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On the Vacuity of the “The Local Church” Mantra: Apologia pro vita sua

Since coming on staff with InterVarsity I have run into it again and again: How does your ministry fit with that of the local church?  Aren’t you undermining the efforts of the local church?  Aren’t you doing the work that the local church should be doing?  What differentiates your ministry from that of the local church?  In my experience, such questions are not so much questions as concerns put in inquisitional form.  Behind them lies the question, Isn’t your ministry para-church and isn’t that obviously bad?  They are less questions than objections, and at first they really caught me off-guard.

At first I just couldn’t make sense of the implicit objections to our work.  What is this “local church” (always specified with the definite article as “the local church”) of which you speak?  What is the qualifier “local” supposed to convey here?  Local as opposed to what?  I have an idea of what local food is: food produced here in our state rather than in faraway California or Peru or wherever.  And I have an idea of how to get it: think farmers’ markets, not supermarkets.  But what does one mean by local church?  Are people freeze-drying church and shipping it here from California?  Are people mass-producing and importing church   from Washington state like pink lady apples?  “Local” church as opposed to what?

Well, whether or not church is being imported from Washington state, a particular vision of what church is and should be certainly is, along with this rhetoric of “the local church this…the local church that” to undergird it.  My sense is that this “the local church” mantra emanates from Seattle and the Acts29 Network–at least it’s primarily folks who participate in these churches who seem to get worked up about the relationship between my work and “the local church.”  For these churches “the local church” is where it’s at.  “The local church” is where “community” happens (or should happen), where real spiritual growth happens (or should happen), and where mission should be anchored.  Christian community, mission, and growth occurring outside of “the local church” is painted as un-biblical, as unfortunate, as unwise, as unfaithful, and as otherwise sub-par.

I’ll just be frank: I find it both ironic and odd that this is the chief cluster of objections I run into when talking about my work.  Why so?  Well, it just strikes me as strange that the “local church”-stick should, in the main, be wielded by folks who drive twenty-plus minutes (past a dozen or more other churches which are all more local than the one they’re heading to, mind you) in order to sit in a service wherein, more often than not, the sermon is beamed in from another location because the so-called “local church” is actually a network of congregations (or “satellite campuses”) scattered across a relatively large region and the pastor simply cannot be everywhere at once.  I’m not necessarily knocking that church model–though, I do have my reservations.  My problem is with referring to such churches as “the local church,” and implying that “the local church” is the only legitimate organ for the work of Christ.  I am rubbed the wrong by the word “local” here and am bothered even more by the ever-present and monopolistic-sounding “the.”   In what sense is such a church more “local” than, say, the Methodist or Baptist congregation down the street?  And what makes it “the local church”?

My sense is that “niche church” would be a more apropos descriptor than “local church.”  The reasons why people drive twenty minutes to watch a televised sermon is that they prefer this preacher, this worship music, this theology, these people, and/or this atmosphere to those of all the other closer-by churches they drive past every Sunday morning (or Saturday night–whichever service is more convenient).  In short, “local” ain’t got nothin’ to do with it.  It fills a niche, plain and simple.  I would venture that niche churches, “local” or otherwise, owe their existence more to a consumerist mentality than to a well-worked-out ecclesiology.

So what’s with this “the local church” mantra?  My sense is that the main functions of the vacuous qualifier “local” and the domineering connotations of the definite article “the” are to compensate for an otherwise weak-as-water ecclesiology.  “Local” is the postmodern replacement for the qualifier “parish.”  A parish used to be an identifiable territorial unit wherein one parish priest along with his assistants held both pastoral responsibility and jurisdiction.  The “parish” model is a difficult one to maintain in a post-Reformation, automotive world wherein people can easily drive past churches they don’t like–even churches of the same denomination–in order to get to the churches that they do.  And there are loads of churches to choose from here in the Bible belt.  It’s also very hard now for a pastor to assert that he or she has some sort of pastoral jurisdiction over a particular territory.  The ecclesiastical authority wherein that model makes sense is mostly absent.  Rather, what you have now is a highly competitive ecclesiastical marketplace with churches trying to attract clients or customers or congregants.  And, it should be noted that the parish model has worked in some form or fashion for the better part of the last two thousand years–really only coming unglued after our communities began being designed on the assumption that everyone would have an automobile.  The problem that the “the local church” mantra is aimed at solving did not exist seventy years ago.  Before WWII everyone went to their local church–what other kind was there?  In any case, the language of “local church” might make sense if a parish model still worked (maybe), but then it would be largely redundant.  But since that model no longer really works, I think the language of “locality” doesn’t really make much sense for most of these postmodern mega-churches either.

