The Outward Bound
by Vernard Eller


What Is It to You?

The postlude is in response to a request from an editor. "We'd like to know exactly what the church should do! Give some specific helps for Christians who want direction in renewing their church. In short, "We've read your book; now tell us what it all means."

I am going to resist the request a bit--as Ellul and Kierkegaard did when the same request was addressed to them although I do not have the nerve to be as totally obstinate as they were. However, I cannot, and therefore will not, reduce the challenge (which is what I see this hook being. a New Testament challenge to the contemporary church) to a checklist of how-to suggestions. Certainly a biblical rebirth of the church will never happen via that route. In the first place, every congregation's circumstances are different enough that no shotgun prescriptions will do. Each church will have to explore its own possibilities and discover God's will in its particular time, place, and situation.

Second, a list of how-tos is not radical enough; it leaves matters on the level of technique--efficiency rather than inviting the Holy Spirit to disrupt lives, thought-patterns, traditions, and structures. (Our age will certainly produce books regarding these topics, e.g., Techniques for Church Renewal, or How to Stage a Pentecost--as though it lies within our powers to manipulate these things into existence!)

I agree with Ellul when he states:

But I refuse to construct a system of thought, or to offer up some Christian or prefabricated socio-political solutions. I want only to provide Christians with the means of thinking out for themselves the meaning of their involvement in the modern world.4

When, in response to his Attack Upon "Christendom," Kierkegaard was asked, "What do you want? For what changes are you asking?" His answer was very simple. He denied that he was demanding any changes at all. He was asking for only one thing: honesty. If the church was honest enough to publicly admit that what it was proclaiming (and more importantly, representing) as the gospel was not the New Testament gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, he would be well satisfied. Now what he knew but did not say was that, if honesty were to force the church into such an embarrassing admission, the embarrassment itself would drive the church back to the New Testament in an effort to get things straightened out.

And I agree with Kierkegaard. If the church simply was honest enough to admit that what it uses as models of a Christian congregation are not the models assigned us in the New Testament, I would be well satisfied--assured, of course, that the admission would initiate healthy changes.

This is probably the most important answer I have to the question asked by the title of this "Postlude." But I do have some additional, more specific, suggestions.

  1. To those who are seeking or may in the future be seeking a church home, consider whether Christ may not be calling you into a risk-taking, demanding church membership rather than a safe, spectator one. Why not join a congregation where your presence would make a real difference rather than merely changing a digit or two in already impressive statistics? Why not deliberately put yourself into a situation, the exigencies of which would force you to discover, develop, and exercise gifts you never knew you had and never would have discovered in a larger church? Granted, the prospect of being a member (a foot, a hand, an arm, or a leg) of what is perhaps a "terminally-ill" congregation is not nearly as pleasant or attractive as "taking part" in all the fun and inspiration of an activity-programmed church. But could it not be that Christ calls you to the congregation you can best serve rather than the one that best serves you, to the congregation that most needs you rather than the one that best suits your needs? And above alt, should not your own fidelity to Christ lead you to look for and value a congregation's fidelity more than its success?
  2. To those who already are in small, struggling, or even terminally ill congregations, hold up your heads and quit shuffling and snuffling around. Do not allow the classy crowd to force you into buying its models. Quit trying to ape those churches, because you will not be able to pull it off. Look instead to the New Testament and its models, and realize that you actually have all the advantage. It is not that small churches automatically fall into the New Testament category, but once they get their priorities straight, they certainly have the easier job of becoming obedient. Success (which they do not have) does not entice them away from their search for fidelity. They can move directly into caravaning, expeditioning, and barbershopping. It will take considerable time and effort for a large congregation to get to that place. The small congregation has much less of a vested interest in the continuance of the world and thus a better chance of getting a focus on the end of the world. Living the risky, tenuous life of a struggling congregation stands one in better stead to heat and understand what the New Testament has to say about the church and to the church. It also helps one to appreciate the truth of Christian inutility. We small-timers have many advantages. Let us thank God for them and use them according to his will.
  3. Finally, to those who are already in large, flourishing churches, I am somewhat baffled as to what to say. I cannot give you any easy formulae, because I do not think there are any. Facing up to the New Testament challenge and becoming honest in relation to it is, of course, the first step for all of us. Beyond that, it certainly is not my place to tell you to move your membership; you will have to deal with your own conscience on that one. Only you can determine how many people in which positions doing what for how long may be required to influence your congregation perceptibly. Obviously, you cannot expect to find any large numbers eager to repudiate their own success and confess congregational inutility. So I guess the word is "chip away" (talk away, study away, pray away), make suggestions, and take initiatives when you can. Above all, maintain the vision and be patient in Christian love.

So now to him who by the power at work within us is able to do far more abundantly than all we ask or think, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

Copyright (c) 1980