Do the People in the Pews Still Matter?

In the Church today, there is a move by some to “correct” an overemphasis on the individual believer. The desire is to focus on the corporate aspects of Christianity. A good example would be the work of N.T. Wright, formerly Bishop of Dunham. In his book, Surprised by Hope, Wright explains that the Church has misunderstood the Gospel and the mission of the Church. According to Wright, the Gospel is not about saving souls from Hell, but rather about how God is using His people to redeem the cosmos:

But the most important thing to say at the end of this discussion, and of this section of the book, is that heaven and hell are not, so to speak, what the whole game is about.

The whole point of my argument so far is that the question of what happens to me after death is not the major, central, framing question that centuries of theological tradition have supposed. The New Testament, true to its Old Testament roots, regularly insists that the major, central, framing question is that of God’s purpose of rescue and re-creation for the whole world, the entire cosmos. The destiny of individual human beings must be understood within that context-not simply in the sense that we are only part of a much larger picture but also in the sense that part of the whole point of being saved in the present is so that we can play a vital role (Paul speaks of this role in the shocking terms of being “fellow workers with God”) within that larger picture and purpose.

The question ought to be How will God’s new creation come? And then, How will we humans contribute to that renewal of creation and to the fresh projects that the creator God will launch in his new world? …

If what I have suggested is anywhere near the mark, then to insist on heaven and hell as the ultimate question – to insist, in other words, that what happens eventually to individual humans is the most important thing in the world – may be to make a mistake similar to the one made by the Jewish people in the first century.

To focus not on the question of which human beings God is going to take to heaven and how he is going to do it but on the question of how God is going to redeem and renew his creation through human beings and how he is going to rescue those humans themselves as part of the process but not as the point of it all. (N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, New York: HarperCollins, 2008, 184-185)

Wright recognizes that his interpretation of the Gospel and salvation will have an impact in the work of the Church:

As long as we see salvation in terms of going to heaven when we die, the main work of the church is bound to be seen in terms of saving souls for that future. But when we see salvation, as the New Testament sees it, in terms of God’s promised new heavens and new earth and of our promised resurrection to share in that new and gloriously embodied reality … then the main work of the church here and now demands to be rethought in consequence. (197)

So what happens when pastors and churches decide that what really matters is what the people of God do to redeem the world around them? What happens when pastors start looking at their congregation as a means to an end instead of a flock to shepherd? What happens when sermons become about what Christians need to do to redeem the cosmos, engage the culture, and transform the city?

From what I’ve seen and heard, although thankfully not from our current church, what happens is that the needs of the congregation are overlooked. Pastors have lost sight of their role as shepherd. Instead, they see their role as motivating and equipping believers to go out and transform the world, but not through the preaching of the Word. Pastors don’t know who’s hurting, whose marriages are in trouble, which families desperately need jobs, or how to pray for their people. What I mean is that pastors are too busy to counsel couples whose marriages are falling apart, but not too busy to organize an outreach program to show how much their church loves the city.

And what about sanctification? Well, if salvation is about God using people to redeem the world, then does it really matter where individual Christians are in their walk? In fact, the whole idea that salvation should have an effect on the personal piety of a believer is obviously outdated. What good can Christians be in the transformation of culture if they aren’t watching, reading, and listening to everything their non-Christian neighbors enjoy? If Christians dress differently, talk differently, and act differently, then they are surely not winsome and contextualized enough. Racy sermon illustrations and foul language? Just part of being authentic.

It is often said these days that “the church is the only organization that exists primarily for the benefit of non-members,” but is that really true? Don’t we exist to encourage each other, bear each others burdens, pray for each other, care for each other, minister to each other, teach each other, and most importantly worship together? The Church needs to reach out to non-believers, to preach the Word, and to help those in need, but it must not forget the needs of those in the household of faith.

11 thoughts on “Do the People in the Pews Still Matter?

  1. sedgegrass says:

    Great points in your post today. I would add that the family’s part in God’s redemptive purposes, with the role that the father, in particular, is called to fill, is being overlooked. Faithful and sound teaching of the Word, along with wise elders, will encourage parents (and adults) to raise up the next generation to honor Christ.

