Had an interesting discussion in our School of Ministry yesterday. We were talking about how the church is to be an example of the Kingdom of God on earth by exhibiting its values and by being a true community.
Of course, our discussion eventually ended up at the old axiom: “in essential matters, unity; in non-essential matters, liberty; in all other matters, charity.” My colleague, William Camba, pointed out that we don’t really seem to have trouble over the essential matters – we aren’t always discussing within our churches whether there really is a trinity or if Jesus is God or not. We do, however, seem to get caught up on the non-essentials – what colour to paint the walls, what kind of music to play, or what clothes we should wear during worship. The thing is there is also a distinct lack of liberty and love expressed during these times. William illustrated his point with a personal story about how he was recently distracted while attending a conference because the speaker was wearing flip-flops. “Why isn’t he wearing shoes?” was the question going through his mind. Upon his observation of the reactions of others to the slippers (ie no one else seemed to be offended), he eventually began to ask himself whether the problem was really his own and perhaps he was making something an essential that really isn’t essential.
The class then went on to discuss that most contentious of church issues, namely music. To be honest I wasn’t really happy with where the rest of the discussion and feel that I wasn’t able to wrap up the day on a positive note. After, however, a lot of thought, I realise we really need to have a way of determining what is essential and what is not so that we can avoid conflict in these areas in the future and so that we can practice the liberty and charity that we want to.
So what makes some things essential and other things non-essential?
Other than certain foundational theological truths that we can’t mess with, we are surrounded by a vast amount of stuff that can be classified as personal preferences – the songs we sing, the words we use, the Bible version we prefer, the clothes we wear, etc. How can we navigate this quagmire?
The key is that we need to return to the essentials of the church. For example, the Bible describes a church that is not merely to exist but to function properly. Some call this being missional but for the past few years we at SEATS have been talking about the Functional Church. Our churches are to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ (kerygma). They are also to exhibit the values of the Kingdom of God (koinonia). They are to be centers of service to both God and Humans (diakonia), and they are to bear the truth, even to the point of death (marturia).
In determining if something is essential, we need to return to these basic functions. Take the earlier example of music in the church. When we think about being functional in proclaiming the Good News we need to see what is essential. It is essential that the Good News be proclaimed in our public singing but the form that public singing takes is not essential. As long as it gets the job done in the best way possible.
We also need to declare the truth through our music. The form, however, is non-essential. As long as it is effective in declaring the truth then we should do it. If it is not, then we need to modify or change it.
Is it possible to serve through music? As long as the music is functional then its form is secondary. The same goes for proclaiming the values of the kingdom.
You may have noticed that forms are very much based upon societal norms. Keeping music as the example, if we want to reach fans of emo, then we can use emo. If we want to reach fans of country music then use country. If rockers, then rock. And on and on it goes. What is clear is that there is no longer only one societal norm.
So how does the church deal with these issues? One way is by having some kind of multiple services, each one targeted for a different society. (Of course, if you want to check out a different society’s service, prepare to misunderstand it ☺).
Another option for churches is to use the following statement: “We are not doing this particular thing for you – it is for (name of target).” This must be combined with a follow-up: “This is what we are doing for you.”
Paul saw his acting like a Jew or acting like a Greek as nonessentials. He didn’t force people to conform to his preferences but rather conformed to theirs. In light of Paul’s attitude, we need to have the following conversation in our churches:
What is our goal at our church? To have newcomers conform to our list of preferences or to conform to their preferences so they might more easily learn the essentials/become disciples? How can our _______ best fulfill this function? What forms need to be modified? What forms need to be changed? What forms need to be redeemed?
What are your essentials? I encourage the members of SEATS Schools of Ministry to give their opinions on the discussion board on the SEATS Facebook Page.
But just remember: liberty and charity.