Church beyond Sunday morningBy Ann Minter Fetters
While some Christians insist church membership is not necessary to build their faith, Gerald J. Mast begs to differ. In Go to Church: Change the World: Christian Community as Calling, Mast, a professor of communication at Bluffton (Ohio) University, asserts that involvement in the body of Christ is, in fact, required to fulfill our Christian calling.
In doing so, he makes it clear that by “church,” he is not referring to a building or institution, though spiritual growth can take place within those walls. Instead, he writes, “Going to church is rather a call for engagement of active Spirit-guided participation in the struggle to make God’s peaceable reign visible — even when the church as an institution might forget the Lord it represents.” It is present, he says, where two or three people are gathered.
Mast presents his most challenging points in the first part of his book. There he clarifies that in searching for truth, we should not look for self-help advice. Nor should Jesus’ teachings be ones that we simply admire. Neither should we reduce Jesus to “our best buddy or fantasy companion.” Mast contends that such responses “seek to possess Jesus rather than allowing him to possess us. We must come to terms with the realization that Jesus cannot be possessed or accepted, that he can only be followed as he moves through the world’s history and our own.”
Mast then maintains that certain spiritual practices prepare us to build up the church as he defines it. One may not receive as much attention as it used to: reading the Bible. This practice should “not merely be an assent to simple truth claims, or a checklist of correct conclusions.” Instead, the Bible offers “a meal that we can mull over and chew on, receiving spiritual nutrition that invades and pervades our lives.”
Other practices that Mast speaks to involve both the willingness to suffer in solidarity with the world’s pain, and to experience a “blindness” that leads our hearts and minds to new discoveries. Just as Saul was struck blind on the road to Damascus, we too should be willing to allow times of fear and confusion to open us to a greater understanding of our call to pursue God’s will.
Throughout, Mast continues to highlight and discuss the significance of additional practices for the Christian journey, such as baptism, service, participation in a community that calls for accountability, the unity that comes from singing together and the mission to share with the world God’s good news.
Perhaps his overall theme is best summed up in these words: “When the church is understood as a community of fidelity to Christ beyond any single institution, then we are no longer invested in securing any particular form of that church. The question is not whether ‘our’ church will make it, but rather whether we will join the body of Christ that appears in our time and place.”
In the end, Mast’s writing not only sheds fresh insight on the possibility of church as active and relevant in today’s society. It also challenges us to look anew at the way that long-held principles and practices can sustain us in the journey.
Ann Minter Fetters attends Lorraine Avenue Mennonite Church in Wichita, Kan.
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