    I think of a very small church in the Texas Panhandle that has faithfully carried out this mission. They’ve had no major ‘out reach’ planning, no culturally relevant arts programs, no ‘save the city’ projects. What they have faithfully done for decades now, is made sure that substantive, Biblical preaching and teaching was being brought to their congregation, along with hands on elder shepherding (even with the occasional Biblical discipline – imagine that!). The result to date? Out of this small congregation has come one of the leading Apologetics theologians in the world; an eminent seminary professor; 4 pastors; several seminary graduates; an RUF intern; elders who serve on boards of seminaries; second generation members who have gone into medicine, education,journalism and bio-technology that are able to articulate their faith within their field; and the list goes on. All of these have moved to different parts of the world, as God has led them. Their ‘influence’ on the culture will continue as they ‘raise up their children in the way that they should go’. Programs and works can lull us into forgetting that this is a battle with sin and the devil and we must be equipped with the whole armor of God.

  2. lazyhippiemama says:

    I think this is a fascinating post and I need to let it “cook” a little in my brain and come back and read it again. I think I agree with you… but at the same time, I think it is a mistake to make the work of the church entirely about the afterlife. Did not Jesus spend MUCH more time feeding the hungry and healing the sick than preaching about salvation? He met the needs of people where they were at first and THEN said, “Repent. Follow me.” The disciples weren’t instructed to spend all their time lifting one another up. They were told to go out into the world and heal the sick and raise the dead and spread the good news. Am I completely missing your point?

    • Already Reedemed in Texas says:

      lazyhippiemama (love the name btw),

      I resonate with your thoughts, it has taken me some time to see the danger in Wright’s teaching because it looks like what we want to see happening in the church. However, our reaching out begins with our salvation; a changed heart in relationship with God through Christ by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. The outworking of that will be reaching out to others because of the grace we’ve been given and our desire to obey the Lord who designed us to be in relationship with him. If we begin with a view of ourselves as somehow necessary to the God of the universe to co-redeem his mistakes, we veer very dangerously off course in every way. We lose all perception of our sin, God’s grace and our identity as his precious children. What good can we be to a dying world if we don’t know who we were in sin, who we are now in salvation and the urgency that gives us to bring others to his grace? Where is the reflection of a personal God who pulls us by name from the pit of Hell if we are focused on the general redemption of the universe in some abstract, non-personal way? The fruit of two trees may look equally appealing but the nourishment of the roots will determine the sweetness and viability of that fruit; whether it will bring us life and health or sickness and death. I admire your thoughtful pursuit of truth, blessings on the journey!

  3. sedgegrass says:

    I would say that you have to step back and ask what was the purpose of His coming? It began with Eden, when there was yet no real disease, poverty or want. The central need was that man had become estranged from His Father because of his sin. Christ’s purpose was to come and die for that sin- not disease, poverty or want. Those are a result of that fall from grace. It seems to me that this must be the starting point or we will begin to think that it is the act of alleviating the affects of sin that matters most, rather than salvation from sin itself. Wright is subtle, of course we should not be ‘so heavenly minded as to be of no earthly good’. Much of what Christ did was to provide a witness to Who He was- the divine supernatural at work among men. Our living out the reality of redemption should reflect the love shown to us by Christ’s life. However, doing that is a race, a marathon, a living sacrifice, a dying to oneself; it seems right and proper that Christ’s promise of a Heavenly rest is a hope that we may cling to as well.

  4. Already Reedemed in Texas says:

    A pastor friend of mine sends out daily scriptures via text message. Yesterday’s was Galatians 6:10: “So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.”

    I am so thankful for the Church, visible and invisible, is she not the Bride? I am so thankful for small panhandle churches that love truth and love people. For Sisters and Brothers that minister to hearts and homes regardless of where they sit on Sunday morning.

    I am sad that numbers and programs and “visions” could rob my children’s’ generation of the gifts that a small panhandle church gave me.

    I am fearful that Wright’s messiah-complex approach will do (is doing?) untold damage to our understanding of God, our neighbors and ourselves.

    I am hopeful that many faithful in the Church will rise up and call for truth and righteousness and obedience and love.

    I rejoice that you, Sister, are one of these!

  5. GLW Johnson says:

    It is well known that Wright is also one of the key figures in the BioLogos agenda -which says alot. His hachet job on the Reformation’s doctrine of justification as well as his cavalier treatment of penal substitution renders him , in my opinion, a person who I would consider a false teacher even though he has become the darling with many Evangelicals.

  6. sedgegrass says:

    “The whole point of my argument so far is that the question of what happens to me after death is not the major, central, framing question that centuries of theological tradition have supposed. ”

    Are we to understand by this statement, that N.T. Wright’s view is the correct one, after ‘centuries of theological tradition’? Should we take the time to go through the list of godly, faithful and serious theologians that have gone before us on these matters? This kind of statement should be a red flag, in and of itself: reader beware!

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