Like the Rich Young Ruler, culturally we are often a people who will only strive to follow Jesus so far, until the cost seems too great. The unique challenges of the church in Oskaloosa, and in the 21st Century in general, is to proclaim the gospel in an environment where the necessity of salvation itself seems lost within the comforts of a cushy “Norman Rockwell-esque” American existence, albeit one with the trappings of heartland “civil religion.” Science, Existentialism, and Capitalism have provided people with the illusion that they no longer need God as they pursue a life of Epicurean pleasure, free of the pains of consequence. Thus the response of the church today will have to address the problems of pleasure, calling prophetically for a “love thy neighbor” response to the impending global crises of unchecked consumerism, and unmasking the hollow emptiness of materialistic fantasy.
As a pastor, I am being stretched to practice what I preach in this area, and to pay attention to “the still small voice” of God in an increasingly now centered and contextually disassociated world. I see the primary challenge of our age wrapped up in the question, “How is the gospel to be proclaimed, lived, and demonstrated incarnationally in a world where people spend less and less time together in deep relationship, and where nearly everyone fills their lives overflowing to the point where “worship and spiritual formation” is supposed to take place in two or three of the 168 hours of a given week, if you are lucky? As the people of God, we must each face the reality that we are attempting to minister in an environment where people live increasingly busy lives, where “koinonia” is fractured and barely functioning, and where people are tethered together less and less by real contact and more and more through digital/technological buffers. What does faithfulness look like in the era of Facebook, or community look like in the age of Snapchat? How we answer this in our churches matters a great deal; it can make the difference between including and discipling the next generation or fading into irrelevance and obscurity. The church cannot afford to be silent in the digital sphere.
Digital or no, the nature and mission of the church is primarily to serve as witnesses to the story of salvation history (Mt. 28:19-20, Acts 1:8), bearing testimony not only by its words, but also demonstrating the power of God at work in the world with faithful action. The mission of the church is bearing the message of God’s love, as demonstrated through the incarnation, life, teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. For Friends (Quakers) the nature of the church is also nonhierarchical; a priesthood of all believers in its richest and fullest sense. Within the hearts of this priesthood dwells the Holy Spirit mysteriously as in a temple of living stones (1 Pet 2:4-6), serving mysteriously as something of a finite “incarnation” which partakes in the very nature of God (2 Peter 1:4) and reveals to the world the truth of the gospel. Yet beyond this, God mysteriously works through the church to make the love of God manifest.
Just as Jesus spoke of His mission quoting Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free” (Luke 4:18), the church should be a place where the broken are bound up and the outcast finding themselves included. Therefore, the church should also serve as a “hospital of hospitality,” that reaches out both physically and digitally to and bind back up a broken world. We are all in need of grace, all broken, yet as we come together and find God in our midst, we share koinonia with God and each other. God does not “need” the church, yet as the church yields to God’s will, God’s will is done through us. Thus, the church functions as God’s body on the world: God’s hands, feet, voice, etc. The church represents—as the incarnation did—God with skin on; the icons, representations, and ambassadors of God’s kingdom of love to a watching world.