As we get ready to go to Phoenix for this year’s national convention, or as we abstain from going but perhaps follow its deliberations on the Web, it gives us opportunity to once more think about the importance of the institutional church. How important are these meetings and their discussions?
There is considerable conversation about whether or not Christ established an organized church or instigated a faith movement that would be unique in whatever context in which it developed, perhaps loosely connected, but not formally organized. One can look to the biblical material and find support for either position.
My intent in this post is not to debate which understanding is “correct.” I must confess that there have been times when I have been so exasperated by the institutional church that I have wanted to simply walk away from it and invest myself only in a local congregation. (Not a good attitude for a conference minister!) Then there have been other times when I’ve seen the value of connecting and linking groups of Christians who are wanting to sense a “belongingness” to something larger than themselves. It has been invigorating and hopeful to see brothers and sisters in Christ gather and worship and plan for ministry together.
I must also admit that I’ve sometimes had unrealistic expectations for the institutional church. And I’ve also had visions of the “ideal” congregation that have yet to be realized. Whether it is the macro or the micro expression, all aspects of the church involve human beings, persons with foibles and fallibilities that sometimes stand in the way of the advancement of the gospel.
But the apostle Paul knew all about this as well. In 2 Corinthians 4 he speaks about the precious treasure that we carry in “clay jars.” He is appreciative of the fact that God trusts us to be the carriers (or “ambassadors for Christ” as he mentions in the next chapter) of the wonderful gospel message. Yet he knows that we are fragile and frail containers of this priceless treasure.
Yes, the church is the body of Christ in the world today. But it is a body that has not yet been fully redeemed. It is a body that displays contention and discord as well as love and harmony. We should not place too much hope that all our problems will be solved by going to Phoenix (or by staying away!). I go anticipating times of hope and joy in being with some of my brothers and sisters in Christ. I know I will also experience some wistfulness that not all our brothers and sisters were able to come. I will also experience some disappointment that many of our brothers and sisters never intended to come.
This organization called the church is the vessel that God still chooses to be a witness to the powerful mercy and grace that God’s love has for all creation and all the creatures in it. I’m glad to be a part of it. I also know that it (and I) can be better witnesses than what we currently are. With God’s steadfast love and tender patience, perhaps we will find our way to greater faithfulness. May we celebrate God’s continued confidence in us and support for us as we seek to be faithful stewards of all the responsibilities we have been given.