The churches that we’re planting don’t have Twitter accounts. They don’t have Facebook pages. They don’t even have web sites. I guess that makes me some kind of social media Luddite or something. Partly it’s due to the very early stage we’re at, but even then, I think the conventional wisdom is that setting up the web site—or perhaps these days, the Twitter account—is the first thing you do when setting yourself up as a church; it’s your virtual signboard. (And heck, everyone knows how effective those things are at bringing people in!) But I think there is at least some method to my madness.
Aside from the fact that we’re just getting started, one of the reasons why we don’t have an online presence is a very deliberate decision on my part, which reflects the way we’re trying to do church here. Putting up a web site and a Twitter account would be, theologically, antithetical to everything that we’re doing here. In brief, the reason I haven’t advertised our churches virtually is because I don’t buy the idea that the church should have an objective existence beyond Christ and the people in it. “The church” is not some external thing that has a relationship to its own believers; the church is the believers bound together in the body of Christ. There is no “there” there.
And this is deeply important because we are trying more than anything else to promote active involvement in the Christian life. As soon as you reify and objectify the church, you are in a sense encouraging people to take a back seat. Ministry becomes a factor of “the church”, not me! As “the church” becomes more and more a real, external thing, the relationship shifts in Buber’s terms from “I-thou” (or even “I-we”!) to “I-it”, and the focus becomes more and more on what services (literally and metaphorically!) the church provides to its members.
And, of course, to its non-members. Mission is this thing done by “the church,” evangelism is this thing done by “the church”, and in our position, that means, realistically, the missionaries… and nobody else. That’s not what we want to see.
I’m working, of course, from the missiological assumption that, here in my context in Japan, there are a variety of good social and cultural reasons why objectifying the church acts so as to disenfranchise its members and impede their Christian growth. That’s why I’m so fierce about this here, to the point of not even having a web site.
But I wonder if this is true more generally as well, not just in Japan. There are lots of things that missionaries and pastors do which, intentionally or otherwise, reify the church in a way that’s detrimental to the operation and essence of the church. Having a building is not a bad thing, but it means that the locus of ministry can easily become the building and not the lives and surroundings of the church members. Having staff is not a bad thing, but it means that the agents of ministry can easily become the staff and not the church members. Structures, institutions, and denominations are not bad things in helping us to be better organised, but can easily turn the focus from the “us” to the “organisation”. The whole “missional church” movement in the West at the moment can be understood as an attempt to move from an external, objectified view of church back into a internal, relational understanding.
And even the way we that talk about and communicate “the church” can externalise the body of Christ. Where do you go to church? I don’t go to church; I am the church.
Paul refers to “the church” or “churches” 62 times in his epistles. Nine of those he speaks generally and universally in terms of “the Church of God” (“τῇ ἐκκλησίᾳ τοῦ θεοῦ”); most of his other references to “church” in the singular are similarly abstract: “And God has placed in the church first apostles, second prophets…” He does speak about “the church” as we would understand the local community of believers, but I think it can be argued that even then he is always referring to the church as people, not as entity: “the churches in the province of Asia send greetings to you”; “Greet Nympha and the church that meets in her house.” (1 Tim 5:16 might be a toss-up, however.)
Even so, Paul is equally likely to refer to the body of believers purely in relational terms: “brothers” (96 times), “the saints” (43 times), “the body of Christ” (5 times). For Paul, the church was not something out there with its own existence, but a description of the relationship binding together the believers. To borrow Miyahira’s terminology of the Trinity, the church is a “betweenness”, not an essence.
The church isn’t a thing out there, with its own existence, its own web site, its own Twitter account. It’s me, it’s you, it’s us.