Last time we talked about the significance of God saving us through his grace rather than by our own works. Today we explore the second foundational piece of our identity at Shepherd of the Valley:
Assertion 2: Church does not exist for its own sake, but for the sake of those around it.
In too many cases, church becomes an endpoint rather than a way in which God shows his grace to the world.
The path to ruin is deceptively attractive. We start with a positive affirmation, “Church is called by God to do good things.” That’s true, but we’re only able to see as far as our eyes take us. As we discussed last time, our eyes are imperfect. Inevitably we define “good” by our own terms, inheriting all the limitations and imperfections of our human perception.
That’s an uncomfortable realization for most of us. “We’re called to do good, but we’re not sure what that is or how to do it,” seems complicated and unsatisfactory. Having to search for goodness, defining it by something besides ourselves and our own culture, forces us out of our safety zone. It takes us away from pat answers, high walls, and security. It forces us to ask questions instead of making declarations. It appears to subvert our power rather than granting more.
Most of us find a work-around to this discomfort, our way to remain by the flesh-pots of Egypt rather than wandering the wilderness. We subtly switch the affirmation from, “Church is called to do good things,” to, “Church IS good (in and of itself).” The step is short from there to, “Everything the church does is good (because the church is doing it).” Now we don’t have to evolve at all or face any uncomfortable realities. Goodness is whatever we say it is.
At that point our definition of goodness becomes indistinguishable from us. This is exactly how churches “called to do good” end up justifying icky things in God’s name. There is no God anymore, there’s just who we say God is. There is no purpose for church other than preserving our viewpoint.
Following this impulse, we’ve all learned to gather around the church facing inward, as if church itself were the center and ultimate good. We identify church as a place instead of a mission, a sanctuary from the world instead of a crucible in which our relationships with God and the world are grown and refined. We pay more attention to how we look sitting down and facing the altar than how we act moving through our daily lives. We resist change.
Framing everything towards the church as an institution doesn’t fulfill our mission, it perverts it. When we talk about stewardship we say, “We’ve got to give in order to keep the lights on.” When we speak of evangelism we say, “We need to get more people in here so the church will survive.”
The church has no purpose when it’s simply an endpoint, a repository for dollars and time spent self-referentially. We need to keep the lights on? For whom, and what are we doing under that light? Stop saying you need more people “in here” as if everybody else in the world were just an object in your institutionalized faith drama. What are the people “in here” doing to make a difference in the community and world? You can’t just ask what you should do for your church; you should also ask what your church is doing for others.
It’s the height of hypocrisy to talk to people about sacrifice and selflessness for your institution if that institution is only concerned with itself and all the things it can accrue in order to perpetuate its own existence.
Shepherd of the Valley does NOT exist just to serve itself, or just to be a church. Not everything churches do is automatically good—or fulfills God’s call—just because those things are done by a church! The “church” designation does not whitewash selfishness or failure of mission.
Shepherd of the Valley exists so that people might be able to hear God’s grace-filled message that we are beloved, filled, and sent out to do amazing things in the world. We do not own or understand the definition of “goodness”, nor do we define it by ourselves and our experiences alone. When we say we’re called to do good things, that goodness is defined by God and by the people we serve.
We don’t gather to face inward in a given place and talk about ourselves, we gather to inspire and be inspired, that we might be pushed outward into a new life. We don’t reduce the world around us, we open up new possibilities into which God is calling us, new ways of listening to him as we serve our neighbors and families. We gather around something greater than ourselves in service to people beyond ourselves, making the “us” part as transparent and mobile as possible, the better to live as the people we’re called to be.
Church is not the endpoint of our faith. Church is full of new beginnings and constant waves of transformation that change not only us, but the world around us, faithfully and for the better. If we’re not doing that, we’re not fulfilling our mission.
What We Teach New Members: Part 1
Several times a year we welcome new members into the church. It’s a chance for interested people to find out why we do the things we do. As we explain and discuss our theology, we come to a richer understanding of our relationship with God and our purpose in life.
We start each session by emphasizing two things that lie at the core of our understanding of God and the world. Today we’ll cover the first. The second will come next time.
Assertion 1: We are saved by God through grace, not by our own works.
This declaration is as old as the Protestant Reformation, 500 years ago. It’s the foundation of our journey together. None of us is perfect. If we could be, we would not have needed Jesus Christ to die and rise again to redeem us. Jesus’ arrival on earth swept away the notion that we earn salvation ourselves by any deed or belief. To claim otherwise would create a “Christian” church which did not follow Christ!
Though this is easy to say, it’s also easy to forget. Most of us carry a dividing line in our heads between “that nice faith stuff” and “real life”. We say that Jesus saves us, but then we act as if church depends on the things we do. We uphold traditions as central, fret over the placing of candles or the color of flowers, debate the appropriateness of songs, and define “success” by numbers on a piece of paper. All of these things have a place, but none of them lie at the core of our identity.
Being saved through grace means that we’re imperfect, that we’re going to mess up. No tradition or practice will change that, or bring us to God. No matter what we say or do, no matter in what order or season, when the practice is completed and the tradition fulfilled, there we are…still imperfect. Whether our human foibles crept into the process or we did it correctly and falsely assume that the practice makes us “good” now, we’re still lost.
Being saved through grace also means that God meets us in our imperfections and works through them, filling the cracks with his love and forgiveness, making us whole again. God does not work through our church because we said or did the right thing to summon him. God works in our lives and community because he loves us no matter what.
Instead of engaging in the hopeless quest to find the perfect practice, we explore and try things together, letting many people and many voices lead. In each we find flaws, but in each we also hear the voice of God. Nobody at our church will measure if the candle lighter was held at an exact 45-degree angle relative to the altar. Everybody at our church will consider it a blessing that somebody is lighting that candle, that God’s light in shining through, and that we have a chance to ask again, “Where is God in all of this and how is he changing our lives today?”
When we stop sitting as judges over faith--determining what is executed rightly and wrongly, separating the world into better and worse--and start looking for God at work in the midst of imperfect things and people, we begin to follow God instead of leading him on a leash. Suddenly, God appears all around us: in worship, through children, in the normal, everyday moments of our lives. This is the beginning of wisdom.
We do not welcome people into our community by telling them we have the right way, defining ourselves merely by practices and traditions. We ask people to be on the lookout for God in everything
we do together, knowing that their vision and contributions will help us see God in ways we never have before, and never could without them. We don’t inquire whether God is working among us. Instead we ask how. We don’t assume that God works only through us either, nor that faith requires becoming just like us. We confess that God is bigger than all of us, then we spend our lives discovering just how big without worrying whether we’ll be damned if we ask the wrong question or see things through a less-than-perfect set of eyes.
This is the great blessing, and great freedom, that being saved by God’s grace instead of our own works gives us. It’s at the heart of everything we do.
Up next: Another key assertion that informs our faith life together!