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***There are people that will inevitably take this personally even though it’s not meant to be a personal attack on anyone, anywhere. This is merely a reflection based on my experience and an attempt at a dialogue on a better way.

Growing up in the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada I’m more than familiar with church programs. The church I (essentially) grew up in had a little over 1000 people at their Sunday morning service. The church that I was on staff for for two and a half years had around 250 people at their services on Sunday morning. Both of these churches had loads of programs. In fact, on the website for the church I grew up at they have listed: adult, married, young adults, youth, children’s, music, and prayer ministries (to name a few). Of course, within each of these ministries there are often ‘sub’ ministries (i.e. within youth ministry there is both jr. and sr. high ministries). I’m not saying that any of these things are necessarily bad in and of themselves. Certainly it is a good thing to minister to the entire body in various ways (and participate in ministering). However, the problem that I would have is that this commodifies church. In the end, you go to a particular church, not because you live in the neighbourhood (because many folks don’t, in fact, some drive quite far to be there) but because said church has “great preaching” or a “great youth ministry” or a fantastic choir etc. This, in turn, relegates church to just another thing we consume. Now all of this sort of hinges on a deeper issue about how we view church. The words ‘attractional’ and ‘missional’ are used with increasing frequency these days, and although they have turned into catch phrases, I think that the ethos behind the words are significant. Attractional churches are those whose goal is attracting people to come to them. Here, the focus is largely put into a Sunday morning gathering. Much of the church life and teaching revolves around these few hours on a Sunday morning. In addition, attractional churches strive to produce really “great” programs. Ones that will attract people to their church. Again, the focus here is on getting people to come to where you are. Missional churches on the other hand have a slightly different ethos in that they understand that the mission of God involves going. Here, efforts are not necessarily focussed on programming or a 2-hour Sunday morning gathering, rather, the focus is on living as the body of Christ throughout the week. It should also be noted that generally missional churches are not commuter churches. The folks that are part of these sorts of communities are actually part of the same physical community which comes in handy when you’re trying to live out the gospel as a body throughout the week. Now, I realize that this is a generalization and that not many churches are purely either missional or attractional. That being said, I think these are helpful distinctions.

There is a church in the GTA (Greater Toronto Area) that each year puts on a dinner around Christmas for “the less fortunate in our community”. During the dinner church members cook and serve the food to those families that are in need. Is this a good thing? I would argue yes and no. Who would deny that giving a meal to a family in need isn’t a good thing? However, there are a few issues. 1) This is a once a year event. Here, something good (giving a meal to those in need) is programmed and turned into a once a year spectacle and is something that “we” provide for “you”. 2) The name of the dinner is the “Servant’s Banquet”. This seems to me to put the spotlight on the ones doing the serving, after all, the banquet is named after them! It also seems to me that if you’re going to take the position of a servant then it’s probably best not to try and take credit for that (perhaps taking credit negates the servitude?). 3) This church, while claiming to “serve the less fortunate in our community with the love of Jesus by preparing a Christmas meal and festivities for them and their children” recently spent millions of dollars on a building expansion that included a second sanctuary (for evening services!), multiple classrooms, a cafe area and some space for the youth. Again, while these aren’t necessarily bad things they sit largely unused throughout most of the week (because the focus of the church mainly revolves around its Sunday morning gathering). Even more recently the church spent thousands upon thousands of dollars on a fancy new lighting rig in the main sanctuary as well as a bunch of plasma screen TVs for the lobby area (among other gadgets). All of this sort of begs the question, do you really give a shit about “serving the less fortunate in [your] community with the love of Jesus”? And, if you really do give a shit about it then how precisely do million dollar expansions that sit unused most of the time and fancy new lighting rigs demonstrate your self-proclaimed “love” for those in your community who are in need? Honestly.

Now, I’m not meaning to be overly critical here, but lets be honest with ourselves. It’s one thing to say (and proclaim to everyone around!) that you care about serving the needy in your community but it’s a whole other thing to actually do that and I would argue that million dollar expansions and rockstar sanctuaries is not a good way to show your community that you care about them.

The second paragraph undoubtedly relates to the first paragraph I wrote. While this church has a desire to participate in what God is doing in their neighbourhood (with or without them) they seem to be expecting those in their neighbourhood to come to them. This all raises the question, can churches that are attractional in nature be missional? I think the answer is no.

