Do the People in the Pews Still Matter?

In the Church today, there is a move by some to “correct” an overemphasis on the individual believer. The desire is to focus on the corporate aspects of Christianity. A good example would be the work of N.T. Wright, formerly Bishop of Dunham. In his book, Surprised by Hope, Wright explains that the Church has misunderstood the Gospel and the mission of the Church. According to Wright, the Gospel is not about saving souls from Hell, but rather about how God is using His people to redeem the cosmos:

But the most important thing to say at the end of this discussion, and of this section of the book, is that heaven and hell are not, so to speak, what the whole game is about.

The whole point of my argument so far is that the question of what happens to me after death is not the major, central, framing question that centuries of theological tradition have supposed. The New Testament, true to its Old Testament roots, regularly insists that the major, central, framing question is that of God’s purpose of rescue and re-creation for the whole world, the entire cosmos. The destiny of individual human beings must be understood within that context-not simply in the sense that we are only part of a much larger picture but also in the sense that part of the whole point of being saved in the present is so that we can play a vital role (Paul speaks of this role in the shocking terms of being “fellow workers with God”) within that larger picture and purpose.

The question ought to be How will God’s new creation come? And then, How will we humans contribute to that renewal of creation and to the fresh projects that the creator God will launch in his new world? …

If what I have suggested is anywhere near the mark, then to insist on heaven and hell as the ultimate question – to insist, in other words, that what happens eventually to individual humans is the most important thing in the world – may be to make a mistake similar to the one made by the Jewish people in the first century.

To focus not on the question of which human beings God is going to take to heaven and how he is going to do it but on the question of how God is going to redeem and renew his creation through human beings and how he is going to rescue those humans themselves as part of the process but not as the point of it all. (N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, New York: HarperCollins, 2008, 184-185)

Wright recognizes that his interpretation of the Gospel and salvation will have an impact in the work of the Church:

As long as we see salvation in terms of going to heaven when we die, the main work of the church is bound to be seen in terms of saving souls for that future. But when we see salvation, as the New Testament sees it, in terms of God’s promised new heavens and new earth and of our promised resurrection to share in that new and gloriously embodied reality … then the main work of the church here and now demands to be rethought in consequence. (197)

So what happens when pastors and churches decide that what really matters is what the people of God do to redeem the world around them? What happens when pastors start looking at their congregation as a means to an end instead of a flock to shepherd? What happens when sermons become about what Christians need to do to redeem the cosmos, engage the culture, and transform the city?

From what I’ve seen and heard, although thankfully not from our current church, what happens is that the needs of the congregation are overlooked. Pastors have lost sight of their role as shepherd. Instead, they see their role as motivating and equipping believers to go out and transform the world, but not through the preaching of the Word. Pastors don’t know who’s hurting, whose marriages are in trouble, which families desperately need jobs, or how to pray for their people. What I mean is that pastors are too busy to counsel couples whose marriages are falling apart, but not too busy to organize an outreach program to show how much their church loves the city.

And what about sanctification? Well, if salvation is about God using people to redeem the world, then does it really matter where individual Christians are in their walk? In fact, the whole idea that salvation should have an effect on the personal piety of a believer is obviously outdated. What good can Christians be in the transformation of culture if they aren’t watching, reading, and listening to everything their non-Christian neighbors enjoy? If Christians dress differently, talk differently, and act differently, then they are surely not winsome and contextualized enough. Racy sermon illustrations and foul language? Just part of being authentic.

It is often said these days that “the church is the only organization that exists primarily for the benefit of non-members,” but is that really true? Don’t we exist to encourage each other, bear each others burdens, pray for each other, care for each other, minister to each other, teach each other, and most importantly worship together? The Church needs to reach out to non-believers, to preach the Word, and to help those in need, but it must not forget the needs of those in the household of faith.