sound familiar?
The second week we considered what happened to the church as it grew and spread during the 1st and 2nd century. One of the effects of growth was that churches sprouted up all over the place (yay!!) and began their own individual practices of worship and mission
(well, that sounds reasonable) and adopted their own Gospels (uh…wait a minute) and defined Jesus in a way that made sense to them (O.K. now, hold on there…). In fact, by the late third century there were so many differences among Christians that what we believed was in danger of getting lost in all the diversity. At that point, along comes a very powerful figure named Constantine who both legalized Christianity and made it possible for a set of rules to be established that we could agree to. (Whew!)
On week 3, however, we learned there was a backlash to all the conformity and centralization that Constantine ushered in. While Bishops waged political battles against each other, some decided all the fighting seemed to contradict what Jesus taught, and so, fed up with it all, they departed into the desert to live as hermits. This
began a movement known as Monasticism, and which proved to be very fortune over the centuries as the Roman Empire collapsed. These small religious communities, dedicated to prayer, humility and work, were able to sustain the resources needed to preserve life and learning (medicine, education and farming technology). Of course, all good things have their down side, and some Monasteries–originally places where men and women could live in poverty and humility like Jesus–became very wealthy and powerful and corrupt.
Week 4 will consider what happens to the church in the Modern Age (1500 to today) as Science became the guiding light for the world. How does faith fare in a world built upon reason and proof and where technology can seem to solve all of our problems (who needs God when humans are so powerful and smart?).
Each of these historical periods tells the story of a church challenged by what is happening in the world around it. When viewed from the comfortable distance that time allows, we can see that God used each of these challenges in ways that could not have been predicted. Not only did the church survive, but it was used to help protect and save. And yet at the same time it become an incubator for elements that ushered in the next collapse.
During week 5, our concluding week, we will use our imaginations. What is the church now that we are beginning to suspect that science and technology may create as many problems as they solve, that economic prosperity cannot protect us against evil, and that human beings can be very smart but not necessarily wise. What are the seeds being sown in our time that might bear good fruit for God? In other words, can we imagine what God is doing here and now among us with all of our challenges and gifts?
Who knows what we’ll discover!