The Church: An Organic Picture of Its Life

by Robert Brow

Chapter 17

Present and Future

"Then tell us what to do. Where do we go from here? I am more confused than when you began, Why not leave us alone? At least our pews are comfortable, though the world may be lost." And the clergy join the chorus. "We are tired of diagnosis and blueprints and quacks. We may be paid too little, but at least it comes every month, and we have a roof over our heads. Laymen are difficult enough as they are, without having them tying to run everything and then leaving us to pick up the pieces. We would love to see the vitality of the New Testament, but meanwhile we have to cope with what there is. We would do things differently if we were starting again, but better the organization we now have than the chaos you are creating. It is all very well for you to write from your study, but come and show me what you would do here."

Why not begin with facts, or rather the fact of God, the living God, the God of Abraham, Moses, David, Peter, Paul, and John. He is wise and his plan is perfect. We can also take his church as a fact. His Son is building more gloriously than Solomon, and there are a surprising number of new living stones for the new temple being assembled throughout the world. The gates of hell may threaten, but they are less likely to prevail than nineteen centuries ago. At its best the church has been magnificent. The blood of the martyrs, the women facing the beasts of the arena, the Roman senator and his slave sharing the bread and the wine, the taming of the savage tribes of Europe and the equally savage tribes of today, the Pilgrim Fathers, the schools, the universities and hospitals where men were free to think and to love, Wilberforce and Shaftesbury, the Salvation Army, St. Francis and Pope John, some faithful pastors among the hypocrites, occasionally an intensity of love and fellowship, and most of all the first evidence that the poor and dull and insignificant are important as people. When these things were seen ordinary men suspected that perhaps God was there after all.

With the obvious facts we also need the theological facts. God is not in a hurry as we are. The most Christian of men are very imperfect this side of heaven. There are many tares among the best of wheat. The growth of life both in nature and by the spirit is imperceptible, and what is to be is never seen. The end product is the City of God. Its design is perfect. It only awaits the people who are still being fashioned in this space-time world.

Having accepted the facts of a God who works and the imperfection of the men that he uses, we can begin with the congregations that we have. The Christian radical does not root up everything. Rather he goes to the root of the matter to discern what can become a flower. He is a conservative in the sense of retaining everything that is good. He removes the obvious weeds, and knows that a garden is not grown in a day. The Christian radical is also a teacher. Rather than criticize, he has great faith in steady instruction. At least all Christians should know that the gifts of the Spirit are various, and God is pleased with variety. We may disagree on the meaning of some of the gifts, but we could start by encouraging those whose meaning is obvious. Sunday School and Bible class teachers can be recognized and encouraged to give themselves to excellence in teaching the Bible. We already have elders, parish council members, or boards; and these persons could be helped to see that the gift of spiritual administration can be more than church politics. We must pray that God will give us all the gifts that we need, and then be grateful when they appear.

To clarify the practice of ordination will take a long time. There is obviously much of value in every denomination that needs to be conserved. As radicals we can, however, begin asking what exactly we mean by the laying on of hands, and which functions should be designated in this way. The best changes are made in line with precedent and by small, almost imperceptible steps. if we know what we are trying to achieve, it is surprising how much can be changed before the radical nature of a transformation is noticed.

Re-creating the anemic bloodstream of the church is an immediate priority. Missions and orders are already in existence. They need to be recognized as the very life of the body, the source of all that God Provides to give energy, repair damage, fight disease, and initiate growth throughout the world. Local churches and the denominations in which they are grouped must be helped to take of the richness that the bloodstream has to offer, and in turn be willing to give the Timothys and Pauls and Lukes and Johns that the blood requires.

Most of all we need a vision of the church as the body of Christ, its growth throughout the world, and the tremendous Purposes that Christ as its head has in mind. This is a vision that can excite men to live dangerously, and suffer and die to make the vision visible on earth as a prelude to its perfection in the City of God.

What of the future? Marshall McLuhan's great theme is that since the Gutenberg printing press man has learned to extend himself mechanically. His hands extended into tools, production lines, and giant earth-moving equipment. His feet extended their pace with automobiles, rockets, and jets. Now in the twentieth century man is extending himself electronically. Fifty years ago virtually all of man's mental operations were carried on inside his brain. Now large numbers of men have extended their brains electronically into computers. Man's nervous system has already been tremendously extended by telegraph, telephone, radio and television. Now the link-up between computers all over the world, and the rapidly multiplying instant connections from brain to brain, seem likely to create a kind of global consciousness. Whether or not McLuhan is right in prophesying that this is going to take us back to tribal man is questionable. For the Christian, McLuhan's ideas may suggest a further stage of development in the church as the body of Christ.

So far the church has taken root in many countries and in widely different cultures. Until recently these national and tribal churches woe isolated. Their only connection was through missionary members of the bloodstream who began to move more rapidly to distant parts in the eighteenth century. Even in one country parish churches were parochial. Now the electronic link-up noticed by McLuhan is inevitably going to bring Christian congregations throughout the world into close contact. It is as if the body of Christ is now developing a unified nervous system. Already Billy Graham in London has been shared simultaneously by hundreds of churches through closed-circuit television channeled via the telephone system. In North America he is seen and heard by millions of viewers on coast-to-coast television systems. We should expect the church to produce other worldwide figures with other prophetic, evangelistic, and teaching gifts.

As global instant communications develop we can already see Christians of all denominations beginning to think and feel as one. This unity will not be a linear organizational[43] unity, such as took place in the bureaucracies that united the British Empire. Rather it will be an instant electronic or nervous unity such-as exists in the human body. Christians do not feel one by connecting up through denominational hierarchies that are then united administratively. They could conceivably be one by seeing each other on television, hearing the same preachers, responding the same way, praying together, giving for the same causes, and sensing the common enemy. Such opportunities for unity will be vastly increased by Telstar television, supersonic jets, and communications satellites round the world that may soon mate telephone conversations the same price regardless of distance.

Beyond the electronic future for the church, there is the ultimate future when space-time will have been left behind and we shall know as we are known. Meanwhile God has graciously given us death, the death of every parent and lover and child, and our own death in particular, as a means for us to see our existential decision. In any case there is no meaning in this world as it is. Either I must say that there is no meaning and there never can be, which is nihilism, or I can say that there is no meaning but I will have faith in myself as the only giver of meaning, or I may say there is no meaning now, but that I believe in a superman or a superstate that will one day give this world a meaning. Or I can be a Christian and say, "I believe in Jesus Christ, the only giver of meaning, God-man, who chose to give me meaning out of my meaninglessness. He is the head of the body, the church, in which I have a function until my task is done." Death then loses its sting, life has its joyous excitement, and other men and women become people rather than things, subjects instead of objects, fellow citizens of the city that has foundations, whose builder and maker is God.