A few years ago, I was interviewing Rob Bell for Christianity Today about his book, Jesus Wants to Save Christians. He wrote something in the book that surprised me (imagine that, Rob Bell saying something surprising). So I asked him to clarify himself: “What to you is the purpose of the church?”
“The purpose of the church,” he replied, “is to make the world a better place.” That’s what he had said in the book, and that’s the statement that puzzled me. I frankly couldn’t believe he had said that in front of God and everybody. But as I thought about it, I realized that Bell had expressed precisely the current zeitgeist of the American church. I was less concerned about Bell than I was about the church.
So far in this series, I’ve begun arguing (links to this series can be found here) that the American church, and the evangelical church in particular, has let our activism in the name of God eclipse our passion for God. There is no better place to begin thinking more deeply about how the horizontal has eclipsed the vertical—and how we can reimagine the vertical—than to think about the church. For the next three essays, I want to look at our operative (and I believe mistaken) theology of church. From there, I’ll use some essays to look at how this works itself as well as how it affects various aspects of church life.
Evangelical faith is often criticized for having no ecclesiology, that is, no doctrine of the church. I beg to differ, and instead say that it has an inadequate and truncated doctrine of the church. It’s one reason I believe the movement is in crisis.
From the mid-’60s until 1989, I was a member, and then a minister, in what is now called PC(USA), the mainline Presbyterian church. The next 14 years, I was a member of the Episcopal Church. For over four decades, I had been embedded in mainline/liberal Christianity. And most in this tradition assume that the church’s purpose is to make the world a better place. This is not held by everyone, everywhere in the mainline, nor is it always said in just this way. But it is clearly a widespread assumption.
The purpose was “born” in the late 19th and early 20th century. It was articulated most cogently by Baptist theologian and activist Walter Rauschenbusch in his A Theology for the Social Gospel. In it, he said, “The new thing in the social gospel is the clearness and insistence with which it sets forth the necessity and the possibility of redeeming the historical life of humanity from the social wrongs which now pervade it.”
Rauschenbusch was driven to this conclusion by his conception of the kingdom of God. While acknowledging the need for individual salvation, he was most concerned about social salvation—thus the social gospel. “To those whose minds live in the social gospel,” he said, “the Kingdom of God is a dear truth, the marrow of the gospel, just as the incarnation was to Athanasius, justification by faith alone to Luther, and the sovereignty of God to Jonathan Edwards.”
Therefore, he said later, “Since the Kingdom is the supreme end of God, it must be the purpose for which the Church exists. … The institutions of the Church, its activities, its worship, and its theology must in the long run be tested by its effectiveness in creating the Kingdom of God.”
He believed that the kingdom of God/social gospel was the concept that could invigorate a dead church: “If the Kingdom had stood as the purpose for which the Church exists, the Church could not have fallen into such corruption and sloth.”
But lest the church take itself too seriously, he also noted, “The Kingdom of God is not confined within the limits of the Church and its activities. It embraces the whole of human life. It is the Christian transfiguration of the social order. The Church is one social institution alongside of the family, the industrial organization of society, and the State.”