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What Were We Made For?

When I was in grade six, our Sunday morning routine began with a drive to the elementary school in Lake Echo. There, after seeing whether the janitor had unlocked the doors for us, we’d set up chairs in the gym and have both our Sunday School opening and our morning worship in the same space where during the week I had played dodgeball and badminton and practiced my lay-ups. After the two portions of our morning were over, we’d tear down, sweep up, and head back home. This was church until we built our then-small building in Mineville and started to meet there in 1990. By that time, I had learned that a living room and a school library were as likely places to find the church of Jesus Christ gathering together as were traditional church buildings. It was a wonderful setting in which to learn and grow in the gospel of Jesus and, really, to learn what the church is.

 

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why we exist as churches, what the purpose behind our Christian communities really is. I recently read a book by the fine New Testament scholar Kavin Rowe in which he points out (in non-scholarly language and format!) six elements of thriving Christian communities based on the story of the early church as told in the book of Acts. Here we have the one canonical account of the life of the Christian church as it developed and made its way in the first century Greco-Roman world. As our foundational account, it’s worth attending to what Acts has to tell us about our own existence as churches.


Among the elements Rowe points out, I was particularly struck by one, what he calls “the articulacy of belief: the ability to say what it is that forms the core of the thriving community’s existence” (Rowe, Leading Christian Communities, p. 8). He bases this on the following features of Acts: (1) again and again we encounter speeches in Acts through which the church tells its story (the story of God’s action in Jesus that has now impacted their life); (2) one of the church’s basic practices was passing on “the apostles’ teaching” (see Acts 2:42); and (3) the speakers who turn the apostles’ teaching into those speeches are “unschooled, ordinary men” (4:13), i.e., articulating our belief is not just for the eloquent or highly educated.

 

Being able to articulate why we exist—the core beliefs, the central narrative, the chief purposes for our being gathered together into a group—is essential if we’re going to proceed with purpose. Like the lovely scene near the end of the movie Barbie when Big Life Questions are confronted with the song “What Was I Made For?”, playing in the background, the answer to the question of why we exist has great implications for our future activities.

 

And this articulacy is essential if we are going to have any continuity over time. Without articulating why we exist, it’s easy for our reasons and purposes to morph into something else. Take an example: birdwatching and stargazing are two entirely different interests involving distinct fields of knowledge, but if a birdwatching group forgets that its purpose is to spot birds and instead thinks of itself as a Binocular Society, in time it may become an astronomy club without anyone noticing that birds have been left behind. This is why churches must keep returning to the Scriptures, to the story of Jesus, to the claims involved in his life, death, resurrection, ascension, giving of the Spirit, and promised return, and to the call for sinners to be made new in light of these realities.  Without these basics, we have little hope of resembling the church of which Jesus is the foundation. Instead, we’ll have moved on to other priorities and become something less than a fully Christian community.

 

I guess that the importance of these concerns is one of the reasons I’m so grateful for that memory of being part of an essentially mobile church through my teen years. That experience tends to streamline your view of what’s necessary to be a faithful and fruitful church. Churches can take many different forms, but the experience of growing up in a church that was for a time literally no more than a group of friends and acquaintances committed to following and worshiping Jesus and leading others into the path of discipleship and prayerful community tends to focus your attention. The question, “Why do we exist?” becomes an especially live one. It’s a question we all ought to care about deeply. We may not ever finish our training in “the articulacy of belief” this side of meeting Jesus, but we should be sure to start that training sooner rather than later.

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