The True Function of a Local Church

Excerpts from an address given before the 29th annual meeting of the National Religious Publicity Council in Riverside church, New York City.

JOHN HEUSS, Rector, Triiuty Church, New York City

For a long time I have had an uncom­fortable feeling that we churchmen are working industriously away in our churches without asking too many critical ques­tions about what we are doing or why we are doing it. The conviction grows stronger and stronger that much that we take for granted in church life is so contrary to those goals, it actually prevents God from reaching men say­ingly.

It may well be that most of those things upon which we usually congratulate ourselves—sta­tistical increases in membership, erection of new buildings, larger collections of money, cleverly contrived promotional ventures—as pleasant as they are for us to behold in our human pride, if viewed as the sole ends for which our churches exist, are repugnant to a holy God.

If this be true, we need to pause abruptly amid the mad day-to-day business of the average successful church and remember the wisdom of the 127th psalm: "Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it" (verse 1).

It is customary for all of us to lay the blame for public indifference to religion at the door of the secularism and materialism of our age. It is my personal opinion that neither of these does as much harm as does the fact that the church program speaks with no commanding voice to the multitudes perishing for lack of certainty.

Perhaps, then, it would be well for us to ask, "Where have we gone wrong in our leadership of the American Christian church?" If I am correct in my attempt to understand our situa­tion, we have gone wrong precisely along those lines that our native talents as Americans would most strongly tempt us to go. The local church in America is a remarkable and a unique insti­tution. There has never been anything like it in the history of Christianity, and there is nothing like it in other countries abroad. Its remarkable­ness consists in its amazingly successful organiza­tional and financial accomplishments. Its uniqueness lies in the fact that it has a constant uncritical tendency to mistake its promotional activity for religious accomplishment. It con­sistently thinks of itself as a church, and gives the largest amount of its time and energies to its business affairs.

As Americans, we share the national trait to "make a go of things." The leaders of our churches and their congregations are willing to work hard for success. What is more, we enjoy doing it, and have a lot of fun together most of the time; but the net effect of all this has been that it is now difficult for us to distinguish between promotional activity and religious ac­tivity. We have all gotten so caught up in the successful running of the church that it is com­mon for many to think that business activities are identical with religion. To pay mortgages, to build new parish houses, to put on a drive for new members and more funds, to work away in circles and associations of one kind or another—all of this is admirable, but it is not religion. To confuse it with religion is the ever-present temptation of the activist American.

To a great number, their real church life, as they look at it, is this activity. If the church is well run and successful, it is a pleasure for everybody. It contributes to neighborliness. It gives man a sense of doing something worthwhile. It certainly contributes to the church's prosperity. You do not have to be a changed person to participate in it. No inner spiritual demand upon your values or your motives need be made. You will not be asked to look out from this fellowship of busyness upon the world around you with a critical eye. We have gone wrong in our leadership by overemphasizing the promotional aspect of the church's life to the point where nearly every church fits neatly into the culture of middle-class community life. The true nature of the Christian church can no longer be easily grasped, because the conven­tional pattern of the local church's life con­stantly gets in the way.

The Church After Pentecost

If the absorption in promotional activities is not the true function of the local church, we have the right to ask, "What should its true function be?" It is fairly easy to put this down in an idealistic way. It is no easy thing to change a modern church over so that its true function is predominant. I make no claim that I know any secret that will magically accomplish it, but I am sure of one thing! We shall never get near to realizing the true function of a local church until there is a wide restudy by the clergy and by lay leaders of a Biblical theology. We all need to get a clear grasp again of what the Spirit-filled fellowship was like that came into existence immediately after Pentecost. What it did to people, your church and mine should be doing to people now. Its peculiar qualities should be the qualities that distinguish our churches from the world around us. Its all-absorbing emphasis should consume our thought and energies. Its motivating spiritual dynamics should drive and dominate us. We should take it as our model and be sharply critical of anything in our church life that does not conform to its predominant characteristics.

If we look at this first church, what were the marks which distinguish it?

1. It was a fellowship which had had a soul-shaking personal experience with Jesus Christ. Living, walking, working, talking, eating, argu­ing, daily Christ had stamped Himself upon the disciples' minds. They knew that in the days of His flesh, He was like nothing they had ever known before. When abruptly He was torn from their midst by crucifixion, and miraculously re­stored to life by the resurrection, they could give Him no other name than God. No matter what else happened to them, they could not forget Him. He had polarized their lives.

Now compare this with today's average church fellowship. Is not one of our dreary troubles the fact that hardly anyone, not even the clergy, has any remotely similar personal awareness of the reality of Jesus Christ? The true function of a local church begins with the difference Jesus as the living Christ makes. Until the experience of the disciples actually becomes our own experience, as indeed it can, nothing much of any religious significance will happen to any modern church.

2. The second quality that distinguished the Pentecostal fellowship was the genuineness of its trust in God through Christ. It was a be­lieving fellowship, and its belief was so powerful that it was willing to commit its ways in confi­dence to God. It did not worry much about its own self-preservation. It worried about getting God's will done. Because it believed, it had no fear. Without fear it was enabled to confront the world with a challenge. Because it chal­lenged, it was listened to. All of this was pos­sible because it had simple, unswerving faith in God.

