The variegated, multi-membered church
For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell?
1 Corinthians 12:14–17
When I began dating Ami, her parents had me fill out a 32-question questionnaire. The first question was, ‘What does a multi-generational vision mean to you?’ I had no idea what they meant, but I gave it a good college try. I imagined this in a church context. Ami and I ran across some Vision Forum multi-generational ministry stuff the other day as we were thinking about this too. For them, I think there was almost a focus of family against the church. This was certainly how it played out in practice at the church Ami’s family was going to when we met. The family was the only institution that mattered, and there wasn’t a healthy understanding of the church as members baptized into one body for our mutual aid. That family centered model is destructive and undermines the gospel. One of the things that stands out thinking about it is this: the only institution that will last through eternity is the body of Christ, what we call the church family. The best way to describe individual families in this context, I think, is that they will be so overshadowed by our fellowship in Christ that they will become non-existent. As we are told, there is no marrying or giving in marriage in heaven.
All this to say that it is important we realize the glory of Christ’s church on the earth because it is the only enduring institution. We all have our individual callings, for those of us with children, we are called to bring up our children in the way of the Lord. For those who are married, we are called to love our spouses. There are a handful of other more temporary callings. Work, living as a Christian neighbor to your neighbors, and various other callings. But as Christians, we are baptized into the church, and the church of Christ will endure into eternity. This has massive ramifications.
Let’s think about the different ways the Bible describes the church. One thing I want to encourage you to remember is that although there is the church across time and space, this church is only visible in an individual gathering of believers. So in a real sense, I think Tom Schreiner or Don Carson once wrote, ‘Each local church is a full expression of the church universal.’ So the church is not described as a group of friends. This is essential, because we often start here. I know we moved back to ANBC with an understanding that knowing people and Ami having long-time friends here would help ease the transition as we began this new vocation. It didn’t really, it’s been quite heavy and lonely. But this isn’t what the church is about. Jesus reminds us, ‘If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.’ The church is not a place of people who (already, naturally) love one another. The church is also not a place where a group of people all come from the same demographic. Ami’s church growing up was formed and was constituted as a homogenous group of people who did the same sorts of things. ‘Uniformity in a church doesn’t make it correct,’ and I think it will often permit more sin to be hidden, leading to destruction to souls.
Instead, the church is described as a body. A body is stuck all together, and I think it’s a more accurate picture. There are parts of my body, I’m not happy with. The toe jam in my toes is not pleasing to my nose. I could go on, but I know you don’t want to hear the nitty-gritty. But you can’t just say no to one body part or the other. Instead, the differences between us are for our mutual aid (or the Orthodox Catechism says, ‘our mutual commodity.’)
The church is also described as a family. In a similar way, we can’t declare ourselves separate from a family. Just like you might have the crazy great aunts, the sweet grandmother, the difficult cousin, and funny uncle, so in the church we are all members of the same family, each with our own role to accomplish. Which I think gets to my point I brought out in my answer to my in-laws. The church is a multi-generational entity, which means, we foreseeably might have a single dad, a widow, a family with teens, and a young couple. In the church growth movement (including Crystal Cathedral, Willow Creek, and Saddleback), there was this value (which I think is extremely problematic) that has infected the whole church, which is that a church should aim at individual demographics. So now we have a biker church, a cowboy church, and a church with a multi-million dollar children’s wing. Instead, while we can’t choose who is a part of our congregation, and sometimes we begin with one kind of person or another, we shouldn’t pursue a flat demographic. Why? I think we begin to assume that in our external similarity, we are more perfect than we actually are. And we end up so easily neglecting those who are a part of our body today but don’t look like us. Just like you shouldn’t neglect your great aunt, we must take care not to avoid those we feel are a little off their rockers within our local body. We are the first line of defense in loving the unlovely in our local congregation.
So we should seek to fulfill our role in this body of Christ and aid one another to grow in Christ-likeness. We don’t simply look for others who are similar to us. As a families, we lead our kids to minister to the body of Christ we’re baptized into and show what it looks like to take initiative in it. We lead by example and invite others into our service. It is a beautiful and wonderful thing when the body of Christ is pulling up those who are weak, struggling, ignorant, or young.
Often enough, we kind of stay secluded within our own homes, but we should grow out of that into loving our neighbor, caring for the dispossessed, and walking with those who are struggling. We need others to help with physical needs like taking the initiative to shovel and mow, help make the coffee, or be the last one at church to straighten up a bit. As a body and as a family, we ought also to realize that the work of spiritually edifying relationships is a long-term process. First, we have to get over the fact that others are different from us, but second, we have to rub shoulders enough to be invested in one another’s lives. The work of building relationships is perpetually slow and messy. Invite others in the church to your dinner table, learn yourself and help others find joy in sitting at the feet of Christ learning his word like Mary. Get to know, love, and pursue outsiders who are in our midst. It is a tendency of the world to go find those who will love them and are similar to them. It is the teaching of Christ to love the unlovely and disinterested, the elderly and the young. Where you lead, others will follow, even if you lead in indifference or lack of involvement. From my vantage point, we’re only beginning to scratch the surface embodying what it truly means to be the body of Christ that meets at 1300 Lowry Ave NE. And I think that this is just a little taste of what a multi-generational vision of church might look like.