A couple of weeks ago in a class I’m taking at church, we talked about what the church is vs what it is not. I found the contrast of embassy vs service provider quite compelling. I think it fits with what I wrote here about the difference in defining the church by what it is vs what it does. So indulge me a bit as I reflect and expound on this contrast
When I think about how an embassy operates it makes sense to define the local church this way. An embassy is an outpost representing a particular country’s authority, citizenship and interests in a foreign context. If we define the local church as the tangible representation of God’s covenant people submitted to Christ’s authority gathered to grow up in him and demonstrating him to the world, it fits. So when we come together, it’s coming under the rubric of citizenship of a foreign land “our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil 3:20). And Christians are ambassadors of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20). The local church is a slice of that country in another place.
Also, an embassy provides shelter for its citizens when troubles arise in that foreign context. While this is a need, it is more than just finding relief but in recognition of that embassy’s ability to represent the needs of its citizens based on whatever law governs that land. Christ’s church is governed by him, the constitution is the gospel and the laws are Scripture. Representatives (church leaders) must ensure that the embassy is a faithful outpost to that country’s constitution and the protection it affords to it’s citizens.
The implications are obvious. When the local assembly church conducts itself according to its constitution and law, it will foster the benefits of citizenship. So when it’s citizen’s gather in together in the embassy, they are united first according to their citizenship and recognizing that their citizenship with each other. When it fails because of power hungry dictators or leaders who have capitulated to the charter of their foreign context, then it no longer protects their citizens. Likewise, when the church fails to be what it is and governed by its own constitution, it leaves its citizens in disarray.
Another thing about the embassy is that it will be less concerned if it’s architecture and relics resemble its foreign context but more concerned that they are faithful to their country’s representation. It’s actually ok if the inside of the embassy doesn’t look like it’s foreign context.
The embassy encourages unification based on a corporate concept and faithfulness to that corporate understanding that serves individual needs accordingly.
The service provider on the other hand, is driven by meeting the needs of its constituents. Service providers are organized around the most productive way to meet these needs so that those receiving the services provide testimony to the provider’s effectiveness. To put it another way, the service provider cares about how well the needs of the constituents are being met so that the service provider looks like its doing its job.
Now I don’t want to build a false dichotomy, but I think there is a subtle difference here. In the embassy model, it’s not that individual needs are of no concern, but the driving paradigm is the embassy’s concern to be faithful to what it is and it’s representation. Out of that, it provides what is needed for it’s citizens. The service provider, on the other hand, can shift what it is and how it operates according to need. Leadership will make adjustments according to how well it is meeting the needs. To put it in plain language, this is pragmatism 101.
This also has implications for how those seeking needs see the church as a service provider. Faithfulness is secured according to how well the needs are met. It presents a dynamic and potentially unstable foundation as constituents or rather, members make commitments according to fair exchange of services.
The service provider will be sensitive to it’s architecture and relics being appealing to those they are serving and removing any distasteful aesthetic.
The service provider encourages development of individual needs in order to secure a corporate foundation.
Well, maybe this was a convoluted way of raising observations about what the church is vs what it does. I can only re-emphasize my appeal and concern that we must cease from being driven by pragmatism and cultural relevance and make sure that Christ’s church is a faithful representation to him. That doesn’t mean we should not be sensitive to the world around us. In fact, we absolutely should and make sure our communication is contextualized accordingly. But inside should be driven by our “constitution” not needs. That faithfulness is what fuels true church growth as the body grows up in its head, who is Christ.