Local and World-wide Church
Church is not an abstract concept. Though it is true that Christianity has always affirmed that it includes both the living and the dead (Hebrews’ “great cloud of witnesses“), any understanding of church that is not also grounded in a specific, local context, is not a biblical nor faithful understanding. One of the mysteries of salvation is that our God “contracted to a span” and became “incomprehensibly man” – it is the mystery of the incarnation, God made flesh so that we might become more like God. Those who follow Jesus are called to witness to this truth in our words and our deeds, in our living and our dying. This band of Christian sojourners live in the world, thought they are not of it. As Bishop Willimon and Professor Hauerwas put it years ago, we are resident aliens.
I can’t emphasize this point about the local church enough, because I am convinced that too many Christians have a dis-embodied, spiritualized notion of church and a Christian faith that vehemently resists mixing it up in a local worshiping community – local communities that will always have problems, challenges, and imperfect people. How many times have I heard someone say “I don’t go to church because there are too many hypocrites.” I usually want to respond by saying, “So I am guessing you also don’t go to the hospital when you are sick because there are too many sick people…?” In all seriousness, I can’t think of a better place for broken, sinful, and “in-need-of-salvation” people to be then in a church where we gather to hear God’s word, respond to God’s grace, and pray for empowerment to be God’s people. In truth, I think the hospital analogy is a good one for the local church – churches do exist not for themselves, but for the local communities around them as they seek to be outposts of God’s healing, saving, and transforming work in the world.
The 2008 United Methodist Book of Discipline says this about the “Function of the Local Church:”
The church of Jesus Christ exists in and for the world. It is primarily at the level of the charge consisting of one or more local churches that the church encounters the world. The local church is the strategic base from which Christians move out to the structures of society. The funcion of the local church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, is to help people to accept and confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and to live their daily lives in light of their relationship with God. Therefore, the local church is to minister to persons in the community where the church is located, to provide appropriate training and nurture to all, to cooperate in ministry with other local churches, to defend God’s creation and live as an ecologically responsible community, and to participate in the worldwide mission of the church, as minimal expectations of an authentic church. (emphasis mine, BOD, paragraph 202)
There is no world-wide church without local churches in local contexts ministering to local people. Having said that, every local church is connected to their baptized sisters and brothers across both time and space. United Methodists are at their best when this reality is evident in every local congregation’s prayers, outreach ministries, financial support, and missional identity. Since the 2008 General Conference, a study committee has been created to study the nature of our world-wide church and how United Methodists might live more faithfully into an increasing connected and interdependent world. The stated vision of this committee is
We see a worldwide United Methodist Church driven to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. To live more fully into this vision, we are working toward deeper connections throughout the church, greater local authority, and more equitable sharing of power and representation around the world.
It is critical that every local church understand and live into this vision of the larger, world-wide mission and vision of the church. In the March 6th lesson of my recent quarterly, I suggested that worship is the key to this understanding:
Worshiping God means turning our faces in the same direction that God’s face is already turned – toward the world – for the sake of the world, yearning for the world’s redemption in and through the salvation offered to all in Jesus. It is in the church’s worship that we learn the truth about the world … that God created it, sin marred it, God’s loves it, and God is heaven-bent on redeeming it … the least we can do is pray for it regularly, earnestly, and lovingly. (Adult Bible Studies, Spring 2011, p. 6-7)
In conclusion, here are some questions to consider (feel free to respond in comments):
- In what ways does your local church celebrate the connection they have with Christians around the world?
- What does the prayer life of your congregation look like? Does it concern itself only with the prayers of the local congregation, or are their regular intercessions for others around the world as well?
- In what ways is the “world” present in your local community and church membership?
- How might your church more faithful engage your local context? The global context?
>Upcoming installments: Works of piety and Mercy; Protestant and Catholic in spirit