Now, I’m an Anglican.  And, so, the first time a pastor from one of these “local” churches asked me how I distinguished my ministry from that of “the local church,” I answered as any Anglican InterVarsity-type would: We don’t perform the sacraments, we don’t meet on Sunday, and members of a variety of local bodies and denominations participate.  Puzzlement swept across his face at the mention of the sacraments.  His apparent confusion confused me until I remembered that for his church the sacraments were but symbols.  The eucharist or communion is to be rehearsed more or less once a quarter and that only because Jesus said we had to, not because it actually does anything.  Baptism here, too, is but a symbolic initiation into what is essentially a faith-based voluntary association, not an actual incorporation into the mystical, worldwide, trans-generational Body of Christ, whereby one is transformed by the Spirit into a new creation, and united to Jesus in His death and resurrection.

Niche churches, "local" or otherwise, owe their existence more to a consumerist mentality than to a well-worked-out ecclesiology.

Then it dawned on me why the distinction question comes up so often and why saying that we do not perform the sacraments is not enough for most of the people who feel compelled to ask it.  On the levels of liturgy and praxis, it’s not at all clear how one would distinguish one of these so-called “local churches” from the better part of university campus ministries.  How different is an Acts29 church service from a Campus Crusade meeting?  If I were running that sort of campus ministry, I think I would be inclined to answer the question of what distinguishes my ministry from theirs by saying that whatever they dare to boast of–I am speaking as a fool–of that I, too, would also dare to boast.  Are they evangelical?  So am I.  Are they nondenominational?  So am I.  Do they have preaching?  So have I.  Do they have contemporary worship music?  So have I.  Do they have small groups?  So have I.  Are they “local”?  I am talking like a madman–I am more.  I think that’s what I’d say.

My point is that if I were a yet another quasi-Baptistic, evangelical church, singing the same old rock n’ roll worship songs, with the same old small-group community-life structure, primarily relying on the dynamism of one or maybe two speakers as our main draw, without any real rootage in a historic tradition, and without any sacramentology to speak of, I think I would have a hard time distinguishing myself from most college campus ministries, too.  And that would be a real liability in this highly competitive ecclesiastical marketplace.  I think I, too, would be tempted to look for ways to delegitimize campus ministries.  I mean, how could I possibly compete for the attention of college students when my competition offers them everything I have to offer but doesn’t ask them to tithe, or get up early on Sundays, or change out of their pajamas, or drive twenty minutes out of their way to participate?  Seen from this vantage point, the mantra of “the local church” begins to look a lot more like a sort of branding than like a serious theological concept; basically like saying “Abercrombie and Fitch” or “Ugg.”  It’s a way of convincing college kids that para-church ministries are so theologically uncool and ecclesiastically lame.

Now, let me clarify.  The Graduate Christian Fellowship doesn’t do praise and worship services, or have sermons, or anything like that.  We are more like an over-sized small-group made up of Christians from a variety of traditions and that is focused on being salt and light in the very specific context of the university.  We gather regularly because we share a common calling to be Christian scholars, teachers, and professionals, and because we can better fulfill this vocation together on campus than we can scattered among our various local churches.  Nevertheless, we do gather and work together as members of the Church, the trans-denominational, trans-generational, trans-congregational Body of Christ: the one holy catholic and apostolic Church.  That much we do have in common with the gathering of a local church.

University Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Oxford University, est. ca. 1252

So what more can I say?  While it’s hard to say what distinguishes us from a so-called “local” church, it might be easier and better see how our ministry might be related to and distinguished from the more historically established model of the parish church.  Universities began as fundamentally religious institutions, with worship, prayer, and community built into university life.  A natural outgrowth of the university’s religious function–training clergy in canon law, theology, and the arts–was the development of university chapels.  University chapels where students would gather throughout the week, though not usually on Sundays, were a common feature of university life until the late 19th century and even many public universities have them today.  As modern universities became a more secularized institution, chapels ceased to be as common a feature of them.  But before the late 19th century, these chapels were places where students and faculty congregated throughout the week to pray and commune with one another, and to be reminded of the One in whom are all the riches of knowledge and wisdom, and for Whom all of our work, academic or otherwise, is to be done.  For the most part, on Sundays, faculty and students would either go to a parish church or the chapels themselves would do the work of parish churches, serving the wider local community.

As I see it, we are essentially a chapel without walls.  We are enabling faculty and students to fulfill the commission they receive in their local churches at the end of their Sunday services to go into the world to be salt and light.  In that way, we work hand-in-hand with local congregations as university chapels have for hundreds of years.  Our relationship with the local church should be seen as symbiotic, rather than as competitive.  But the important thing to see is that we are filling a role in the life of the Church (note the capital “C”) that has been around a lot longer than has the contemporary mantra of “the local church, the local church, the local church.”

