It's five days past Valentine's Day now, and I'm just starting to dig into my Valentine's gift from my beloved. We do things differently here; for a celebration of our love, my wife gave me two books. One is on discipleship; it's called Side by Side, and I'm looking forward to reading it. But the other, by Simon Chan, has engaged my attention. Its title is Liturgical Theology: The Church as Worshiping Community. What better way to say "I love you" than a book on liturgy and the evangelical church? (Yes, in our house, this is normal.)
I've gotten out of practice with reading academic books, but I plan to give this one a lot of attention. Chan teaches systematic theology at Trinity Theological Seminary in Singapore. He starts this book off with the very question I've been thinking over: Why does the church exist? This isn't the same as asking what the individual Christian life should be; in America I think we confuse "Why am I here?" with "Why are we here?" and never notice the difference. But the answers to the one do not fully apply to the other. My own life, of course, is meant to show the person of Jesus Christ. But what about the community that makes up the church? Why is the church here?
Right at the beginning, Chan puts forth two possible answers: (1) The church exists for the transformation of creation (or culture), or (2) the church exists in order to be in a covenantal relationship with God. How we answer that question, Chan thinks, goes a long way toward what we do as a church.
In my experience, there's growing awareness that #2 ought to be the right answer, the one we give by rote. Yes, Jesus changes the world; but He came to bring men and women to God. In day-to-day living, though, almost every major Christian leader is really pushing answer #1 above #2. This goes across the board, from the Christian right (Chuck Colson, D. James Kennedy, et al.) to the Christian left (that would be Jim Wallis and Brian MacLaren, among others). I may be doing these people an injustice, but when I get their mailings they are all calling on me to follow them as they seek to transform culture. I'm not quibbling about their politics or good works; much of what they want is commendable from a Kingdom perspective. I wonder if we should use the kingdom of men to attain heavenly goals, but that's beside the point. The point is whether our goals are as heavenly as we think they are. Doing acts of love as an expression of the covenantal relationship we have with God will lead us in quite a different direction from doing acts of love in order to transform culture. They might look the same at first, but one will lead to an outpouring of love while the other will lead to--well, a repeat of much of Christian history. Didn't the state churches try to transform culture? And end up secularizing Europe? Is American evangelicalism going to go down that road, too?
I am waiting for the leader who stands up and says, "We do what we do because God is present among us. We're imperfect at it, but all that we do is because God has brought us into a relationship with Him. We want to live in a way that shows His presence to the world, because we've been transfixed by the glory of His presence and we've been drawn into Him." If we show that our God is beautiful, if we live out the beautiful life that is ours because the Spirit of God lives in us, then I guarantee you that culture will be transformed. People filled with the Holy Spirit will want to bring others to the God Who has taken them to Himself and Who invites all the world to come to Him. Bring the presence of God to people, and you change the culture as a by-product. Try to change culture, and you end up exchanging the living presence of God for legalism--the letter of the law brings death, but the Spirit brings life.