The traditional Protestant answer to the question “what makes a church” is the preaching of the Word and the Sacraments.
Most Protestant denominations have adhered to it to some extent or other, though you would be hard-pressed to see this in action in my low-church charismatic circles. We disregard the sacraments.
The reformers and their successors might have phrased this as “what makes a true church?” and were defining themselves against the Roman Catholic Church as it was beginning to define itself in the counter-reformation. I’d like to steer away from that question and answer the milder one I first posed—for reasons that will probably be obvious.
Charismatic churches like the ones I’ve been involved in leading would often be accused of being squishy on ‘ecclesiology’, on their theology of the church. We tend towards the pragmatic and are so ahistorical that we rarely know when we’re out of step with thousands of years of Christian history.
I’d like to attempt to sketch the outlines of a uniquely charismatic answer to the question “What makes a church?”. Unusually for this blog, this is me actually doing theology, and I’m forging ahead rather than following someone else—with all its inherent dangers!
I’ll ignore nuances like church government, officers etc and begin with the Protestant answer of the preaching of the Word and the Sacraments. Yes to that.
I’d like to define these as events and encounters. Specific meaningful moments where an action is taken that constitutes the community (an event) and that those events are actions done by God, who we meet in them (an encounter).
I’d also like to add an extra one: worship. Before anyone climbs on their pedantic horse to tell me that worship is all of life, or that preaching and the sacraments are worship, you knew what I meant.
This gives us four events that make the church: worship, preaching, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper. Four events through which the church, corporately, encounter God. Four events to be repeated regularly in the gathered assembly—so you should see them on a typical Sunday—four events through which the whole church and the individual encounter God.
I’d like to briefly sketch out what I mean by each and how it should be viewed as an encounter with God.
By worship I mean specifically the worship of the gathered people on a typical Sunday. And I mean the bit with the singing. The Bible defines worship in both broader and narrower ways than this, but its what we call it, so its what I’m going to call it.
When the corporate church worships, we encounter God, and while it feels like something that we do, its primarily something that he does as he comes to meet with us. The encounter with God is not the fizzing feeling in your stomach or the tingle down your spine as the Spirit rests on you, but when you hear other members of the congregation contribute.
The charismatic churches I’ve been in take 1 Corinthians 12-14 seriously as a book of church order and expect to hear songs, tongues, interpretations, prophetic words, prayers, scripture readings etc etc from members of the congregation as we worship. It’s the role of Church Leaders to maintain good order in the melee.
It’s as we hear these different contributions that the Spirit comes to speak with us and meet with us as a people. These contributions are where our worship, as an event, lives. A killer band is great, but if you want God to come and gift you, open up the floor to hear what the people have to say.
The preached word in a Sermon or Message (please don’t call it a ‘preach’, that’s not a noun) is not primarily an educative activity. The preacher isn’t instructing, or even teaching the gathered church. They are opening the Bible and rubbing the faces of the people of God in it. They are unleashing the Word and through it expecting God to come and gift the people. This is the primary way that God speaks with us.
While teaching might happen the role of the preacher is not to explain the text but to proclaim it. They can’t do this well if they don’t understand the text, and that’s because its only an encounter with God when we say what God is saying in the text. This can’t simply be “God has this week told me that…” with no relation to the text, but it can’t not be that either.
If you’re preaching, proclaim the Word and offer Christ. If you’re listening, expect to encounter God collectively and individually as the Word is proclaimed.
Baptism is the start of the Christian life. It’s an encounter with God for the individual going under the water, but its also an encounter for the whole church. The whole church acts by accepting the individual into their family and counting them as a brother or sister. God encounters his church by declaring over the one being baptised that they are a beloved son or daughter who should be treated as a sibling by all those gathered.
He also encounters his church because—like the Lord’s Supper—it’s a physical gospel re-enactment. We see the red sea passed through with water we can touch, we see death passed through visually rather than just metaphorically, we see a pledge made and are viscerally reminded of the vow of our own baptism.
Communion is a gift from God to us as we eat and drink the body and blood of Jesus. This should be the most obvious of the four, physical gospel as we partake of the sacrificed ‘meat’ in the bread and wine. Jesus dies like a peace offering or Passover lamb and then we gather the people together to eat the sacrifice together.
In my circles that sounds quite strange. This is our literal food given to us to eat by the Lord, week by week. It’s the Sabbath meal. It’s the high point and climax of our gatherings as we cry “this is the gospel, come and eat!” It’s an event, and an encounter with God, individually as we eat and corporately as we enjoy a ‘meal’ and are bound one to each other as we ‘sit at the table’ to eat what the Lord has provided.
A Charismatic Church
I, very controversially, believe that only one of these four is possible online, and its probably not the one you think. It’s Baptism and only then because the event has to happen physically while its witnessed by others virtually. Even that is subpar. I think decent facsimiles of the other three are available online: which is what we’ve enjoyed through the pandemic. We shouldn’t kid ourselves that these are more than pragmatic alternatives when the real thing isn’t available, acceptable but not the event. Online church, in this sense, doesn’t work.
There are lots of implications of my proposal that I won’t tease out here, but I would like to point out that each of these encounters is corporate before its individual. This is something we are often poor at understanding. Before asking did God speak to me or to you, I would want us to ask “Did God speak to us?” If the answer is yes, then he spoke to you and me too. If the answer is no… I’m not sure that was church you went to.
The church is made in four actions, four events, four encounters, and God in Christ by the Spirit is the one who is active in every one of them.