I was recently at a conference where the presenter suggested six ways to maintain movement dynamics within a local church. The idea was that these were some ways in which a healthy, self-propagating, ‘organic’ culture of church could be encouraged, which (in the context of the conference) would be a healthy scenario for planting new congregations.
It was good stuff. But one of the six ways raised a question for me. It was suggested that each church needs a distinct, simple and compelling vision. I’m all for ‘simple’ (in more ways than you can imagine!) and I can understand why ‘compelling’ might be useful, but I had a question about ‘distinct’. What is the place of distinctiveness in our local churches? Is it necessary that the vision of one local church is discernibly distinct from the next local church, or should there actually be an element of sameness or indistinctiveness in our vision? And if so, should we be aiming to express our distinctiveness and our indistinctiveness? (Have I stepped over the line of ‘simple’ already?)
I was particularly prompted to think about this question because, just before our speaker presented his six points, we had heard from a church planter who by his own admission, with his staff, had spent thousand of hours and thousands of dollars considering and refining the vision of their church. He presented the final outcome of all this effort to the conference and while I can’t remember the exact details, it was along the lines of “pray, preach, worship, disciple”. I have to admit that my first reaction was: “That doesn’t seem particularly profound or distinctive. Could that money and time have been better spent?”
And so, I started thinking about the indistinctiveness of the local church. My starting point (and there need to be many points to follow I am sure) was to read the introductions of Paul’s letters to the early churches he knew, and see how he addressed them as distinct, or indistinct groups.
Such an analysis is not the stuff of water-tight arguments, given the formulaic approach of Paul’s greetings, but it perhaps provides another brick in the wall of our understanding of what the local church is and how we should talk about it.
Here’s the list:
- Rom 1:7: To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints.
- 1 Cor 1:2: To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours.
- 2 Cor 1:1: To the church of God that is at Corinth, with all the saints who are in the whole of Achaia.
- Eph 1:1: To the saints who are in Ephesus and are faithful in Christ Jesus.
- Phil 1:1: To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons.
- Col 1:2: To the saints and faithful brothers in Christ at Colossae.
- 1 Thess 1:1: To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Three points struck me from these verses.
First, in each greeting there is a clear indication that each church has a distinctive characteristic—location. (Although in some cases, for example, Ephesians, this geographical label comes under the scrutiny of textual analysis.)
This is a good reminder that, as we think about what is common, there are always some very basic distinctive elements for any local church. Features like geographical location, the language used and the time of day church meets all define distinctives—although in most cases these are often not the profound matters of church vision statements. And so, as it was in the first century, your local church is different from my local church.
But there are two key commonalities that emerge.
First, Paul often identifies the people in the church as ‘the saints’. For some this conjures up an image of statues and halos, but this is not Paul’s intention. Perhaps a literal (and more helpful in our age) translation is ‘holy ones’, with the background being the nation of Israel, brought into a covenant relationship with the holy God. Peter O’Brien writes:
Christians are saints, not in the sense that they are very pious people, but because of the new relationship they have been brought into by God. It is not because of their own doing or good works but on account of what Christ has done. They are set apart for him and his service; as the people of his own possession they are the elect community of the end time whose lives are to be characterized by godly behaviour.1
So the label ‘saints’ is not just a badge to wear, but a call to activity, the activity of godly living.
Secondly, and closely associated to the first, is the declaration of the church member’s status before God. They are loved by God, sanctified in Christ Jesus, in Christ. It is this status which allows the label ‘saints’ to be used in the first place. The nuance of the ‘status statement’ varies letter by letter, but the meaning stays basically the same. The people to whom Paul writes are God’s people, those who have a relationship with God because of the work of Christ.
A more detailed investigation about the ‘in-common’ activities of churches like Bible reading or prayer is for another time and place, but perhaps just from this brief toe-in-the-water survey it is worthwhile recognizing that while by definition there will always be distinctive features of a local church, there are also indistinctive elements. From these examples we can see that some of those indistinctives reflect the fundamental relationship believers have with God, the relationship which underpins the very existence of the local church.
The conference speaker urged us to emphasize the distinctive. Is it possible that in doing so, we can overlook (often by assumption rather than intention) and therefore sideline the very things that give the church its identity and reason for being? Perhaps in a time when originality and new-ness are badges of respectability, it is not distinctiveness that we should be striving for, but indistinctiveness.