Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker, Resident Bishop, Florida Conference, The United Methodist Church
One thing needed for church renewal is a biblical understanding of the church. This may seem like an odd proposal. Aren’t there programmatic proposals, such as a recovery of the Wesleyan class meeting for accountable discipleship under lay leadership, which would renew the lives of congregations and their members? Aren’t there primary tasks of the church, such as passionate worship centered around sermon and sacrament, which would renew the faith of members and attract those who do not yet have faith in Jesus Christ? Aren’t there even structural changes in the United Methodist Church which would enhance Episcopal leadership, reduce bureaucracy, and simplify the organizational mandates of the Book of Discipline – proposals which would liberate the Church to be more of a movement than an institution? I do not doubt that these proposals, along with others, such as coaching congregations to be externally focused on the needs of their communities and the world, are necessary. Yet I believe that the most important agenda for the church is to claim a biblical understanding of the church.
We are living through the most profound change in the relationship between the church and Western civilization since the fourth century. In this new post-Christian age, the church must discover an identity other than that of being the religion of the culture. The resources for finding a new identity are the ways of being church practiced in primitive Christianity and the foundational description of the church in the Scriptures.
Moreover, because the church in the West is undergoing a radical and permanent shift in its relationship to the culture, genuine renewal must be grounded in a theological vision rather than merely in technological approaches, whether they are programmatic of organizational. Technological approaches are necessary, but they are no substitute for a theological reformation which must begin with the recovery of a biblical ecclesiology.
Also, I assume that all long-term fundamental change occurs because of big ideas. The big idea most needed today is a biblical understanding of what the church of Jesus Christ is.
What is this biblical understanding of the church that is needed today? There are several images of the church in the New Testament and in the tradition of Christendom. I think there is warrant for choosing as the most comprehensive image (which is inclusive of both Testaments and perhaps most of the other images of the church in the New Testament), “the messianic pilgrim people of God” (for more on this, see George Lindbeck, “The Church”, in Keeping the Faith by Geoffrey Wainwright, ed., Fortress Press and Pickwick Publications, 1988, Pp. 179-208).
The understanding of the church as the messianic pilgrim people of God does not view the church as the religion of the culture, or even as a religion, but as a distinctive people in all of the nations of the world. Such an understanding views the church as a missionary community that witnesses to the world by word and deed. Because it sees the church as a people on a pilgrimage through history, it enables the church to be liberated from its captivity to a settled place in society and to adapt to change. It is centered in Jesus Christ as the crucified and risen Messiah of Israel declared by God to be the Lord of the world by the power of the Holy Spirit. Christ is known as the climax of the story of Israel which continues in the form of the church for all the families, tribes, and nations of the world. It is not individualistic, but it is a corporate understanding of the church in which all members are joined together in the on-going story of the people of the Messiah. It learns from the experiences of this people in the past, beginning with Israel in the Old Testament, but it is also oriented toward the future God intends for all creation.
As a bishop, I attend many anniversaries of congregations where the history of the congregation is narrated. Nearly all of these histories are stories of buildings constructed and programs instituted. These histories are indicators of the congregations’ self-understanding of themselves as institutions settled down in society. Rarely is the history of the congregation a narrative of the witness and mission of the congregation in its community and the world.
To claim a biblical identity of the church as a messianic pilgrim people of God would be the work of at least a generation of theological education, pastoral leadership, congregational transformation, and denominational reform. It is not the only thing needed by the church today, but it is what is most needed for the church to arise out of the wreckage of Christendom.