“What is above this world is, in the gospel,
intended to exist for this world.”
Letters and Papers from Prison
When I told the man who introduced me to Jesus that I wanted to become a pastor, he tried to talk me out of it. He believed passionately in Christians changing the world—just not through the church. He thought I could do better than the church. And for a period I thought he was right. For many years I tried to be a culturally engaged Christian while living at the periphery of the church. I never felt burned or bitter. I just viewed church as marginal to the larger work of cultural engagement. I now believe that the church, rightly conceived, is an intrinsically culture-making institution that plays an indispensable role in forming and empowering Christians for the broader task of cultural engagement.
If you believe that following Jesus involves you in a world-transforming mission, the church can sometimes be a pretty disappointing place. It’s slow to understand a changing world and slower to respond.
When it does respond it often builds a fortress instead of a bridge. It keeps things safe and predictable. This leaves many Christians feeling stranded in a no man’s land between an institution that seems out of touch and a complex world they feel called to understand and influence. This cross-pressure is too much for some and they disconnect altogether from church. Others simply lower their expectations and accept the church’s insignificance in their life. Some respond by seeking to entirely deconstruct and de-institutionalize church. I don’t believe the answer is to give up on church or to seek its de-institutionalization. To the contrary, it is only because it is an institution that the church has relevance in our lives.
The church we discover in the New Testament is institutional. It has a public and visible presence in the world. It has structures that regulate and shape the communal life of believers. It is marked by repetitive rituals and practices, doctrinal standards, offices of ministry, traditions of worship that connect one generation to the next, correction of erring members, teaching of dogma, and regular meetings. The pressing question is not whether the church is an institution, but rather what kind of institution is the church? And, as an institution, what role does it play in forming and empowering Christians for cultural engagement? The surprising answer is to be found in grasping the otherworldly character of the church.
The church as an institution begins with the ascension of Jesus into heaven. After the resurrection, the disciples are gathered around Jesus, being taught about the kingdom of God. Among the ranks the question naturally arises as to Jesus’s timeline. “When Lord will you restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6) The assumption is not if, but when. When will Jesus bring cultural and political restoration to the nation of Israel? At this point commentators tend to deride the disciples for spiritual dullness. Jesus’s response, however, does not scold their desire for restoration; instead he redirects their institutional thinking. “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). These are the last words Jesus speaks to his disciples before ascending into heaven and Luke intends for us to consider the relationship between these words, the ascension, and the institution of the church that follows.
I propose that developing the right kind of institutional imagination for the church begins with thinking more ascensionally. The implications are big. If the church and its mission begin with ascension, it means all forms of Christian cultural engagement are made possible because of Jesus’s heavenly location. This invites us into a serious theological meditation on the nature of the church and its role in the life of the Christian.
Defined by Mission
Ascension means that the church is foremost an institution defined by mission. Today all institutions have a statement of mission, but to say the church is defined by mission is to say something more. The church is not an institution with a mission, but a mission with an institution. Or, as more eloquently put by Emil Brunner, “The church exists for mission like a fire exists for burning.” Sent-ness is the church’s raison d’être, so when it ceases to be sent it ceases to be an institution on its own terms. This sent-ness is grounded in ascension because mission is the natural response to the reality of Jesus’s universal reign.
In his important book, Ascension and Ecclesia, Douglas Farrow notes that ascension is not a story of departure but rather arrival. Acts gives us a view of ascension from below the clouds (the departure), but the prophet Daniel shows us what happens above the clouds (arrival). In Daniel’s vision he sees the Ancient of Days upon his throne in fiery glory, attended by a great multitude of worshippers with the heavenly court assembled to execute judgment upon the nations. Then he reports,
Behold, with the clouds of heaven
there came one like a son of man,
and he came to the Ancient of Days
and was presented before him.
And to him was given dominion
and glory and a kingdom,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him;
his dominion is an everlasting
which shall not pass away,
and his kingdom one
that shall not be destroyed.
Daniel is a witness to the enthronement and coronation of Jesus as king. It is a scene of victorious triumph and glorious worship. Dumbfounded in the moment because the cloud is blocking his view, the apostle Peter comes to understand this. He will ascribe to the ascension the most quoted Old Testament verse in all the New Testament, “The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool” ( Acts 2:35; Psalm 110:1). Jesus has taken his place at the right hand of the Father. He has vanquished all the powers. In his person he has carried human nature up into the presence of God the Father. Ascension points to the fact that the whole cosmos has been re-organized around Jesus of Nazareth. Mission is a response to this doxological reality. And so is the church’s life of worship.
