Christians in the Reformed tradition have long recognized the dual nature of our life together as a faith community. On the one hand, you have churches that exist as religious institutions. On the other hand, you have the Church that lives as the Body of Christ, the spiritual fellowship of God’s covenant people.
Heinrich Bullinger, writing in 1561, observed:
Again, not all that are reckoned in the number of the Church are saints, and living and true members of the Church. For there are many hypocrites, who outwardly hear the Word of God, and publicly receive the sacraments, and seem to pray to God through Christ alone, to confess Christ to be their only righteousness, and to worship God, and to exercise the duties of charity, and for a time to endure with patience in misfortune. And yet they are inwardly destitute of true illumination of the Spirit, of faith and sincerity of heart, and of perseverance to the end… And therefore the Church of God is rightly compared to a net which catches fish of all kinds, and to a field, in which both wheat and tares are found (Matt. 13:24 ff., 47 ff.).
The Westminster divines identified this duality by referring to the visible church, which is “a society made up of all such as in all ages and places of the world do profess the true religion, and of their children” and the invisible church, which is “the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one under Christ the head.”
Writing over three centuries later, the authors of the Confession of 1967 noted,
The church in its mission encounters other religions and in that encounter becomes conscious of its own human character as a religion… The Christian religion, as distinct from God’s self-revelation, has been shaped throughout its history by the cultural forms of its environment… But the reconciling word of the gospel is God’s judgment upon all forms of religion, including the Christian.
Earlier today, as I was praying for my church, the image of an egg came to mind. When people glance at an egg, they tend to notice the hard and plain exterior shell. Most people don’t think about the baby chick inside. They just see an egg. But if they could somehow get inside, they would immediately notice the disparate chick-to-shell ratio. There’s a lot more bird than egg in there!
As cracks start to appear, many throw up their hands in mourning (or celebration) that the egg is now broken, ruined, and not long for this world. In one sense, they may be right. However, I wonder whether those who focus exclusively on this fact might be forgetting about the amazing new life that lurks just beneath the surface. The cracks signify, not the failure, but the success of life that has grown too big for its shell. The cracks mean that the shell has done its job and life is now ready to burst forth into the world.
I think the church is like that egg. It looks rather rigid, plain, and fragile from the outside. The cracks in our institutional shell are obvious and appear at both congregational and denominational levels. Here are just a few examples:
- Lackluster theology
- Biblical illiteracy
- Indifference to social justice
- Denominational schisms
- Liberal/conservative conspiracy theories (take your pick)
- Not enough/too much inclusivity (take your pick)
- Worship is too traditional/contemporary (take your pick)
- Obsession with church property
- Dwindling financial resources
- Declining membership
- I could keep going…
With all these cracks, it looks like our egg is falling apart. That’s because it is falling apart. It’s supposed to fall apart. Ecclesia reforma, semper reformanda. Our ancestors gave us this shell in order to safeguard the precious treasure of life within it. Just as they hatched from their own institutional shells (think Calvin during the Reformation), life dictates that we must hatch from ours. What’s more is that we will most likely hand our spiritual progeny another shell from which they too will one day break. The shell’s job is to protect and nurture life. Its breakage during times of change is a sign of success not failure.
There’s a lot more bird than egg in our church. There is new life waiting to be born. The future will not look like the past. The decline of mainline Protestant churches doesn’t bother me. I think God is coaxing our churches out of their collective shell so that we can take up the prophetic mantle once again. We are not dying; we are being born.
For some this will mean questioning “the way we’ve always done it” and reforming our denominational or congregational structures from within. For others it will mean abandoning traditional denominations or congregations altogether. Whatever new thing they come up with will not be the end-all/be-all perfect solution forever. It will one day be broken and discarded by their descendants. As Jesus warned his disciples, “Not one stone will be left on top of another.”
Whatever path we feel called to follow, let’s let our focus be on the new life that God is bringing to birth from within the cracking shell of our churches. Let’s be open to the vibrant and prophetic future into which we are being led. Let’s move forward in faith, not fear. For some of us, the chicks hatching from our eggs will be hens who produce new eggs with shells that will nurture and protect the next generation until those chicks are ready to break out. For others of us, the chicks hatching from our eggs will be roosters who climb to the rooftops and sing up sun, announcing the arrival of a new dawn.
Thanks be to God!