I’m not trying to condemn anyone here and the last thing I’m wanting to do is tear down my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. However, that being said, I think if you really care about your community then you need to consider spending a little more time there instead of being so inwardly focused.

Grace and peace.

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“To proclaim the gospel is to announce the mystery of ‘sonship’ and ‘brotherhood’, a mystery hidden – as Paul says – from the beginning of time and revealed now in Christ dead and resurrected. For this reason, to evangelize is to come together in ecclesia, to assemble together. Only in community can faith be lived, celebrated, and deepened, lived out through one act as fidelity to the Lord and solidarity towards all people. To accept the Word is to turn ourselves to ‘the Other’ in others. It is with them that we live the Word. Faith is not to be found in private or in intimacy; faith is the denial of the retreat into ourselves.”

– Gustavo Gutierrez, The Cambridge Companion to Liberation Theology: The task and content of liberation theology.

“To sin is to refuse to love one’s neighbours and, therefore, the Lord himself. Sin – a breach of friendship with God and others – is according to the Bible the ultimate cause of poverty, injustice, and the oppression in which men live. In describing sin as the ultimate cause we do not in any way negate the structural reasons and the objective determinants leading to these situations. It does, however, emphasize the fact that things do not happen by chance and that behind an unjust structure there is a personal or collective will responsible – a willingness to reject God and neighbour.”

– Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation.

I’ve been looking at the Heidelberg Catechism for the past week or so for a paper I’m writing. For those that don’t know, it’s an old reformed catechism that takes the form of question and answer. Anyways, here’s question 11 (and answer):

Q.11
Is not God then also merciful?

A.
God is indeed merciful, but also just; therefore his justice requires, that sin which is committed against the most high majesty of God, be also punished with extreme, that is, with everlasting punishment of body and soul.

Here I find something I was taught in church as a child. That God is merciful, yes, but he is also just. And, because he is completely just his mercy is bound by his justice. Perhaps your not comfortable with this language of God being “bound” (neither am I), but perhaps you believe it anyway. Follow me for a second. Mercy is when you rightly deserve something and it is withheld from you. So, say for example, as a child you steal a candy bar from a shop and are caught in the act (in fact, the shopkeeper was watching you the whole time!). It could be argued, I suppose, that the shopkeeper could justly press charges against you for shoplifting or something like that. However, because the shopkeeper realizes that this child is, in fact, just a child, perhaps he would show mercy by withholding due punishment because, after all, you’re a child and learning right from wrong etc. That’s a bit what mercy is like.

Now, imagine an alternate scenario, where this shopkeeper is going through some rough times at home with his family and was in a terrible mood at work, so, instead of showing mercy he decides he is going to have you charged with shoplifting (and rightly so!). This may seem cruel and harsh, but it is just because the offense is being punished. However, in this case, justice necessarily negates mercy. It is not possible for there to be an expression of mercy here because the child is getting what they (arguably) deserve and mercy is not getting what you deserve.

Now, God is infinitely more merciful than a human shopkeeper so if we are to talk of God as merciful and just then he must be infinitely more merciful and just than any shopkeeper. However, as the above example has shown, mercy that is bound by justice is not mercy at all. Perhaps, instead, God can be both merciful and just (in fact, he is). But how can this be? This can only be so in Christ Jesus. Jesus takes on the full weight of our punishment. Everything that we deserve as a creation that has offended their Creator has been taken and placed on Christ. This has happened; past-tense. So, God is just because our offense has not gone unpunished, rather, he has taken that punishment upon himself.

As a result, God is merciful because we, the offenders, do not get what we deserve. The death and suffering that was our lot has been removed from us. Perhaps this is a way we can think of God’s mercy and justice.

Let us return for a moment to the answer given in the catechism: “God is indeed merciful, but also just; therefore his justice requires, that sin which is committed against the most high majesty of God, be also punished with extreme, that is, with everlasting punishment of body and soul.” If God’s good creation is punished, “with extreme, that is, with everlasting punishment of body and soul,” we could, perhaps, speak of God as just, but I’m not sure we could speak of him as merciful. In fact, the wording in the catechism, “God is indeed merciful, but also just,” suggests that justice trumps mercy, which as noted above, robs mercy of anything merciful.

God is just, yes, but not at the expense of his mercy.