Ascension means the church is the kind of institution that is simultaneously drawn upward in worship and pushed outward in mission. These are not opposing movements. Unfortunately, too many churches today see it that way. Ascension forbids such a dichotomy. The church does not
have to choose whether it will be defined by the depth of its worship life or its faithfulness in mission. Both acts flow from the single reality of ascension. Both have integrity only in that they are connected to one another. Mission is the church’s response to the universal lordship of Jesus. When people respond to the gospel— whether through faith and repentance or by bringing every area of life under the lordship of Christ—worship happens. The more authentically missional a church becomes, the more profound will be its life of worship since mission always ends in worship. It flows from the place of the ascended Christ in his heavenly reign, which means mission’s success increases the amount of praise and worship of God in the world. Together the church’s life of mission and worship enact and bear witness on earth to what is already true in heaven.
Ascension also underwrites the authority and universality of the church’s mission. If Jesus had taken his throne in Jerusalem, as the disciples were expecting, he would have become one king among many kings, but by ascending he becomes the king of all, receiving all authority in heaven and earth (Matthew 28:18). Ascension therefore endows the church with institutional and culture-making power for the sake of mission. This mission is universal. Contrary to the disciples’ initial thinking, Jesus’s reign extends well beyond Israel. As he goes upward to take his throne in heaven, the church is propelled outward to all nations to proclaim him the Lord of all. Jesus is the Lord to the very ends of the earth, in all its breadth and depth.
It is witness to the depths of Jesus’s lordship in every area of life that is so needed in the church today. Too often we think like the disciples before the ascension and circumscribe the reign of Jesus to things we can easily imagine. But ascension explodes our limited imagination for God’s saving work in the world. Ascension means that Jesus encompasses all things, nothing falls outside his jurisdiction, someday everything broken will be put right, everything disordered healed, everything fragmented embraced by the wholeness he brings. Christian culture-making, therefore, flows not only from the hope that someday earth will be a place where Jesus “fills all things,” but from the confidence that there is a place where this is already true. The church in its sent-ness is a response to the reality of ascension. This is what it means for it to be an institution defined by mission.
Ascension means the church possesses an institutional otherworldliness that allows it to be a counter-cultural presence in the world. Its institutional centre is located in heaven. Christ the “head,” the founder and foundation of the church, does not occupy physical space on earth. As an institution, the church is ordered to an alternative economy. This economy, the kingdom of God, takes its direction from Jesus’s heavenly location where all things have been rearranged around him.
Clearly the church takes up real institutional space in the world, but not as the kind of institution that enters into a direct competitive relationship with other institutions. If Jesus, instead of ascending to heaven, had restored the kingdom to Israel, the church would have become an institution in competition with other institutions, most notably the Roman Empire. But ascension means Jesus is the King of kings. There is no real competition between Jesus and Caesar. That would assume they occupy the same kind of space and exercise the same kind of power, but they do not. Indeed there are conflicting allegiances that arise when Christians inhabit both kinds of institutions at the same time, which they always do. Through the centuries, believers have suffered the consequences of these conflicts through persecution and martyrdom. And yet despite these conflicts, the church does not have a zero-sum relationship with other institutions. The church is not trying to replace the state or the nonprofit. It’s not vying for the same kind of power, influence, and space as these institutions. Its relevance is not determined by how well it positions itself within the needs of the institutional landscape, but rather by how well it responds to its ascended Lord in heaven who sends it to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth.
Embracing the otherworldliness of the church as an institution may seem like a recipe for its ultimate demise and impotence, yet it is precisely because the church does not derive its relevance from the world that it can be relevant to the world. The ascended Christ makes the church relevant because he is the world’s future. The church is only relevant when it is relevant to this reality. Christ is drawing all things upward until he “fills all things,” and is “all in all” (Ephesians 1:22). When the church takes its direction from him, an institutional space opens up in the world where a new imagination toward the world takes root. Christians who live in this space are able to imagine their world anew in the light of the ascended Christ. When this ascensional imagination springs to life, empowered by the Spirit, it generates a new way of life and new social practices within a specific cultural context, which reflect Jesus’s lordship. As the church grows (upward and outward) these practices and new patterns of living begin to radiate outward to impact, reshape, and challenge the broader culture where the church is rooted. The irony of Christian mission is that it does not set out to change the world, but when it faithfully bears witness through its corporate life to the lordship of Christ in all its height, breadth, and depth, it does change the world. In the very otherworldliness of the church lies its institutional relevance.
