Building the Church – Part I

Almost all of my adult life has been spent in preparation for and in the service of the Kingdom of God. Not that I have achieved anything in my own strength or barely begun to be that person I know that God desires me to be. I am far from perfect and I am a weak and sinful man. But I believe that despite my own unworthiness I am permitted to have some small part in the labour of the Vineyard of the Lord, and I believe that he calls us all to such service.

As St Paul’s says of himself…

Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.

What is this for which we have been taken hold of by Christ? It is that we participate in being and becoming His Body, the Church. We are to continue to manifest his mission in the world, not as if we were standing in for him and he is absent. But by the mystical union with Him which is the life-giving and transforming experience of those who seek Him with all their heart, he is present in the world, in and through us. That salvation which he offers us is union with Him, and with each other, in the divine life of love.

What is this Body of Christ, the Church, in which we are to participate, and which we are to build out of the living stones that are each member? These are just a few thoughts which I wish to apply to myself and which may have relevance to others.

The Church is not a building.

It is easy for us to fall into the harmful mistake of imagining that the Church is the building in which the faithful gather to worship God and meet together. It is easy for us to begin to believe that the bigger and more impressive the building we have constructed, the more completely we have done what is required of us. But God does not dwell in any building constructed by man. What does St Stephen the first-martyr say…

The Most High does not dwell in temples made with hands, as the prophet says:

‘Heaven is My throne,
And earth is My footstool.
What house will you build for Me? says the Lord,
Or what is the place of My rest?
Has My hand not made all these things?’

Of course this does not mean that it is not proper to set apart places of worship, and to make them beautiful. Beauty is one aspect of the message of the Good News. But what is dangerous is the attitude which makes the establishment of a building, and indeed the construction of ever bigger and more impressive buildings, a priority for our activity in the world.

It is one thing to ask what is needed for our worship of God and His service in the world, but it is another to confuse the construction of a great edifice with the growth of the Church. If we are not able to worship God in the simplest and most humble of circumstances then we will not be able to worship him in the grandeur of the greatest buildings. A time is coming when in the West we may lose our Church buildings. If we have confused the building for the Church herself then we will be scattered, but if we understand that we are sojourners in this world then we will not have such an attachment to place, nor put confidence in the magnificence of our temples.

The earliest Church worshipped in cemeteries and graveyards. They gathered underground in catacombs and offered God a true worship from sincere hearts filled with love. Even in modern times Christians have been driven to worship in secret places, in apartments, in the forests, in caves and holes of the earth. The Church is not a building.

The Church is not the Clergy

Another harmful mistake is that of considering that the Church is especially the clergy. There has been a tendency for important service in the Church to become more and more associated with the highest ranks of the priesthood, but this has distorted the diaconate which is proper to all believers. Our Lord Jesus said of himself…

The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.

That word, serve, is a translation of the Greek verb diakoneo. He came to deacon, not to be deaconed to. And sharing in his life we all are to participate in a life of divine service to others. In times past all of the great ministries of the Church were under the care of Deacons, because the service of the Church is diaconal. In more recent times the priesthood has tended to become in some places a managerial class with concern for practical activities which should properly belong to the Deacons, and to the whole of the Laity, in co-operation with them.

This has tended to create a situation in which it seems that all service must be organised by and be under the direct control of the priest, or the bishop. Rather than including the whole Church in the diaconate of our Lord Jesus in the world, this tends to restrict such service, and introduces tensions between those who should serve as laity and those who seem to have been set apart for service in the minor orders of the Church.

Of course all service is at the blessing of the Bishop, and should be under the spiritual pastorship of the Priest, but the whole Church should be seeking to serve, and should find that the Church authorities enable and facilitate such service, rather than obstruct it, wittingly or unwittingly.

More than that, when the Church is considered as especially being those who have some ordination for liturgical service, the congregation tends to lose focus on the reality that most of our service is to be outside the community of the Church. When there are tensions about who gets to do what in the liturgical gatherings of the Church, it is a sign that the focus on service in the world has been lost. The Church is all believers, and every member of the Church, young and old, male and female, should seek and be seeking to be a servant, a deacon, participating in the diaconate of our Lord Jesus which is always outward looking.

The Church is not a Ghetto

 This is a necessary reminder since there is a third harmful view of the Church, which is that it must become a ghetto, an exclusive and excluding community which lives apart from the society in which it finds itself. In times past the Jewish people in Europe were often forced to live in such strictly segregated areas of cities. Sometimes walls were built around them to isolate them entirely. And in our own times we find that we may construct such ghettos ourselves, and build high walls to keep outsiders away.

This doesn’t mean always that we create areas where Orthodox Christians live all together in a physical isolation, though that can happen. But more often we create a psychological isolation of the mind and heart. We have nothing in common with those among whom we live, and we have no connection with their own difficulties, burdens, fears and aspirations.

We can even become proud of this isolation, as if being a Christian required a separation from the needs of the world, and as if what mattered most was preserving a particular social culture as if it were the same as preserving our Orthodox spirituality. This is certainly not a criticism of any particular community. This retreat into a ghetto mentality can affect even congregations of British Protestant people. I remember attending one such congregation in my time of training for Evangelical ministry, and the pastor spoke about our escaping the world when we came to Church.

There is no escape from the world for the Christian, if we mean the busy, complicated, disturbing needs of the people around us. Certainly we are to avoid worldliness, that desire for wealth, possessions and prestige. But often we neglect the world and all of its problems, and adopt just such a worldly way of living, while congratulating ourselves that we have remained unspotted from the sinfulness of others.

Signs and Symptoms

I believe that whatever the size of the Orthodox community, there are signs and symptoms that we are building in the wrong way. I want to apply these to my own service with small groups of Orthodox and enquirers.

  1. How much of the activity and resources of the congregation are spent on maintaining and constructing a building, rather than in the service of the Church to the world in the name of Christ?
  2. How much of the time and manpower available to the congregation is spent on the building, rather than on sustaining and developing outward service?
  3. Will present and future plans for the building used by the Church lead to a greater absorption of activity, resources and manpower or less? Will plans lead to an increase of outward service?
  4. Is the service of the Church dominated by a few? Or is a significant proportion of the Church engaged in service that facilitates their own diaconate?
  5. Is outward service to the world a priority or are most ministries only concerned with members of the congregation and with the worship of the Church?
  6. Do all of the activities of the Church have to be organised by the priest, or does he provide only a spiritual oversight to enable all to serve as they are called and gifted?
  7. Are there many ways in which the Church engages with the needs of different people in the place in which it finds itself and who are outside the Church community?
  8. Do all of the activities and ministries of the Church have as a priority the commitment to serve those outside the Church, or do they exist only for members?
  9. When was an activity or event organised by the Church primarily for the benefit of those outside the Church, both in spiritual and practical terms?

These are just a few questions I want to keep asking myself. And I want to be sure that in the activities and service of the St George Orthodox Ministry of the Coptic Orthodox Church we continue to have these inadequate and false views of the Church in mind so that they are avoided. The Church is not a building, it is people. The Church is not the clergy, it is the whole congregation in service of the world together in the grace of God. The Church is not a ghetto, it is placed in the world as a light and as salt. Our service is not an option, it is the very character and nature of our Lord Jesus, who did not come to be served but to serve.

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