The Church is one of the central mysteries of the Christian life. It is, as St. Peter describes, a temple built of "living stones." As the Prophet Isaiah spoke, it is "a house of praise for all peoples." It is a communion that stretches inexplicably through time and space, its splendor sometimes visible, sometimes invisible. As the Psalms say, it is a people "whose heritage is praise" and whose "delight is in God."
The Manifestations of the Church
On earth, the Church has two key manifestations—the inward, which lies within the heart of the believer, and the outward, in the world. The inner Church is undivided: it consists quite simply as the invisible community of all who pray and praise through Jesus Christ, and have so gained the salvation of God. Externally, the Church is local, contextual, and superstructual: it is many interwoven movements and organizations cooperating and competing on many levels.
The visible organization of the Church is often wrought with strife and confusion, bitter divisions and longstanding rivalries, and all sorts of unfortunate powerplays emanating from our fallen nature and spiritual immaturity. Indeed, many branches of the outer church have become so dysfunctional that the people they intend to serve no longer experience the grace of God moving through those channels.
Nevertheless, the invisible Church, founded by God, continues to be a place of praise, healing, and salvation. It remains undivided, even though painful and irreconcilable conflicts have erupted in the visible. And through Christ, Christians have access to this mystical body, even when their local institutions are malfunctioning.
Responding to Dying Churches
When a community of faith is no longer a conduit of God's grace, we should, prayerfully and with discernment, search for a place where the Spirit of God is tangibly active: where the invisible Church becomes incarnate for us in visible community.
We do shouldn't do this lightly, or simply in order to make our lives easier. This is an emergency act we must undertake, knowing that sacraments of the Church are vital to our continued life as Christians.
For Sarah and myself, this is part of the impulse that impels us outward into the world.
This is not to say we have been a part of horrible Christian communities. We have been blessed for much of our lives by nurturing communities of faith, and faithful friends who have helped us to live and grow spiritually, both inside and outside formal churches. But as a whole, we find that there is something lacking in the spirit of American Christianity. Therefore, we are looking for energy and encouragement in a different corner of the Church, one that is little discussed, little considered, little understood by those on our side of the world.
We are hoping to gain knowledge from experience of what we believe from our theology: that the Church is bigger than what we have seen and experienced. By crossing external boundaries that divide the outer Church, we hope to taste the splendor of the invisible Church, the Universal and Undivided Church, manifest in the world. And we hope to bring something back with us that will testify the glory and power of our God.
We have already had an unusual amount of exposure to different branches of Christian belief and practice: indeed, it is likely this exposure that generated our vision.
Our understanding of the breadth of this invisible Church may be described as follows.
- Jesus Christ is the head of the Church: the One who brings and keeps us together. While we may differ in history, practice, tradition, and doctrine, we have Him in common. Since he is the source, reason, and substance of our faith, we agree on more points than we differ on. This reality helps us to put our temporal concerns in perspective.
- The Church is and always has been a global community, not merely a Western religious institution. Regional and denominational variation in Christian belief and practice can both inspire us, and challenge our understanding of what it means to be “Christian.”
- The Church has deep, thick historical roots that must never be forgotten or discarded. Fresh ideas and inspirations can come from even the most dreadful periods of Christian history.
- The Church extends beyond our narrow understanding of where her boundaries lie. We should commit to keep our eyes and ears open to experience Jesus, even when we are in environments where we sure he is not present.
- There are some questions that cannot be answered, and many Christian communities have sprung up around alternative solutions. We must hold opposing answers in tension and seek to learn from the spiritual integrity of each community, rather than seeking to snuff out and discourage anyone whose theology doesn’t fully agree with our own.
- Historical wounds are one of the biggest barriers to Christian unity. As followers of Jesus, we must always seek to deepen our commitment to and practice of compassion and forgiveness.
The Interfaith Extension
In India, these presuppositions will be tested in another way: through interfaith conversation. Unless we work very hard to avoid it, we will certainly be meeting more than Christians in India.
If we believe in an invisible communion exists between Christians who are not in visible communion with each other, wouldn't it be logical to extend this communion to all people of faith and good will?
This is a tricky question, and one that is quite difficult to answer theoretically. Certainly a communion exists between all the children of men, but what sort of communion is it? It would be inappropriate to call it a Christian communion. This is one of the questions that we will have to allow to linger in the air, and answer through our experiences rather than our words.
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