This otherworldliness is the basis of the church’s engagement with the world. It has institutional freedom in the world because it submits to a Lord who reigns above the world. This has important implications for thinking about how the church relates to other institutions. Because it does not exist in competition with other institutions, the church has the freedom to affirm their goodness and to pursue their renewal. Sometimes this means the church takes an aggressively prophetic stand against entrenched institutions destructive to humanity. Most of the time, however, the church is the kind of institution that is generative of new institutions. It’s possible to read the history of Christian mission as a history of the world’s institutional development. One can trace the origin of many institutions we now take for granted to the influence of the church’s mission: the hospital and university, movements of emancipation from patriarchy and slavery, the development of literacy and modern science—to name only a few. Arguably Christian mission has not taken root in a place until it begins generating new cultural institutions. These institutions are a response to a Christian understanding of humanity. New institutional development of the church is an attempt to bring alignment between heaven and earth, between Jesus-glorified humanity above the clouds and our broken humanity below. The history of Christianity bears out this truth: robust forms of Christian cultural engagement grow out of a robust doctrine of the church.
Workshop for a New Humanity
The church is the beachhead of new creation. God has chosen and ordained it to be the instrument for carrying out his purposes in the world. Like a magnifying glass that concentrates the heat and light of the sun in one location, so in the gathered life of the church the heat and light of heaven are most concentrated on earth. This means that the life of the local church should be an eschatological outpost, a preview to the world of the world to come, where Jesus “fills all things.” For this very purpose God has endowed the church with the gifts of ministry (Ephesians 4:10). Like a piñata that has been punctured and drops candy to the floor for the children to pick up, so in the ascension, Christ punctured a hole between heaven and earth and through that opening come down gifts to his church. This is the very same opening through which the rushing winds of Pentecost blew. These gifts are nothing like the bland and benign “spiritual gifts” we learned about in Sunday school. As gifts of the ascended Christ they are the spoils of victory—”When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men” (Ephesians 4:8). These gifts are the beginning of God’s expropriation of creation from the powers and principalities that have held it in bondage.
Christ’s gifts to the church are the basis of its institutional power and mission in the world. The end to which they are given is for the formation of a new humanity around the person of Christ (Ephesians 4:11-14). This means the church is God’s workshop for a new humanity. As these gifts of ascension are exercised in this workshop, the energies, practices, and cultures of new creation are released into the life of a community to form it more and more into the image of Jesus’s heavenly humanity. This means the church plays an indispensable and irreplaceable role in the formation of this new humanity.
In his sermon Rooted and Grounded, Abraham Kuyper made a similar argument:
Precisely through the institution alone can the church offer us that unique life sphere wherein the ground we walk, the air we breathe, the language we speak, and the nourishment of our spirit are not those of the world but of the Holy Spirit. That institution positions itself between us and the world, in order with the power, unanimity and that order, to protect the uniqueness of our life.
Without the church, the uniqueness of Christian existence is in peril. We live in a world that is rapidly de-Christianizing. The more this happens, the more relevant the church becomes. In contexts of Christendom, it was once possible to maintain the semblance of a Christian lifestyle while distancing oneself from the church. However problematic this was, it is even less of an option today. The cultural middle ground between the church and the world that Christendom once provided is quickly disappearing. In such a world it is increasingly difficult to imagine how one could develop and maintain a distinctively Christian humanity outside the community, life of worship, institutional support, and nurture of the church.
It is true that the church often fails miserably to reflect in its life the reality to which the ascended Jesus calls it. But just as a person’s negative experience of family does not invalidate the whole institution of family, so our negative experiences of church don’t invalidate its vital role in our life. The church is like a mother that we need in our life. All Christians need her, especially those engaged in the work of culture-making. We need her community. We need her nourishment through the Word. We need her life of sacramental worship. We need her heavenly orientation. We need her stability. We need her correction and accountability. When the church is being the church, it forms us to reflect the humanity of the ascended Jesus, cultivates in us an imagination for new creation, resources us with gifts, and sends us out in the power of the Holy Spirit. When it comes to an institution to love and give our lives to, we can do no better than the church.