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I get worried about the church, especially in this land where I have lived so long. It seems to be a land utterly disaffected from the church.
And I love the church. And the land. And the people. I believe the people of this land could also love the church and that the church could love them and that together we could bless the world in Jesus’ name.
But I worry about the church – the decline, the disengagement, the disinterest. I want to understand God’s plan for the church. I want to participate in the new life of Christ among people who believe the church can bless the world. What could we learn about the church that would help us in this land, in this time, to live our faith more abundantly?
We have many biblical images for understanding the nature of the church. It is the family of God, a flock of sheep, the bride of Christ, the priesthood of all believers, the body of Christ, the communion of the saints.
Reformer John Calvin spoke of the church invisible:
. . . that which is actually in God’s presence . . . [it] includes not only the saints presently living on earth, but all the elect from the beginning of the world.1
The Apostle’s Creed refers to the church as holy and catholic, that is, the church of all times and all places, set apart for the purposes of God.
Peter is told by Jesus in Matthew 16:18 that the gates of Hades will not prevail against the church Christ will build.
All these things we gather about the church. These are rich images that supply us with fuel for our sanctified imaginations to grapple with knowing Christ’s church. And yet we thirst for new ways of understanding the church in our current contexts.
I think what Wendell Berry observes about rivers could teach us more about the nature of God’s church and what we can expect as the church for Vancouver.
To a river, as to any natural force, an obstruction is merely an opportunity. For the river’s nature is to flow; it is not just spatial in dimension, but temporal as well. All things must yield to the impulse of water in time, if not today then tomorrow or in a thousand years.
If its way is obstructed then it goes around the obstruction or under it or over it and, flowing past it, wears it away. People may dam it and say that they have made a lake, but it will still be a river.2
Rivers flow, from high in the mountains, pulled by gravity toward the ocean. The impact – over time, of ever accumulating water, from drops to rivulets and springs, over falls and into streams, water molecule upon water molecule flowing together, drawn by the external force of gravity, so ordinary and yet so powerful – is like the church.
The church also gathers member by member, across all time and space, coming together, drawn by the ubiquitous and extraordinary force of God’s grace, accumulating into an impactful formational entity in our world.
Never be thirsty
In the face of distressing trends of decline we panic and forget too easily. The true force at work on the church is the drawing-together-force of God’s grace. God’s grace is at work in the world no matter the level of recent rainfall or Sunday morning attendance.
How can we recover our faith in the natural impactful force of Christ’s bride at work in the world? Can we trace the history of a local river and see how the water still gets from the mountain to the ocean even if along new paths? Can we, as the church for Vancouver, learn to see obstruction as opportunity, like a river that changes course when disturbed by human endeavours, but flows none the less?
If the church is like a river, flowing with Christ’s offer of Living Waters, then it will be forceful, formational and ever flowing.
Force-full: full of the winsome attractional force of God’s grace. Formational: making an impact on the landscape, on cultures and communities, in glorious Christ-like ways of mercy, justice, peace and joy. Ever-flowing: a fact of eternity, believers moving toward life where ever it gathers, under the power and provision of Jesus Christ, the Wisdom by which all of creation came to be.
Looking at the church through the lens of a river gives me hope. Hope that we, as followers of Jesus Christ, can recover our sense of the ever-flowing power of God, in, through and all around us. Hope that the perseverance of Christ to be united with his Bride will be the determining factor for the reality of the church to which we belong. Hope that the nature of the flow, formation and force-fullness of the church cannot be hindered by human obstruction, but rather carves out life-giving pools of refreshment for all who thirst.
. . . those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life. (John 4:14)
1 John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.1.7.
2 Wendell Berry, The Unforeseen Wilderness: Kentucky’s Red River Gorge, 1991.
Rebecca Simpson is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in Canada. She is a former summer camp director, mother of three and now serves at Vancouver School of Theology and St. Andrew’s Hall as Director of Presbyterian Formation.