Friday, May 01, 2009

Reflecting (On) What's Wrong

(Part Eight of an ongoing series. Starts with the important stuff -- in prior posts below)

Reducing Church to Its Relational Essence

Confession: I Watch Cops (Sometimes)

I am not sure that I should admit this, but if I happen to be home on a weekend evening, and I find myself in my favorite chair with my trusty remote control in my hand, flipping through the many options on satellite television trying to find something worth watching, I often cannot resist stopping for a few minutes to watch a good police chase caught on video. It is a bit hard for me to admit, but I often find myself watching Cops or one of the other police reality shows. There is something fascinating to me about seeing what really happens on regular basis on the streets of cities like mine between the bad guys and the long arm of the law. Maybe I’m not alone?

Other than a good car chase through a residential neighborhood, I also like to watch the police chopper overhead shining the light down at night, looking for fleeing bad guys below. Occasionally, I have seen broadcasts where the chopper was using heat-sensing surveillance, so that the fleeing suspects below “glow” at night and stand out to the overhead observers. Captivating! I have to admit, I will always stop and watch a few minutes of it. More confessions: I think it would be great fun to have access to that equipment. I could to go up in the sky and use it to see just exactly where everyone is and what they are up to. I can only imagine whose house I would go look in on. First, I would want to see what is up with . . . well, I am getting lost on a tangent now.

God's Perspective?

I shared my confessions about watching police shows in order to make the following comparison: I suspect the overhead heat-sensing surveillance is a great example of how God sees “the church” when He looks down from His divine vantage point. I wonder what exactly God sees when He looks down on His “church.” I never really thought about that until recent years. But in the past few years, as I have struggled to figure out what is wrong with the church, I have found myself wrestling with the question of how God sees “church.”

Church: Universal and Relational

Because I am not God, and because He has not directly told me, I cannot say for sure how He sees His church. But I have come to suspect that He sees His church in two ways: the universal church, and the relational church. The universal church is the church in all places and in all times. In other words, the universal church is made up of every person who has ever been part of it, since it began until now, and on every continent where it exists. One unified body: the Church.

The relational church, on the other hand, is the most basic unit of the church, where two or more people came together in His name. The relational church “happens” at various times in various places. As difficult as it is for us to “see” the universal church, I think it is every bit as difficult for us humans to really “see” the relational church as it constantly functions in our midst each day.

When God looks down from His divine perspective, I think He sees the church in these two ways. Both of these perspectives are not the ways in which we humans usually see the church. It is almost as if, to use a crude anaology,He has heat-sensing equipment and He can detect the warmth of kingdom action and see it wherever and whenever it exits.

Yet this is so different from the common human understanding of what the church is. Why is that we humans do not commonly see the church in the two ways, universal church and relational church, as I suspect God does?

Because We See Boxes

I think we see the church more in terms of what I call “boxes.” The reason we tend to see the church in that ways is because, in our North American culture, we tend to see everything in terms of what I call “boxes.” When I say “boxes,” I do not mean a six-sided object made out of cardboard in which we store things. I am using the term more figuratively. A box is finite. It has distinct beginnings and ends. It has right angles. It neatly keeps some things in and some things out. It is easy to tell where a box begins and where it ends. It is easy to tell what is inside a box, and what is outside a box. It defines things neatly for us.

We see the church like in similar terms. We see buildings, organizations, events, and programs. They are finite things. They have distinct beginnings and ends. They provide bright lines by which we can tell what is within the realm of “church” and what is outside the realm of “church.” Reality seems much easier to keep defined and controlled when we see it all through the paradigm of boxes. Perhaps that is why we tend to see things this way in our current North American culture.

We have allowed our cultural tendency to see life through boxes shape our understanding of what church is. Instead of turning to a theological definition for church, we have allowed a cultural definition to overtake us. For example, we see a church building, with a sign out in front identifying it, with events and activities that happen on set days at set times, and we recognize that “box” as the church. If we were up in the chopper looking down, we could easily identify the boxes down below by recognizing church buildings, for example, and saying “there is a church” and over there is another, and a few blocks away is another. We might even get a little more ambitious and find other boxes that could be considered part of the church, such as Christian bookstores, seminaries, Christian concerts, retreats, conventions, radio stations, pro-family organizations, etc. We can easily identify these “boxes” and say that they identify for us what is and what is not “the church.”

Whenever and Wherever

I have come to believe, however, that God sees it much, much differently. Sure, He may recognize the “boxes” as He gazes down. But I have to think that those are faint outlines that fade into the shadows, and that what really stands out to Him is the glowing warmth of “two or more gathered in His name,” whenever and wherever it happens. In other words, I think He sees it much more the way the heat-sending surveillance equipment reveals the bad guys to those riding in the police chopper. I think He sees the glow and recognizes His church. He does not need, nor do I believe He even focus on, the boxes in the way that we do.

I'll share much more along this line of thinking in the next post.