Last year in a meeting of the Baptist Association’s public engagement group, we spent some time imagining what a church more fully engaged in society, contributing to the flourishing of the communities that we are a part of might look like. We were considering metaphors or pictures that captured our imagination. Andrew Sloane from Morling College came up with a picture of the church as an unfenced garden in the wilderness.
I’ve spent some time thinking about that picture since that meeting and have found it a helpful one. The relationship between the church and society has always fascinated me. In the church tradition I grew up in, we had a strong conception of the church as holy, set apart from the world. We were regularly reminded that the church holds a special place in God’s plans and purposes. We were also encouraged on a weekly basis to act and pray to see people saved and brought ‘across the line’ into God’s kingdom and into the church. This teaching led to me believing as a young man that the lines between the church and society were very clear and distinct. There was a strong sense of ‘in’ and ‘out’.
While I’m forever thankful for the environment I grew up in, the older I got the less comfortable I got with the clarity of this distinction. It wasn’t that I didn’t think there was a distinction, or that I had no sense that God had in some way set his people apart. Rather, it was the clarity of the distinction that bothered me, and the behaviours that this clear distinction sometimes led to.
Later, when I had the opportunity to do some studies, I found the work of David Bosch extremely helpful. One of Bosch’s key ideas in his well known book Transforming Mission, was that the church is always both called and sent. Bosch suggested that when we lose sight of either of these realities we find ourselves with problems.
I found this helpful. If we always remember that we are called by God, then we always have a posture of humility. I firmly believe that we experience nothing short of a complete transformation in our identity when we are called by God into relationship with him through Jesus. We are new creations. The old has gone, the new has come (2 Cor 5:17). Yet to be ‘set apart’ does not mean we are in any way better than the people and society around us. We are changed only by grace – a grace that God offers to all and desires for all.
When we believe that the lines between us and society are clear and distinct we are tempted to separate ourselves from the world in pursuit of some sort of moral purity. This is the approach taken by some Christian separatist communities such as the Amish or closed Brethren communities. However, if we always remember that we are sent into the world, we don’t have the option to withdraw from the world, as if our own sanctification and holiness is God’s primary concern or purpose. Our identity as ‘holy’ or ‘set apart’ has already been achieved in and through Christ. We seek to embody that reality, we don’t seek to achieve it. Our primary purpose as God’s sent people is to be agents of reconciliation and renewal, as God works through us by His Spirit.
Let’s go back to our image of the church as an unfenced garden in the wilderness. I found it both a beautiful and a compelling image. I particularly found it helpful in thinking through the relationship between the church and society. Let’s consider the picture:
The garden in the wilderness is beautiful. There are plants growing that are well-watered and flourishing. When people look into the wilderness, they notice the garden, their attention is drawn to it. They can clearly see where the garden exists. It stands out. There is life. There is structure. There is order. The garden looks attractive when it is contrasted to the wilderness. There is definition and distinction between the garden and the wilderness.
While there is definition and distinction, there have been no fences erected. The garden is open for people to come and go as they please. It is inviting and it is a place of rest and peace, but people are not forced to stay. There is no sense that those in the garden are trying to keep others out. They have resisted the temptation to erect fences and boundaries. They recognise that the maker of the garden knows where the boundaries are. It is not their role to define them.
While the garden is clearly flourishing, if you look closely you can see that there are weeds growing within the garden. There are also some flowers and trees from the garden that have sprouted and are growing within the wilderness. They are pockets of life, order and flourishing.
There are people in the garden who are openly and eagerly inviting those in the wilderness to come and enjoy the garden. At the same time, they are trying to both extend the limits/edges of the garden as well as grow patches of garden out in the wilderness.
Perhaps the thing that is most striking, and that keeps those in the garden humble, is the realisation that both the garden and the wilderness belong to the same creator. While there is distinctiveness about the garden, there are also clear similarities between the garden and the wilderness. The wilderness has its own beauty in the eyes of the creator and the creator loves the wilderness as much as the garden. The creator longs for some order and flourishing to be renewed within the wilderness. Yet the garden is not completely distinct from the wilderness. It maintains something of the essence and beauty of the wilderness.
Do you find this a helpful image? For me it captures something of the biblical tension that we experience in our life as God’s people. All humans are created in God’s image and loved by God. Yet when we acknowledge Jesus as Lord and king, the fullness of life we eagerly desire begins to take hold of us here and now. The process of sanctification begins. We see (or at least we should see) that change embodied in some way in our life together as communities of God’s people.
However, we are also very conscious that we continue to fall short of the glory of God. Sometimes we are humbled by the actions of others beyond our communities. There is evidence of the work of the Spirit beyond our communities, beyond our boundaries – in the wilderness.
Too often, it seems to me, the church has erected fences to keep the ‘bad people’ and the ‘sinners’ out. I can’t see how Jesus, the one who dined with sinners, who walked with them, who washed their feet, would want this from his church. Yes, we are set apart and therefore we should be distinctive. Yet surely this distinction should be drawing people to Jesus, rather than pushing them away. Surely our communities should be embodying and displaying the life and flourishing that happens when its members are transformed by the gospel. Surely we should be making this life plain for all to see, rather than keeping it for ourselves because engaging with the world all seems too difficult and messy.
As an association, we desire to be a movement of churches that influences our communities, society and world. Let’s tear down the fences. Let’s be humble yet confident in the grace of Jesus. Let’s not be afraid of a few weeds existing within our midst. Better yet, let’s send as many flowers as we can out to grow in the midst of the wilderness. Let’s dare to believe that through us, in the power of the Spirit, the world might have an opportunity to see and experience what a life following Jesus looks like, and to take hold of the Jesus who achieves that life by his grace.
Perhaps we leave the drawing of lines to God.