3. The third mark of this first church was that it knew itself to be a Spirit-filled com­munity. The Holy Ghost had come. Nothing was now impossible. The task of the church was like a beehive in reverse. There was much com­ing in and going out; but the coming in was to get renewed strength from fellowship, prayer, and the breaking of bread in order to take the precious Word of salvation out to the uttermost parts of the earth. It did not waste time erecting buildings, gathering funds, or providing good companionship. Its job was to preach Jesus Christ, crucified and risen from the dead. Every­thing else was subservient to the proclamation of the good news of God's salvation.

4. The fourth characteristic of the Pentecos­tal fellowship was its glad awareness of the forgiveness of sin. Trust in God through faith in Christ brought with it a remarkable new sense of being free. The burdens of anxiety, dread, and guilt were lifted from the believer's heart. It was somehow easier to overcome temp­tation and be good. One felt not only clean, but restored to fellowship with God.

How conspicuously lacking this awareness is in our modern churches. Not only is there no sense of the forgiveness of sin, but there is hardly any awareness of sin. In many places it is not thought good taste to mention the idea. Yet the Christian of the early church knew that his freedom from sin had been won. His faith and God's forgiveness made of him a new man in Christ. Most of us are the same old men we always were; and there is hardly anything in our church life that would suggest we could be something better.

5. Lastly, it was a fellowship that placed very little value on any organization or activity that did not contribute directly to the three impor­tant things. What organization it boasted was for worship, for teaching, and for the collection of alms for the needy brethren. Being a member of the fellowship did not mean committee work. It meant a changed relationship to God. It meant a new quality of life between believing Christians. It meant a joyous expectancy that the future could not be bad. These are the five basic qualities that have so largely disappeared from our churches. To provide this is the true function of a local church. Until these are provided, the most successful church by our statistical standards is before God a failure.

Some Positive Suggestions

I said a bit earlier that it is no easy thing to change a modern church so that its true func­tion becomes predominant. I have tried to set the deeper purposes of our true religious task over against the unpretty picture of what our activist American churches have almost uncon­sciously become.

In view of my comments, I lay before you with much soul searching and hesitation a num­ber of positive suggestions:

I. It seems to me that one of the places to begin is with a critical examination of our Sunday worship services. For the most part, they are much too cold, and impersonal, and suffer from professionalism. The worst thing about them is that they tend to generate a spectator attitude on the part of the people. Whenever this happens, the full power of the worshiping, participating fellowship is destroyed. Simplicity and congregational participation should be the keynote. We need to eliminate unsingable hymns, showy musical performances by choirs, and strange or sloppy articulations by clergy­men. We need to instruct our people in many different ways about the meaning, method, and experience of corporate worship. I am firmly convinced that every effort a local church makes to increase the meaningfulness of its worship will do more than anything else to restore that church to its true religious function.

2. The second place it can improve matters is in a fresh appraisal of its teaching oppor­tunities. The whole church program is a great unused opportunity to teach the good news of the gospel. What a pity that so many churches think of teaching only as something that takes place in the Sunday school, the confirmation class, or an adult study group. Our worship services are opportunities for instruction. The weekday organizations are rare chances to pro­claim the gospel and to make its meaning clear. Pastoral calls upon the sick, the convalescent, and the shut-in, open doors of teaching as nat­ural as we could ask for. Baptisms, weddings, funerals—all should be used for interpretation and instruction. Counseling periods, when peo­ple bring their troubles and their joys, are invitations to make religion relevant. The an­nual canvass is not so much useful as a money-raising device as it can be a device to teach canvassers and, through them, those on whom they call, many aspects of the church's faith and life. In short, the total program of the local church ought to be looked at as a teaching program. If the gospel of salvation is pro­claimed through every part of it, it will not become so much "sound and fury, signifying nothing."

3. I would like to suggest a third and perhaps more revolutionary thing that can be done. I believe there needs to be some thoughtful group made up of lay men and women in every church that has the responsibility of asking three ques­tions and finding the answers to them.

a. What is the true religious job of this local church?

b. How can all that is done in this church set forward that true religious task?

c. To what extent is everything we are doing changing the lives of the people involved?

In the average church nobody ever asks the basic questions. It is generally assumed by the lay people that this is something the pastor is taking care of.

It is not possible for him to do it by himself. If he is the only one caring and thinking about it, it will never happen. This is the job of the lay people. It should be the most widely dis­cussed subject at all gatherings of the church leadership. The entire church program should be judged by the answers given to these three questions. In a number of churches where such a group of lay people are doing this, startling things are happening in a religious way.

4. My final suggestion may also startle you a bit. It is a growing conviction of mine that no church can fulfill its true function unless there is at the very center of its leadership life a small community of quietly fanatic, changed, and truly converted Christians. The trouble with most churches is that nobody, including the pastor, is really greatly changed; but even where there is a devoted self-sacrificing clergy­man at the heart of the fellowship, not much will happen until there is a community of changed men and women.

We want quiet fanatics, men who will outlive and outsuffer the worst sufferings of the slums, and within their little community reveal to others a kind of Christian relationship that is so different and so acceptable that it cannot be resisted. That little changed community must be ever anxious to admit those who wish to share its life, whatever their race or condition may be. I can assure you that it is startling, indeed, to see how the most unlikely people are drawn to a real fellowship in Christ, when they see it for the first time.

These, then, are a few stumbling suggestions of one who would be the last to claim that he was in possession of any formula that will cure our spiritual maladies. Many among you will doubtless be able to find far more effective ways of restoring our local churches to their true function than I have yet found. My only plea is that thoughtful clergymen and thoughtful lay leaders will pray and think and talk about these things.


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JOHN HEUSS, Rector, Triiuty Church, New York City

June 1955

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