This Monday morning’s Moltmann outtake comes from The Church in the Power of the Spirit, in the chapter of that same name:
It is necessary to reflect theologically on the mission of the community and every individual Christian, and on the congregation’s order and special ministry for before anyone actually speaks and acts in the church or in its name, the church has already spoken and acted through its very existence, its visible organization and its public functions. The form of its fellowship and public functions, and the shape of its order and its ministries, are not merely externals and inessentials; they are no less important than the word and the sacraments. The church’s institutions and its traditional congregational forms can become a stumbling block for many people, even if–and especially if–they do not thereby make the things of Christianity itself a stumbling block. People demand the ‘witness of existence’– and rightly so. Through its order, its ministries and its organizations the church either confesses or denies the thing that it has to represent. So it cannot leave its visible form to the power of the state or the requirements of its particular social order, if it wants to be recognizable as the church of Christ as as the people of the coming kingdom. It is of course true that every historical form the church takes also bears the stamp of its particular environment. But that is not a reason for accepting that stamp passively and for leaving it to external influences. As the church of Christ, the congregation with all its own powers has to realize the social, political and cultural potentialities of a particular period in a way that is in accordance with the cause it maintains; so that through its physical and public profile as well people will be confronted with the freedom of Christ and will be invited to the messianic kingdom.
When as a seminary student I read the sentence I put in bold above, I felt bowled over by all its implications for the Church today. I felt at the time, and I still do to a large degree, that the current forms and ministries of the Church more accurately confess particularly American markers- extreme individualism, a corporate definition of success, a monetized form of popularity, and a charity-cloaked form of selfishness. I say this not to berate (or at least, not entirely) but to stand in front of the mirror that is the American church landscape and allow it to reflect honestly back. Regardless of whether some of these assumptions or conclusions are false or oversimplifying, they have become part of our “image” and they are, therefore, our concern. For our task, as Moltmann reminds us, is to reconcile all the potentialities of our particular period in a way that manages to live in accordance with the cause of the messianic kingdom. If our image is reflecting otherwise, we have work to do.
As a pastor, that one sentence is enough to keep me up at night. Through Journey’s structure and gatherings and events and small groups, we are either going to confess or deny the very thing we seek to represent. And I’m certain there are plenty of places where we’re denying it, despite our deepest intentions to the contrary. This is where our only recourse is to pray for boldness enough to face the mirror, to have a posture that allows you to acknowledge your own reflection, and to have the guts to change what needs changing.