The True Power of the Church (… And why we largely ignore it)

“The local church is the hope of the world.”

As an employee of Willow Creek Community Church that was a slogan that was ingrained into my psyche. I heard Bill Hybels passionately invoke that idea over and over again, at conference after conference. Later, I heard other evangelical leaders take up the phrase, until it was common evangelical parlance.

But I’ve had my doubts.

I remember Hybels talking about being in an aiport, and vividly describing a scene in which two brothers were pummeling each other mercilessly. Hybels basically asserted that NO other organization in the world could address those kids’ challenges. Relatedly, I hear many church leaders claim that only the church is equipped to deal with the totality of a human being’s needs.

But is that really the case?

Maybe a small group or a really close friend could have offered the parents of those children some valuable advice on parenting, but it seems to me that there are a lot of organizations who can do a better job of addressing certain needs of people better than the church can. Health clubs do a much better job of helping people exercise. Professional financial planners, counselors, and doctors are better equipped to help people deal with their finances, their emotional issues and health questions.

Pastors aren’t really financial counselors (FPU excluded), therapists, or doctors.

So first of all, just what are we?

Eugene Peterson says that ultimately pastors are in people’s lives to prepare them for “a good death.”

Wow. I don’t know about that. But I like the idea that Peterson is getting at: pastors should be equipped to deal with the heaviest questions that life has to offer. We confront the Mystery that is God and existence on this planet. With revelation and transformation, with life and death.

Now, the church is full of a lot more people than just the pastors, and this is where things get interesting, because with so many people in one community who are (theoretically, at least) experiencing life altering encounters with God, there is a huge potential for really good things to happen…

* entrepreneurs can be inspired to create socially- and ethically-conscious businesses (that make money!)
* artists can be inspired to create great works of art in community that speak of the deep needs of humanity (and not be kicked out of the church!)
* hurting people can come together to share each others’ burdens (and make recommendations on professionals and specialists who can help them further!)
* people can share resources with those in their community that don’t have as much

… In other words, a lot of problems can be solved. That’s a lot of potential.

But there’s a catch.

In another post, I mentioned that Steven Johnson is one of my favorite authors. In his book Future Perfect, he discusses the phenomenon of collaboration and how collaboration (and thus, problem solving) is drastically, significantly enhanced or limited by the presence or absence of diversity.

University of Michigan professor Scott Page compared the problem-solving capabilities of groups with high-IQ individuals with that of a group of diverse individuals. Referencing Page’s work, here’s what Johnson says: “Diversity does not just expand the common ground of consensus. It also increases the larger group’s ability to solve problems… when it came to solving problems as a group, diversity matters more than individual brainpower.”

Well now.

To transfer Page’s work into a church context, is it possible that the American church’s lack of diversity is critically limiting our ability to solve the problems that our communities face?

I have worked in an intentionally multi-cultural, multi-ethnic church. It was simultaneously one of the most exciting, difficult, messy and rewarding times of my life. Prior to that and since then, however, the churches I have worked at were not really interested in confronting the challenging topic of bringing different racial and ethnic groups together in a faith community in order to really come together and figure out what it means to be the church in 21st century North America (full disclosure: as a leader in my current church, I share the blame for not advancing this topic in my context).

The point is simply this: most churches are trying to solve horrendously complex problems: self-harm, addiction, poverty, abuse, depression, etc. without employing perhaps the ONE concept that would help them the most: the diversity of thought and perspective that (most likely) exists in their congregations. I’d venture to say that most “white” churches are anything but, however their leadership very well may be entirely mono-cultural.

Are we inviting multiple voices into our leadership? Are we bringing a plurality of thought into our efforts to help and serve people? Or does the input and counsel we receive come from people who look (and therefore, think) more or less exactly like we do?

In his letter to the church at Ephesus, Paul has a powerful message about ethnic diversity, most powerfully stated in chapter 2;

11 So remember that once you were Gentiles by physical descent, who were called “uncircumcised” by Jews who are physically circumcised. 12 At that time you were without Christ. You were aliens rather than citizens of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of God’s promise. In this world you had no hope and no God. 13 But now, thanks to Christ Jesus, you who once were so far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

14 Christ is our peace. He made both Jews and Gentiles into one group. With his body, he broke down the barrier of hatred that divided us. 15 He canceled the detailed rules of the Law so that he could create one new person out of the two groups, making peace. 16 He reconciled them both as one body to God by the cross, which ended the hostility to God.

17 When he came, he announced the good news of peace to you who were far away from God and to those who were near. 18 We both have access to the Father through Christ by the one Spirit. 19 So now you are no longer strangers and aliens. Rather, you are fellow citizens with God’s people, and you belong to God’s household. 20 As God’s household, you are built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21 The whole building is joined together in him, and it grows up into a temple that is dedicated to the Lord. 22 Christ is building you into a place where God lives through the Spirit.

The gospel is not just about reconciliation between God and humanity; it’s about reconciliation across racial and ethnic lines as well.

Perhaps the true power of the local church is the fact that we’ve been called to come across racial and ethnic lines and bind together in the name of Jesus. He died to create ONE body out of two bitter enemies (Jews and Gentiles).

Maybe Jesus knew that we’d need all the help we could get.

 

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