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The Big Question

Does God need the church?

By Ross Lockhart

As I stood in the checkout line at the electronics store, clutching my discounted video game system, I observed a beautiful family moment in front of me. A mother with two children had a shopping cart full of gizmos. Her kids were insisting on more. The mother refused.

“You don’t understand, Mom,” one kid said. “I need this game.” “Yeah,” chipped in the other. “We need this game or our lives are over.” The mother fired back with a line so recognizable I found my own lips silently moving with the words: “You need to learn the difference between a need and a want!”

Needs versus wants. We are taught from a young age to (reluctantly) discern the difference.

Does God need the church? The short answer is no. Our Reformed tradition clearly leans on the doctrine of the sovereignty of God. God is free to act as God chooses. No focus groups. No national opinion polls. No need for a vote in Presbytery. God is sovereign. Full stop.

And yet, the Christmas story discloses God’s curious love for Creation in general and humankind in particular. Jesus comes to us in human form on a mission from God to break the power of sin and reconcile the world to the Trinity. It’s not that the church has a mission. Christmas, Easter and Pentecost declare that God’s mission has a church. The church is a want of the Almighty rather than a need. The church is an instrument through which the grace and love of God is shared in communities around the world. It is a gift of the Holy Spirit.

A few months ago, I was in Turkey with some clergy friends, marvelling at the beauty of that country and puzzling over the disappearance of its once-vibrant Christian community. In decommissioned church after church, now only “museums,” the icons and frescoes of our early church ancestors still proclaim the Gospel — although Christ’s blessing is often cracked and missing half his face or body.

These ancient Turkish churches — bereft of hallelujahs or knees bent in prayer — also deliver a cautionary tale for today’s faith leaders. It’s often been said that the Christian church, in any context, is just one generation away from dying out. But not the Gospel mission. Not the proclamation and living out of the Gospel around the world. God’s mission continues, but the continuation of the church in any particular expression or denomination is not a given.

On my usual jogging route, I watched with fascination as a big house was built in the neighbourhood. In the beginning, the scaffolding went up. Then, after what seemed like an eternity of faithful work, it came down, revealing a beautiful new creation. It occurred to me that this construction site provides an apt metaphor: the church is just scaffolding, erected by God at Pentecost for the divinely inspired creation of the reign of God. Like the scaffolding, the church will one day be dismantled. And what remains will take our breath away.

Nothing lasts forever — except the love of God. As the Heidelberg Catechism so nicely puts it, “What is your only comfort in life and death? That I am not my own, but belong — with body and soul, both in life and death — to my faithful Saviour, Jesus Christ.” Now that’s assurance we all need.

Rev. Ross Lockhart is a minister at West Vancouver (B.C.) United.

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