One teacher who’s helped me learn to love and embrace God’s fractured and faltering church is Eugene Peterson (one of my book mentors). He discusses the issue in his recent an exposition of Ephesians entitled Practice Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing Up in Christ. The lines of chapter one cut right to the chase: “Church is the textured context in which we grow up in Christ to maturity. But church is difficult. Sooner or later, though, if we are serious about growing up in Christ, we have to deal with church” (11). At points throughout the rest of the book, he helps us deal with church by getting to the bottom of what and why it is.
He begins by affirming the church’s purpose: it is the Spirit-empowered witness to the kingdom of God in the world. It is the community that practices death-defeating resurrection life in a world where “death gets the biggest headlines” (12). True, we’re not especially good at this resurrection life, and on the surface, our practice looks incongruent: hypocrisy and imperfections, fights and factions, failure to convert the world or clean up its morals. Many see this and become disheartened or dismiss the church as irrelevant. But, Peterson argues, there is more to church; there is “deep church” (a phrase he borrows from C. S. Lewis). Peterson looks at the church in front of us, warts and all, and asks a profound and thought-provoking question: “Do you think that maybe this is exactly what God intended when he created the church? Maybe the church as we have it provides the very conditions and proper company congenial for growing up in Christ, for becoming mature, for arriving at the measure of the full stature of Christ. Maybe God knows what he’s doing, giving us church, this church” (14).
Peterson laments that in America we define church in terms of function, not essence. We focus on our role in achieving God’s purpose. We evaluate through lenses of pragmatism consumerism. “This way of thinking – church as a human activity to be measured by human expectations – is pursued unthinkingly. The huge reality of God already at work in all the operations of the Trinity is benched on the sideline, while we call timeout, huddle together with our heads bowed, and figure out a strategy by which we can compensate for God’s regrettable retreat into invisibility” (118). He argues that such an approach leads to shallow, statistically-measured attempts to achieve relevance and culturally-defined success.
To move us beyond this myopic approach, Peterson introduces the phrase “Ontological Church.” This is essential church, behind the scenes, below the surface. There is more to church than meets the eye. Much of what is happening is invisible. It is the work of the Holy Spirit, growing people up in Christ. It’s not what we do; it’s what we are and what God does. We are included because of what God has done to us and for us. Then we participate in his ongoing action. How we participate certainly matters. He calls us to faithful obedience. But the foundational work of God among us is what makes us church, however imperfectly we live it out (17-8).
I see a few keys to help me move beyond disillusionment and into loving embrace of the church:
- God is working inside the house that often appears inglorious. The house is us, and it’s under construction (Ephesians 2:22). He is working in people, slowly, silently, through his Spirit. When I stop looking at the exterior, walk in the doors and start engaging people, I see God changing them. And I’m encouraged.
- Ministers merely participate in God’s work (1 Corinthians 3:5-7). We do not change people. God does. This is freeing truth. It allows me to use my gifts and love people and let God renovate hearts.
- When imperfect people grow increasingly into God’s likeness (holiness), God gets glory. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing…to the praise of his glory (Ephesians 1:3-14). When we join in the transformational process, we give God glory and thus fulfill our creaturely vocation.
Eugene Peterson is one of the great prophetic voices in the American church. After 50 years of biblical study and pastoral ministry, he has much wisdom to share, and I believe he sees what many of us miss (especially us younger ones who are more a product of our time than we realize or care to admit). For those of us struggling to serve the broken church in North America, his is a voice we should hear and heed. Practice Resurrection is a great place to start.
 In all my discontent with church, I’ve rarely considered that God actually desires a community in constant process, a people always approaching wholeness, a perpetual witness of hope in a hurting world. But it makes sense, not least because the church reproduces itself. Old, wise saints must leave the mission to less mature leaders. Spiritual babies are born and must grow up (cf. Practice, 181-82). Perhaps the ever-transforming church is God’s chosen means for transforming the world.