A Real Church
by Rob Weingartner
As Presbyterians who trace our theological heritage back to John Calvin and the Reformation, we are part of a tradition that has asked the question, “How do you recognize a real church?” Drawing upon the work of Calvin and his followers, Presbyterians down through the centuries have affirmed that real churches are characterized by certain marks: the Word of God purely preached and heard, the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, and church discipline uprightly ministered, as God’s Word prescribes.
These marks of the church are still helpful as we seek to be faithful, but I want to suggest that the time has come to add another mark: MISSION! And were he around today, seeing the world as it is today and seeing the church as it is today, I think that Calvin might agree. To be a real church is to accept that we are SENT into the world in Jesus’ name. As our Lord puts it in his first appearance to the disciples following his resurrection: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
As I travel across the United States, I increasingly meet Presbyterians who are discovering that mission is central to the identity of the church because it is central to the purposes of our God, even, to the character of God. Mission is at the heart of what it means to be the church. We are SENT into the world in Jesus’ name. You are sent. The God who is in mission to the world has called the church into existence to participate in his eternal plan to gather up all things in Christ Jesus.
The church is rediscovering that when we affirm that “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” – that’s how Paul puts it in Philippians – we are at the same time unpacking our own purpose. We are people who are called together in order to be empowered and equipped and sent out into the world to bear witness to the Gospel.
To be honest about it, Presbyterians, and American Christians generally, have enjoyed the assurance of salvation through God’s gift of new life in Christ while ignoring Christ’s command that we live for him in the world. Darrell Guder of Princeton Seminary describes that as the “mission-benefits dichotomy.” Sounds very professorial, does it not? But he’s right in describing a way of believing and behaving that shrinks the Gospel, in which “the benefits of salvation are separated from the reason for which we received God’s grace in Christ: to empower us as God’s people to become Christ’s witnesses.”
I just returned from Rwanda; another Outreach team is now in Pakistan. Teams will depart soon for Egypt and India. God is at work in some amazing ways around the world, and we have a lot to learn from our brothers and sisters in Christ in other contexts.
It is pretty easy to make the case that American Christians have lost our mission passion over the past several decades. In part because we have fallen prey to the mission-benefits dichotomy that Guder describes. In part because we have become preoccupied with ourselves and fallen into patterns of institutional maintenance. In part because we have been confused about the person and work of Jesus Christ.
I do think that it is time to lift up another “mark” by which we can recognize the church. Real churches live out of a profound sense of being SENT into the world to participate in God’s redemptive work, gathering up all things in Christ Jesus. And it is not somebody else’s responsibility. It is not about the Session or the mission committee or the pastor or denominational officials. And it is not just about long-term missionaries, as important as their service is.
Mission is about you and me – about how we use our time and our resources, about how we spend our passion. About how our words and our lives, our congregations, disclose God’s glory and grace.
Jesus sends us.