Comings and Goings is a blog written by Theology, Formation, and Evangelism Director Charles B. "Chip" Hardwick as he travels throughout the church. God is on the move out and about in the world, working to redeem all things in Jesus Christ. As we join this mission, by the power of the Spirit we see God on the move. This blog contains glimpses of how Chip finds this to be true in his comings and goings.
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This week I have been in San Juan, Puerto Rico, for a meeting of the Committee on Theological Education (which coordinates joint ministries between the PC(USA) seminaries). We met at the Seminario Evangelico de Puerto Rico, the seminary which trains the vast majority of the denomination’s Spanish-speaking pastors. (Its chapel is pictured below, left.) The president, Sergio Ojeda, was part of a panel of administrators, professors, and students which helped the committee to learn more about the institution.
I have been thinking about Dr. Ojeda’s remarks ever since he made them. During the question-and-answer portion of the panel, he said, “The problem is that we are adding churches, but we are not changing the culture.” With this he helped remind me that there is a difference between the ends and the means. The end of the church is not more church—the end of the church is helping more and more people experience life as God dreams of it for them, including both physical care and sustenance and the spiritual resources that come from our faith in Christ. Many of the people who experience this care, sustenance, and faith will be inside the church, but many more will be outside the church. More church is the means by which this end is delivered, but more church is not simply the end itself. The more we remember that churches don’t exist for the benefit of their own members, but the rather for the benefit of the world, the more individuals and society and culture will resemble God’s hopes for them.
I have been thinking about this in relation to another statement Dr. Ojeda made, quoting theologian Pablo Richard, who said “We are cutting off the branch on which we are sitting, but that is okay, because we are doing it with efficiency and high technology.” When we focus on efficiency and efficacy (which we must as good stewards), we often forget the ends that I spoke about in the previous paragraph.
It might be that we are very efficiently creating new worshiping communities, as Dr. Ojeda was speaking particularly about, but these communities are simply Christian clubs for their members. However, the problem can take root in many other ways. In fact, I think it’s a much bigger problem in existing churches, which often value their current way of doing ministry more highly than their communities value this ministry. As we work harder and harder to refine that ministry (often with efficiency and technology), we end up keeping our eye on the wrong ball…and (at the risk of switching metaphors) over time we realize that we have been sawing off the limb we have been sitting on. That is, we have a ministry running more and more smoothly, but it is less and less meaningful to the community—and the vibrancy of the church (and more importantly, its witness is fatally undermined.
What would it mean to take risks to help the communities around us to experience the Gospel more fully—which causes us to move further and further out on a limb, but without ever sawing it off?