I’m picky when it comes to shoes. I want shoes that fit well and are comfortable all day. I want to spend as little time and money as I can when I acquire them. For now, I’ve settled on a particular model from Academy. For the last few years I’ve worn them almost every day, working my way through several pairs. Amazingly, I get the same size each time. Why is that amazing?
In his book Bishop, Will Willimon says:
A living God gives churches two choices: grow (that is, change) or die (dead doesn’t change).
I understand this claim. Living things are dynamic. They change. They are in constant flux. But things aren’t so simple.
My feet are not dead. My body as a whole is not dead. Yet my body is not growing. I don’t want it to grow. It can be healthy and not grow. It will change, but this change is not necessarily growth.
It is also not entirely true that dead things don’t change. We have a stump in our yard. That stump is the remnant of a long-dead tree. The stump is dead. This dead thing is changing; it’s rotting.
Have you ever seen a dead animal lying alongside the road? An early part of the decomposition process includes bloating. Sometimes the bloating is so grotesque that some say, “That’s no dog, that has to be a Chupacabra!” Bloating is a form of growth. It’s not a form of growth I would want.
Or we could look inward. Sometimes we have growth inside our bodies. We call it cancer. Huge disfiguring tumors can result; solid, substantial, visible growth. Good growth? I don’t think so.
Of course, all metaphors and analogies break down eventually. Using the organic metaphor for the church can be remarkably fruitful: it’s certainly biblical. But it doesn’t tell us everything or answer all our questions.
Here are some of my convictions that touch on this issue:
- God intends for all Christians to grow in likeness and obedience to Jesus.
- God desires that followers of Jesus be progressively set free from all forms of sin.
- God wants all people to become followers of Jesus, i.e., people who have become willing recipients of his grace and willing participants in his story.
- God has established the church as the major means by which people are drawn to and connected with Jesus.
- A church that is in contact with people who are not now followers of Jesus, yet not intentionally engaged with Jesus’ work to draw them in is missing a major point of being the church.
- Choosing between the “spiritual” growth of individual believers and the numerical growth of the church is a false dilemma. Neither can be sustained without the other.
- Some church outposts (i.e., congregations) are better situated and equipped to perform one of these dimensions of ministry. The downfall is when in their specialization they become isolated from the other essential dimension.
- A church full of nice people can be dead.
- A church full of obvious sinners can be powerfully alive.
- Neither dimension of life is possible without the ongoing power of the Holy Spirit, though the simulacra of both can be done apart from the Spirit.