Pentecostal Birth as the Key to the Church’s Identity*
“the church is not a religious community of those who revere Christ, but Christ who has taken form among human beings. . . . The church is nothing but that piece of humanity where Christ has really taken form.” –Dietrich Bonhoeffer
I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest a reason for the dramatic disaffiliation of young adults with the Christian church. Here it is: young adults are smart! They are not easily fooled. They are on to the church. I believe that they have sensed two equally alarming approaches to the work (mission) of the church and want nothing to do with it (and frankly, I can’t blame them). The first approach is a colonialist approach, perhaps more likely to be found in the self-consciously “mainline” churches. The second is a separatist approach, more likely found in self-consciously “evangelical” churches.
Both approaches are premised on the idea that the church is itself a worldview, a culture, an alternative society, and therefore everything about the life of the church must be exclusive and set apart from “the world” in a carefully demarcated way. The difference in the two approaches is that the colonialist approach will sometimes choose to “assimilate” other cultures into its culture, but of course when this “adoption” happens the original culture has to be baptized with a new Christian meaning. In contrast, the separatist approach sees the church as inhabiting an exilic posture and thus must remain absolutely separate and pure.
Both approaches assume that the center of Christian existence is the church. Maybe that sentence sounds right to your ears. But I don’t believe it sits right with young adults. If you agree with me that they are smart, let’s consider why they may be right to not believe the church to be center of Christian existence. To do that we need to ask ourselves what we mean when we speak about the church. In other words, what is the identity of the church? The mission received by the earliest community of Jesus’s disciples was to go out and proclaim that the kingdom of God has come near. These early followers, Christ’s “ambassadors,” were tasked with spreading the good news of God’s saving work of reconciliation, and, perhaps most importantly, they were given the gift of the Holy Spirit to empower them in this work.
Pentecost, then, is the event of the birth of the church. The Spirit is poured out on all people (Acts 2:17), and the disciples of Jesus are empowered to speak in other languages (Acts 2:4). At Pentecost, the “curse” of Babel becomes a blessing. The diversity resident within cultural differences is sanctified by God’s Spirit and seen as having inherent worth. The proclamation of God’s saving work comes to each person in their particular cultural idioms even as all flesh is gifted with the poured out Spirit. Different cultures, nations, and ethnicities are all given the Spirit not as they assimilate to Peter’s Jewish culture (cf Acts 15) but as Peter navigates through his own cultural norms (Acts 10:28, 34-36) in order to proclaim the God who saves all people.
If Pentecost is the birth of the church, then the identity of the church has no one, defining culture as the Spirit of God is open to every form of culture without partiality and without need of appropriation or assimilation. The church is therefore not an alternative society. Neither is it a static worldview. Rather, it is the Spirit-filled location in each society, culture, ethnicity, and nation where the disruptive power of God to save is received.
If the church takes its cues from the Spirit, the identity of the church is intimately linked to its ability to translate the good news of the advent of God’s Kingdom into the multiplicity of cultures and contexts. Furthermore, its existence is inextricably connected with the present interruption of God into our world and lives to save us. Perhaps a reorientation to the Pentecostal identity of the church might resonate on a deep level with the young adults we lament having lost. Maybe their vision and prophetic actions (cf. Acts 2:17-18) are just what needs to be recovered if the church is to reform itself around God’s eschatological inbreaking.
But, even if this is so, we must also rid ourselves of the notion that the end goal is to get young adults back to church. There is no biblical basis for this notion. The end goal for all followers of Jesus is to be the Spirit-empowered means by which shalom is established in our world.
Such a goal requires the church to divest itself of all that does not serve this purpose. It also means a daily reckoning with the reality that a fundamentally different structure may be needed than the day before. Making peace with such continual upheaval is already the daily reality of young adults. They are well-versed in this. It seems safe to say that this is their home turf. So again, perhaps their endowment of the Spirit is the gift the church does not know it needs. To follow after the Spirit necessitates that the church’s identity de-secure itself in order to find its security only in present apocalypse of Jesus Christ.
“The church takes place where people abandon their securities, their positions, their traditions, their missions and so dare to ground their credibility entirely on the credibility of the gospel manifest in the humility, the self-emptying, and the passion of . . . Jesus Christ.” –Paul Gerhard Aring (translated by David W. Congdon)
*This post relies heavily on the constructive work of David W. Congdon in The God Who Saves: A Dogmatic Sketch (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2016), pp. 159-98.
Shannon Smythe is Assistant Professor of Theological Studies at Seattle Pacific University and attends Lake Burien Presbyterian Church which is a participant in the Pivot NW research and ministry innovation project.