We Are Church for the Sake of the World
By Bishop Brian Maas
Of all the “We Are” statements articulated by Bishop Eaton to help us better understand our identity as ELCA Lutherans, this last one should be the most obvious—but my experience reminds me too regularly that it’s not. We—all of us—tend to shrink our worlds from time to time, to experience the sin Luther defined as “turning in on oneself.” Congregations do it as well as individuals. We tend to think that We Are Church for the Sake of Our Church (or Synod, for that matter), forgetting that Christ sent us to bear Good News to the world, not to form communities or build buildings or develop customs just for the sake of maintaining those communities or buildings or customs.
Let me be clear—there’s nothing wrong with communities or buildings or customs, or even maintaining them, so long as we do so for the Sake of the World. If it enhances our witness, shows forth the gospel, furthers our mission of making disciples, then it’s worth doing. But when it becomes an end in itself, something done for its own sake—or for our own sake—we’ve formed an idol and lost our way.
So what does it mean to be Church for the Sake of the World? The initial response would be, “serving others,” and it surely is that. Yet even that can lead us astray. We are not the only ones who alleviate hunger, respond to disasters, care for those fleeing war and famine, and reach out to those in need. We do it really well, but there are others who do it also. What the Church alone does is witness to the grace of God through the Good News of Jesus Christ. That may compel us to serve others, but if our primary goal isn’t witness, we need to adjust our priorities. To say Yes to Christ’s call to discipleship is to say No to some of the activities we’ve allowed to take the place of witness.
This is so much more easily said than done. Please—practice what I preach, because I am having a hard time doing it myself. Yet I know it needs to be done and I strive to say No more frequently and faithfully. Only when we renew our focus on witness, on the treasure that is uniquely the Church’s, will we find renewed vitality and the power of being aligned with Christ’s call.
It really is time to stop “doing church to the world” and return to “being church for the world;” time to look into the mirror and ask ourselves what it is we’re busy doing (and why we’re busy doing it) so that we can determine what needs to be released through a faithful No, so that the powerful Yes of life in Christ can be known through what remains. That Yes is the blessing God grants when We Are (truly) Church for the Sake of the World.