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Discussion

5 thoughts on “On the Vacuity of the “The Local Church” Mantra: Apologia pro vita sua

  1. You have no idea how much this post delights me.

    Posted by Eric | January 21, 2012, 11:30 pm
  2. That was great. Being a previous member of a local Acts29 network church, I was bombarded with “The Local Church” mantra which was really only about that in particular church, and not as a member of the Church, Universal. Sigh…… it’s sad that for awhile it worked on me too. It fed right into that mentality that I’m privy to, living in America. That sense of “buy our brand over that others and don’t ever switch.” It’s really suffocating, ultimately, and more than anything, it’s disheartening to watch so many friends “drink the kool-aid” if you will, and not think twice.

    Posted by jb | January 21, 2012, 11:49 pm
  3. I think you make good arguments in regards to the deficiency of much of the “local church” rhetoric coming out of churches that honestly don’t look any different that a given para-church ministry in their functional practice of Christianity. There is certainly a danger for churches to get on an ecclesiastical high horse that is more about the fact that they carry the label church rather than embracing the true biblical priorities of the church. That being said, I believe there are legitimate questions/concerns that should rightly be addressed in regards to the relationship between para-church ministries and a given local church, and it is a great discussion for all parties to wrestle with. I will regularly talk about the value of the local church, but I personally see the term as basically post-modern terminology for the “visible church”. While the Acts 29 churches use this term, I don’t think they are the authors of the lingo. They have just popularized it. I think you are spot on in discussing how your ministry is different in regards to preaching, Sabbath worship, and the Sacraments. That is a great response. I think the problem with many “local”/”visible” churches is not only the infrequent practice of communion, but it is actually a poor understanding of the theological backdrop of communion which is intimately connected to “church discipline” (Matt. 18/1 Cor. 5). When I speak about the importance of the local church, I speak of it as the reality of having spiritual authorities that are committed to your sanctification, and in turn their commitment to a body of believers. One of the reasons I push for people becoming members of “local”/visible churches (assuming that the local church in question actually fulfills the marks of a true church being the biblical calling to preaching the word, sacraments, and discipline), is because it fulfills a basic calling that all christians have to be committed “members” of the visible community of people that are committed to his/her faith and he/she to theirs.

    In our context of Raleigh, I do think there is a tension between the roles of both “church” and para-church ministry, and I think it is born out of dysfunction emanating from both local churches and para-church ministries over the years, as well as legitimate concerns. Much of the para-church influence in Raleigh was birthed out of the failure of the local church to actually live out the biblical priorities of the church for a number of years. I think there are also legitimate concerns by leaders within the local church that for those who are attempting to recover the biblical priorities of the church that the para-church world is resistant to the visible church’s desire to do so. I’m actually very hopeful that both sides are learning to see where they are part of the problem and how they together can be part of the solution of seeing people’s lives changed by the gospel.

    Having spent the first 6 years of my Christian life heavily invested in the para-church world, and the past 14 heavily involved in the church world, I have spent much time discussing this very topic. And I think it is a very good topic to discuss. Thanks for posting.

    Posted by Lindsey Williams | January 22, 2012, 1:57 am
  4. Always glad to oblige, Eric.

    JB, welcome to the blog, and thanks for your comments. I attended one of these churches ever-so-briefly and had a similar experience. I was already, at that point, a closeted Anglican, though, and so the “the local church” rhetoric seemed like a pretty sorry substitute for a most robust ecclesiology and a deeper rootedness in the great tradition.

    Lindsey, thanks, as always for your insightful comments. I didn’t mention discipline as one of the things that differentiates us, in part because we do have disciplinary measures for our leaders (though, not excommunication, of course, since we don’t serve communion). But that’s another mark of faithful churches that, thankfully, is being revitalized.
    You might be right about “the local church” being the postmodern way of saying “the visible church,” but I feel like that’s a little sticky, as well. You know, when the Augustine fashioned the concepts of “visible” and “invisible church” in his controversies with the Donatists there were bodies that by today’s logic might be labelled “para-church ministries,” namely, monastic orders. And, though I’m no Augustine scholar, I think these would have fallen under the heading of “visible church” for Augustine, because for him church=the one holy, catholic and apostolic Church, which has many embodiments and includes all of the elect. Not sure how he would have assessed our current situation.
    At any rate, my hope is that we, the “local” or “parish” church ministries and the “para-church” ministries can–in spite of the exasperated tone of my blog post–cultivate a robust sense of our symbiotic relationship with one another. As I see it, we are doing precisely what any local church should expect its grad students and faculty to do when, in the dismissal at the end of the Sunday service, they are sent into the world to be salt and light.

    I love this response by Rowan Williams to the question of What is Church?: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WjtIS5cBmu8

    Posted by dmwilliams83 | January 22, 2012, 3:52 am

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  1. Pingback: What’s the difference between parachurch and parish church? | Two Tasks - January 23, 2012

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NCSU Graduate Christian Fellowship

Hi! I'm David, the campus minister for InterVarsity's graduate and faculty ministries at NC State and Meredith College. I hope you'll join me as I learn to "practice resurrection" in the City of Oaks, in her universities, and in the wider world. You can contact me at dmwilliams83@gmail.com

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